History in the making: How one organization is documenting the pandemic's impact on workers

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Worker cleans street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Image credit: Josh Berson/BC Labour Heritage Centre

Before COVID-19 even arrived in Canada, the BC Labour Heritage Centre did what it often does: mined its archives for moments in history when workers in the province would have experienced something similar.

The most recent example they could find of work in a pandemic was when the Spanish flu of 1918 landed in Vancouver.

"Vancouver's always been a port city, so if there's a virus floating around in the world it's likely to show up here, and it did," said Marie Decaire, a board member of the BC Labour Heritage Centre.

On January 28, 2020, Canada's third case of COVID-19 was confirmed in a Vancouver man in his 40s, who had travelled to China for work. (The first two cases were confirmed in a Toronto couple.)

Decaire said the heritage centre's archives contained news stories from more than a century ago which detailed unions' response to the pandemic.

At that time, if one of their members died, it was the union who stepped forward to pay for the funeral, alleviating the burden of the cost for what were mostly poor, working-class families.

What was missing from the archives, noticed Decaire, were the voices of working people who would have worked through one of the deadliest pandemics in recent history, many of whom very likely risked their lives and the lives of their families to do so.

Decaire decided that for this pandemic, there would be no such gap in the centre's archives. So began a new project for the centre, which, in the absence of its regular event schedule (cancelled due to the pandemic) suddenly had free time on its hands. 

"COVID Chronicles" is a collection of more than 60 interviews with a wide range of British Columbia's workers during the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sharon Prescott worked as the project coordinator, and made sure the interviews spanned a variety of sectors and represented a good balance of urban and rural voices.

One thing that struck her was the emotion that would come out after the hour-long interviews concluded, as workers realized through the interview process how much extra work they were actually taking on, and taking stock of the stress they were under.

"It was sort of cathartic for them. After an hour [interview], it was very emotional sometimes. Sometimes there were tears...They had never ever told their story before," Prescott shared.

Personal sacrifice was something most of the workers had in common when it came to approaching work in the pandemic.

A bus driver whose regular shift started at 5 a.m. explained that she would show up at 4:30 a.m. instead so she could sanitize the bus before work.

Flight attendants relayed how they had serviced a flight to Liberia to repatriate Canadian citizens. Instead of taking a usual layover, the cabin crew stayed on the plane as it made its round trip, making for a solid 36 hours on the aircraft.

While the interviews included unionized workers and some union leaders -- like Rob Ashton, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union -- the centre also made a point of interviewing non-unionized workers, like migrant workers.

Donna Sacuta, executive director of the heritage centre, said that while they were also saving many of the news articles that feature workers and their experiences, she did see a fundamental difference in the interviews she and her team captured.

"There have been some good stories about workers but seldom do they tell it from the perspective of a labour organization, and representing those people as workers," she said.

There are indeed news stories written about workers in B.C. in many of the same sectors that the heritage centre's interviewees work in, but Sacuta said these stories rarely acknowledge that these workers belong to a union, or which union they do belong to.

"The impact [of] the history of unions, especially in the area of protecting health and safety, has not been told," she said. 

The living archive also houses a collection of photographs by Joshua Berson. There's an image of a masked barber cutting an unmasked man's hair, and a worker gathering trash on a city street while wearing a gas mask and gloves. Berson also offers permanent records of temporary street art installations, like one honouring respiratory therapists for instance, captured on film. The centre has also collected a few different union-branded face masks as artifacts.

The archive is to be housed at the labour heritage centre's affiliate university, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

You can also listen to some of the interviews and view part of the photo collection at BC Labour Heritage's website.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020-2021. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image credit: Josh Berson/BC Labour Heritage Centre. Used with permission

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