Histories of struggle by workers in Alberta

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Image: Wikimedia - The "Hunger March" in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, December 1932, McDermid Studio

Alvin Finkel is a history professor at Athabasca University and the author of 13 books, most recently Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy (Red Globe Press, 2019). He is also the president of the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI), a grassroots organization devoted to preserving and sharing the stories of Alberta's working people and their struggles. Scott Neigh interviews him about those histories and struggles, and about the work of the ALHI.

Among people from the rest of Canada, Alberta has a reputation for being extremely conservative. Certainly, you don't have to look too hard to find reasons for this reputation. After all, with the exception of the recent one-term NDP government, the province has been governed by right-wing parties consistently since the 1930s. The oil industry plays a major role in the province's political culture, as do organized Christian conservatives.

Yet today's guest argues that Alberta also has a rich history of progressive politics and radical struggle. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and later its successor, the NDP, have always had a strong base in the province. And while restrictive legislation limited its growth in some respects, the labour movement has always been present and vibrant. The province saw month-long general strikes in Edmonton and Calgary in 1919, coal field militance in the 1920s, and a famous "hunger march" by workers and farmers in the 1930s (see accompanying image). Or for more recent examples, you can look to the major strike wave that rocked the province in 1986 and to the coalitions of unions and community groups that have actually been surprisingly successful in the last few decades at putting limits on the damage that right-wing provincial governments could do to public services.

The ALHI was "founded in 1999 by a group of trade unionists, community activists, archivists and historians who decided to take the first steps to collect, preserve and publicize the stories of Alberta's working people and their organizations," according to its website. With a large dose of volunteer labour, as well as small grants, donations from unions and their own fundraising, they have kept the ALHI going strong for two decades.

The core of the ALHI work is oral history interviews. They sit down with workers and do in-depth interviews with them about their lives, their work, their unions and the labour struggles that they have been part of. Over the years, they have in part selected interviewees so as to document key struggles in Alberta's history. And they have tried to talk to a broad spectrum of workers in terms of gender, racial background, union versus non-union, industry and location within the province.

The interviews are video-recorded and later transcribed, and the material is used in many different ways. The transcripts are posted online. They produce short podcasts. They print booklets on various topics. Each year they produce a labour history calendar, which is also one of their main fundraisers. They have made video documentaries that are available on YouTube. And in 2012, they published a book about the history of workers and their struggles in Alberta.

The main audience for the ALHI's work is people active in the labour movement, as well as students and members of the general public with an interest in the topic, but Finkel and other scholars who are involved have also used the oral history interviews as the basis for academic work.

Finkel's latest book, Compassion, does not draw on this material but rather is a history of the different ways that societies around the world have cared for vulnerable people. But it connects to the ALHI's work in that struggle by workers and communities has always been central to winning improvements in social policy and social provision -- in Alberta, in Canada, and around the world.

Image: Wikimedia - The "Hunger March" in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, December 1932, McDermid Studio 

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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