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David Span­er is a long-time writer based in Van­cou­ver and the author of Sol­i­dar­i­ty: Canada’s Unknown Rev­o­lu­tion of 1983 (Rons­dale Press, 2021). Scott Neigh inter­views him about the book and about the upris­ing against a right-wing gov­ern­ment in British Colum­bia that it documents.

Despite hap­pen­ing well with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, being one of the largest grass­roots upris­ings in Cana­di­an his­to­ry, and com­ing with­in a hairs­breadth of turn­ing into a gen­er­al strike, the strug­gle at the cen­tre of today’s episode has received lit­tle atten­tion in his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al work, and is lit­tle remem­bered. So David Span­er decid­ed to write about a book about it. Sol­i­dar­i­ty is heav­i­ly based on inter­views with par­tic­i­pants in the upris­ing and is told large­ly through people’s expe­ri­ences, while also draw­ing plen­ty of con­nec­tions with broad­er his­to­ries. He describes the book as lit­er­ary non­fic­tion” in its approach.

One part of Spaner’s inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing this book was that he lived the events that it dis­cuss­es. Back in 1983, he had been part of move­ments him­self and was already a writer, hav­ing cut his teeth in the under­ground press. He had just got­ten his first main­stream posi­tion at a dai­ly news­pa­per in Van­cou­ver, where he cov­ered these events first-hand.

In those years, BC’s elec­toral pol­i­tics were split between the hard-right Social Cred­it Par­ty and an NDP still quite a bit to the left of today’s iter­a­tion of the par­ty. After win­ning an elec­tion they had been expect­ed to lose, the SoCre­ds – in the spir­it of Ronald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatch­er – intro­duced 27 pieces of leg­is­la­tion in one day, attack­ing pret­ty much every ser­vice, right, and sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion you would expect a right-wing gov­ern­ment to attack.

British Colum­bia in those years was also a vibrant hub for social move­ments and had been for decades, from rad­i­cal left polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions and left-wing unions in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, to the upsurge in New Left move­ments in the 1960s and 1970s. Though things had fad­ed some­what by 1983, there was a still a size­able and active labour move­ment and lots of par­tic­i­pants in and vet­er­ans of oth­er move­ments, who were very much opposed to what the SoCre­ds were doing and who knew how to orga­nize. And there were sig­nif­i­cant broad­er publics who had per­haps nev­er been active them­selves but who had been shaped by those move­ments and knew which side they were on.

The ini­tial shock and anger at the leg­isla­tive onslaught became con­ver­sa­tions and meet­ings, and soon esca­lat­ed to demon­stra­tions, march­es, and even occu­pa­tions. (A par­tic­u­lar­ly cel­e­brat­ed occu­pa­tion took place in Kam­loops, when the work­ers at a men­tal health facil­i­ty took it over, barred man­age­ment, and ran it for them­selves.) The resis­tance cohered into two dis­tinct but often co-oper­at­ing coali­tions. Oper­a­tion Sol­i­dar­i­ty brought togeth­er the unions, both those in the BC Fed­er­a­tion of Labour and oth­ers. And the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Coali­tion brought togeth­er pret­ty much all of the oth­er pop­u­lar move­ments in the province. A pow­er­ful pres­ence with­in the lat­ter was Women Against the Bud­get, a coali­tion of women’s groups.

It was one of those moments that took on a spir­it and a momen­tum that hap­pens only once or twice in a gen­er­a­tion. Peo­ple were work­ing tire­less­ly and extend­ing the reach of move­ments to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, dif­fer­ent work­places, dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion. And peo­ple were respond­ing, in unprece­dent­ed num­bers – with their pres­ence at protests, with their enthu­si­asm, and with their energy.

In the inevitable dis­cus­sions about how to move for­ward, how to con­tin­ue esca­lat­ing, how to win, there was vocal sup­port in both branch­es of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment for the idea of a gen­er­al strike. And in con­trast with our cur­rent era, where it feels like calls for a gen­er­al strike nev­er get past being a hash­tag and a hazy dream, pret­ty soon it was well on its way to hap­pen­ing. The plan was for the unions to go out in a stag­gered way, and by the cli­max of the strug­gle in Octo­ber, the province’s teach­ers, the main provin­cial pub­lic sec­tor union, and a num­ber of oth­er unions were out.

That is, alas, where it end­ed – sud­den­ly, in an act wide­ly char­ac­ter­ized as a betray­al, and with con­se­quences that echoed through BC move­ment pol­i­tics for decades after. A sub­set of union lead­ers did not want a gen­er­al strike, and at least some seemed active­ly hos­tile to the basic goals of ele­ments of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Coali­tion like the women’s move­ment and the gay move­ment. They made a sep­a­rate deal with the province that carved out a few mod­est gains for unions, and noth­ing for any­body else.

While this moment of dev­as­tat­ing defeat is one obvi­ous source of lessons for lat­ter-day activists, Span­er also encour­aged read­ers not to let that over­shad­ow the real­i­ty of the pow­er­ful, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, and high­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ment that the peo­ple of BC were able to cre­ate. He said, I think that the over­all lega­cy of Sol­i­dar­i­ty is much greater than its anti-cli­mac­tic end­ing. I think it basi­cal­ly showed how peo­ple from var­i­ous back­grounds, var­i­ous polit­i­cal ideas, can join togeth­er and form a pow­er­ful coali­tion. And I think a lot of the mes­sage of that is that if you’re going to make fun­da­men­tal social change, you have to do it not just with peo­ple that are exact­ly like you. It takes a coali­tion like this. And despite its fail­ings, and its inner con­flicts … there was the idea that all these peo­ple [that] had been orga­niz­ing in their own silos, like maybe around envi­ron­men­tal issues, or around the fem­i­nist move­ment or what­ev­er, were sud­den­ly orga­niz­ing with each oth­er around the same thing, which was stop­ping SoCred dev­as­ta­tion. And so the idea that they could do that, I think, is real­ly the the lega­cy of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Move­ment.” Even if it did not ulti­mate­ly suc­ceed, it was a glimpse of the pow­er that pop­u­lar move­ments can have.

He orig­i­nal­ly start­ed writ­ing the book as a way to pre­serve the mem­o­ry of some impor­tant but lit­tle-known his­to­ry – in par­tic­u­lar, he said, it was a real­ly impor­tant thing to doc­u­ment when there’s still peo­ple around to talk about it.” How­ev­er, he said, While I was writ­ing it, the last few years, a whole oth­er moti­va­tion came along, which was at least as impor­tant. And what that was, there was a rise of far-right gov­ern­ments around the world.” He came to see the Sol­i­dar­i­ty upris­ing of four decades ago as very rel­e­vant to today, as a les­son on how to mobi­lize vir­tu­al­ly an entire com­mu­ni­ty against a far-right gov­ern­ment. And, you know, there were some divi­sions and some prob­lems at the end. But for much of those four months, it was incred­i­bly effec­tive. And it was able to mobi­lize peo­ple in a way that no one had seen before here, or has seen since.”