Preserving labour's oral history

Oct 17, 2002, vol. 25, no. 4
By Julie Ovenell-Carter



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Mark Leier (left) would have liked to have listened to Homer Stevens' fish stories. Leier, a history professor and head of SFU's centre for labour studies, was saddened to learn of the death earlier this month of the man who headed B.C.'s fishers' union for 30 years.

“Homer was a dynamic labour leader and one of the province's earliest environmentalists and civil rights activists. Fortunately for me, Homer's memoirs have been collected for posterity. But there are many other unionists and activists like him whose stories still need to be gathered, before it's too late.”

On Nov. 8, the centre for labour studies is inviting SFU students and trade unionists from across the province to participate in a one-day oral history workshop to learn how to capture and preserve the stories of labour movement elders.

Participants will learn interviewing skills, as well as how to record, document and archive oral histories, from a panel of several experts.
The workshop is funded by the Lefty and Margaret Morgan oral history of labour archives. Created by Deep Cove labour activist Margaret Morgan and named after her late husband, the archives works with the centre of labour history to record the memories of union activists.

“Schools don't teach much labour history, and unions don't often have the resources to write it,” observes Leier.

“In the labour movement, much of the real history is in the heads of older members, retired officers, and seniors. They have much to tell us, and they are an important resource. But we need to record and keep their histories if they are to survive. After all, a union that doesn't know its history is like an amnesiac: doomed to repeating the same mistakes and unable to make sense of the current situation.”

“This project builds on SFU's long relationship with the labour movement. We can help teach unions how to collect their own stories, and if they later find they want assistance with the job, we can introduce them to our students.”

Although the focus will be on labour history, Leier says the workshop is well suited to “students in the social sciences, or any student whose scholastic activities require one-on-one interviewing skills.”

A number of active and retired trade unionists have registered for the workshop but Leier says, “there is still room for more.”

The workshop will be held at the Halpern Centre at SFU from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The cost is $30. There is no charge for SFU students.

Seating is limited and the registration deadline is Oct. 30. Contact Tessa Wright at 604-291-2446 or tessaw@sfu.ca (tessaw@sfu.ca)

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