Two weeks ago, under the direction of the all-knowing Al Lundgren, I stumbled across some historical gold. Rooting through the back-room storage space of the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives, we rediscovered a box that had been left gathering dust untouched for years. This box contains the records of legendary women’s labour organizer Edna Brown. These records are currently being archivally arranged as part of a larger collection of records belonging to the I.W.A. Local Union 1-80. They will be available for public access following the easement of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For an overview of the history of the various I.W.A. Auxiliaries, see John Mountain’s blog post here.
Edna Brown was born Edna Mary Dougan in 1909 in Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island. She was the descendent of Irish settlers who emigrated to the Cowichan Valley in the mid-19th century. Through her marriage to Owen Brown, President of the International Woodworkers of America Local 1-80 between 1941 and 1948, she became heavily involved in early union organizing both in the Cowichan Valley and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Holding the position of secretary-organizer, Brown was the driving force behind the formation of the Lake Cowichan Ladies Auxiliary in 1935, which was initially attached to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners until the formation of the I.W.A. in 1938. She also became President of the I.W.A. British Columbia District Council Auxiliary in 1938.
In an interview with Sara Diamond, which in turn was quoted in a 2009 article by Steven Beda, Ladies Auxiliary member Jonnie Rankin described the activities of the group as “one of the most essential things of any union and it’s more than a tea party.” The Auxiliary played a central role in supporting early union organizers in Lake Cowichan, providing shelter and hospitality, but Brown also took on a more direct role in signing up new members when the male organizers were forced off logging operations by the employers.
Edna Brown’s records, which were donated to the I.W.A. Local 1-80 by her son Bill in 1991, attest to the the key role the Auxiliary played in organizing for social and political change on both a local and national level. The records are predominately made up of the files amassed during the operation of the Lake Cowichan Auxiliary, and hence shed less light on Brown’s role with the District Council Auxiliary. Nevertheless, the minute books, committee reports, and correspondence collected by Brown clearly demonstrate how involved Ladies Auxiliary #20 was in working to better the living conditions of families and workers in Lake Cowichan.
A key early campaign pursued by the group was petitioning the town in order to make improvements to the notoriously treacherous Duncan-Lake Cowichan road. They also provided essential services in fundraising and billeting, especially during strikes when the union’s resources were stretched to their limit, and took on a central role in organizing and leading marches. Finally, Auxiliary #20 played an active role in organizing educational seminars for their members, the subjects of which ranged from leadership training to effective voting strategies, and distributed literature on labour organizing, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism throughout the Cowichan community.
Members of the Auxiliary also maintained an active role in British Columbian and Canadian political life. They mainly did so by pressuring elected officials, including the Prime Minster of Canada and the Premier of B.C., through a torrent of letters and telegraphs addressing a wide variety of issues. Members were especially active on this front during the immediate aftermath of World War II, when they worked incessantly to ensure the restoration of B.C.’s milk subsidy, the continuation of wartime price control measures, and the abolition of means-testing as a prerequisite for the payment of Old Age Pensions.
Edna Brown’s papers therefore provide a fascinating insight into the functioning of a women’s group that was pivotal in the success of the early union movement in the Cowichan Valley. Furthermore, the records also contain pre-1948 meeting minutes and correspondence belonging to Local Union 1-80. This is particularly exciting since all records belonging to the 1-80 prior to the “White Bloc/Red Bloc” struggles of 1948 were presumed destroyed in the aftermath of the internal division.
IWA Canada 1-80: A 60 Year History, 1937-1997 (1997)
Beda, Steven C., ““More than a Tea Party”: The IWA Women’s Auxiliary in the Pacific Northwest, 1937-1948”, The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 100.3 (2009), 134-145.
Bergren, Myrtle, Tough Timber: The Loggers of British Columbia – Their Story (Progress Books, 1966)
Bowen, Lynne, Those Lake People: Stories of Cowichan Lake (Douglas & McIntyre, 1995)
Neufield, Andrew and Andrew Parnaby, The IWA in Canada: the Life and Times of an Industrial Union (New Star Books, 2001)