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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

John M. Cameron: A Vancouver socialist history story

By Nat Bocking

In 1994 while looking for something else in the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) I found an uncatalogued, uncaptioned photo of a man and a woman in front of a 'socialist' bookshop. You can look up the photo as VPL 16847. I showed the librarians but we couldn't identify the location, the only clue in the photo was the number 530 above the door and it was presumed to be taken in one of the logging towns. Nevertheless the VPL were quite excited by this discovery as they had hardly any photographic record of Vancouver's socialist history and they duly catalogued the negative but the subjects and location were listed as 'unknown'. I made some prints* of it and I kept one in the hall.

*I gave a print to a couple I knew who had written a book on Job Harriman and the Llano colony called Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, by Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon and Lionel Rolfe.

30 years later just for fun I put a scan of it up on a BC photos Facebook page. On there an archaeologist and history buff Celia Nord commented that in a thesis on women's socialist history she'd read, there was mention of a Mrs. Cameron and her socialist bookshop at 530 Westminster Avenue.

The VPL confirmed John M. Cameron had a business and lived at 530 Westminster Avenue in 1903 listed as a stationer. Westminster Avenue was later renamed as Main Street, Vancouver. From here it was a deep dive into Google and newspaper archives.

John M. Cameron was a Canadian socialist activist prominent in Vancouver at the turn of the 20th century. He was born in Owen Sound, Ontario in 1866 "from Highland Scottish parentage" and for many years he worked in his father's planing mill in Toronto but in 1891 he had an industrial accident that disabled him for five years. While the Cameron name is very common in Ontario, the 1871 census (item 42149068) has one John at 5 years old as the son of a carpenter Donald Cameron and Nancy Cameron and the youngest of six children. While census takers are notoriously unreliable, it records the birthplace of the whole family was Scotland but in later newspaper reports John M. Cameron said he was from Owen Sound but his parents were born in Scotland.

He travelled around Canada's provinces organising socialist meetings and became secretary of the local Knights of Labor of Toronto. Around 1897 he joined a utopian commune, the Christian Commonwealth in Ruskin, B.C. (on the outskirts of Vancouver today) founded in 1895 by Charles Whetham. At first the commune was a success but the commune failed in 1899 due to capitalist lenders requiring repayment of credit for their sawmill machinery while a drought had dried up the Stave River, their means of transporting logs.

Throughout the hurly burly history of local politics with its splits and alliances and a gradual coalescence on Marxist doctrine, Cameron is mentioned in and frequently corresponded with the socialist newspapers of the day. They reported his success at organising Vancouver's growing workforce into trade unions and socialist clubs. It was reported in 1901 "he has a good reputation as a speaker, and one who has thoroughly mastered the subject he deals with. In British Columbia, Mr. Cameron has so far formed Socialist clubs in Victoria, Nanaimo, South Wellington and Ladysmith on the Island and Vancouver, New Westminster, Saperton and Revelstoke on the mainland, and at Sandon, Nelson, Slocan City, Silverton, Kaslo, New Denver and Ferguson in the Kootenays..."

At the turn of the 20th century the socialist movement in British Columbia was divided into five small groups. The American based Socialist Labour Party had formed a branch in Vancouver in 1898. Socialist newspaper publisher E.T. Kingsley, a former member of the American Socialist Labor Party, was a powerhouse of militant socialism in Nanaimo and the Western Federation of miners was also influential, as it espoused socialism since forming its first local in British Columbia in 1895. Some of these small groups of radicals came together in 1901 to form the BC Socialist Party, whose model was the Socialist Party USA. More militant Nanaimo coal miners formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The Nanaimo radicals succeeded in making their influence felt within the BCSP and in 1903 the party adopted a revolutionary platform. One year later the name of Socialist Party of Canada was formally adopted. Reformists still remained within the new organization, many of them not leaving until 1907 when a split-off from the SPC created the Social Democratic Party. This group became the SPC’s chief rival on the left.

Through his associates it may be deduced that Cameron was not at first what we now call a socialist. The term 'socialism' was also applied to the aims of labour and agrarian reformists driven by Christian belief. By 1899 Cameron had given up on the idea of establishing co-operative colonies separated from the rest of society but took to promoting Socialist and Christian ideals, which he thought were identical.

The first object of the new BC Socialist party was not to place candidates in the field, but to educate and organize their forces and this is what Cameron was apparently effective at. In 1902 Cameron was recruited to organise in Manitoba and the Socialist Party of Manitoba was formed that year.

Cameron was so successful he was also recruited to go to Seattle and organise there for several months before returning to Vancouver at latter part of 1903, where he was photographed with his wife in their home and her socialist bookshop/tobacconists at 530 Westminster Avenue, now Main Street, Vancouver.

It's been most edifying reading several PhD theses on labour politics and labour economics of Vancouver around 1900 that mention Cameron. The demand for labour to exploit Canada's natural resources in logging, mining and fishing could not be met solely by labour of European origin which made Vancouver Canada's most linguistically diverse city. However most BC socialists came to oppose Asian immigration because their cheaper labour lowered wages and the ambivalence of Asian migrants to join trade unions (the members' racism doubtless a factor) undermined the power of collective bargaining.

In 1900 BC elected its richest person, the coal baron James Dunsmuir to be its premier. Dunsmuir had inherited his wealth from his father Robert who had arrived in Canada from Scotland as a indentured miner although one with access to capital from friends in the Royal Navy. The Dunsmuir family came to dominate the province's economy in the late nineteenth century and were forcefully opposed to organized labour. James Dunsmuir managed his family's coal business between 1876 until 1910, increasing profits and violently putting down efforts to unionise the workforce. Cameron culturally had much in common but doubtless saw Dunsmuir and his kind as the enemy of the working man. Dunsmuir's mines were among the most dangerous in the world. Between 1889 and 1908, twenty-three men were killed in the production of every million tons of coal when the average for North America as a whole was six deaths per million tons. Robert Dunsmuir employed Asian labour as strike-breakers, thus inflaming racism. By paying the head-tax levied on the Chinese to deter migration, these miners were especially beholden to the Dunsmuirs and would not take part in any strikes with the white miners.

It would be nice to see a plaque remembering Cameron at 530 Main Street, which is now a Chinese herbalists, to contrast the designation of the Dunsmuirs' many homes as historic places. The fruits of his capitalism for the common man were few, I can't see evidence from here of philanthropy on the scale of Carnegie or Peabody. The Dunsmuir fortune was squandered by James' descendants in one generation. James' eldest son Robin spent his life globetrotting as a railway engineer in an alcoholic haze, he died in Singapore in 1929 and his younger son had died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Their sisters were married off to English gentry and many died without issue. His daughter Dola was a 'companion' of Tallulah Bankhead and died of cirrhosis of the liver.

So far I haven't been able to find any mention of John M Cameron beyond 1904 nor anything at all about Mrs. Cameron who naturally deserves posterity but that doesn't mean it isn't there. So many reference sources are behind paywalls and such. The First World War and the socialists' opposition to it as a war fought to further the interest of capitalists and not the the worker caused the government of Canada to suppress socialist newspapers and meetings.

There is a poignant cutting from 1913 in Owen Sound reporting that a John Cameron "known to these parts" but now living in Blue Bonnets, Quebec returned to Owen Sound to bury his infant son. The Maxville Cemetery records the burial of Donald S. Cameron, son of John M & F Cameron aged 4 months. Whether that's our John M Cameron remains to be seen but the repeating of parental names points strongly to it.

Nat Bocking MA MCE (he/him)

Creator of the continuity and art department photo app


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