Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Slim Evans: Red Labour Organizer

People's Voice
June 2011

This year, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of Canada's foundation in 1921, People's Voice is printing a series of articles on the party's history and prominent members.

Arthur "Slim" Evans, c. 1911.
Arthur H. "Slim" Evans is best known as the main organizer and leader of the On To Ottawa Trek of 1935. For his decades of organizing efforts, Slim Evans was repeatedly charged and jailed, but was widely hailed as an outstanding champion of workers' rights.

Born on April 24, 1890 in Toronto, Slim Evans left school at 13 to help support his family. He sold newspapers, drove a team of horses and learned the carpentry trade. Like many others, Evans came west in 1911, working at various jobs on the prairies, before heading to Minneapolis and then Kansas City. There he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and was sentenced to three years imprisonment for participating in a free speech fight, having read aloud the Declaration of Independence at a rally. "All I did was read it. I was too shy and too nervous at that time to make up any speech of my own," he said later.

Evans was released in 1912 after leading a jail strike of political prisoners. In 1913 he was shot in the leg at the infamous Ludlow Massacre of striking Colorado coal miners. During five years across the western USA, he worked with many labour giants including "Big Bill" Haywood, Frank Little and Joe Hill.

In 1916, Evans returned to Canada, doing farm work, carpentry, and then becoming a miner. He was active in the One Big Union, the Canadian equivalent of the IWW, and volunteered to help organize coal miners in the Drumheller Valley region of Alberta. The Drumheller miners walked out in solidarity with the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Rejecting the United Mineworkers of America which had failed to help them, the miners also demanded recognition of the OBU. The mineowners, the Alberta government, and the UMWA fought back, and the OBU was defeated after a lengthy battle. Evans was later sentenced to three years in prison, on trumped-up charges of using UMWA funds to fund a wildcat strike without permission. The truth was that he had used union funds to feed striking miners rather than send it as "per capita" to UMWA headquarters.

Evans was released in March 1925, after one year in the Prince Albert Penitentiary. A petition to the Minister of Justice with over 8700 signatures of miners and other supporters from across B.C. and Alberta was the cause of his early release.

By this time, the OBU had nearly disappeared, but Evans remained a prominent labour activist, working at a variety of different jobs. He also built a home for his family, at 17 E. 42 Avenue in Vancouver.

In 1926, Evans joined the Communist Party of Canada. As he said later, "I believe I was a communist right from the first time I started to travel through the country and saw conditions in the various mining camps and the rotten conditions that prevailed there."

The onset of the Great Depression saw conditions become much worse. Millions were jobless and hungry. In 1932 Evans helped organize the BC section of the National Unemployed Workers Association, fighting to win increased rates for relief work. Later that year, he began organizing the coal miners of Princeton into the Mine Workers Union of Canada, an affiliate of the Communist-led Workers Unity League. Police and the Ku Klux Klan cooperated to break the Princeton miners' strike for higher wages, and Evans was imprisoned for 18 months in Oakalla penitentiary. The authorities also evicted his family from the house on 42nd Avenue when they were unable to pay the mortgage. Another huge labour campaign finally won Evans' release in 1934, just as the struggle of the unemployed began to boil over.

Thousands of unemployed men in the "slave camps" run by the federal government joined the WUL-affiliated Relief Camp Workers Union. BC members of the RCWU voted in April 1935 to strike for "work and wages." For two months, the strikers conducted a powerful campaign for their demands in Vancouver, and then voted to take their struggle directly to Ottawa. Riding the freights, they reached Regina, where Prime Minister R.B. "Iron Heel" Bennett invited the union to send a delegation to present their grievances. Slim Evans headed the eight-member delegation, which was subjected to a verbal attack by Bennett. Evans called Bennett a liar, and the delegation headed back to Regina, where a brutal RCMP attack halted the Trek on July 1, 1935.

But stopping the Trek did not change the course of history. The slave camps were soon shut down, Bennett's Tories suffered a massive defeat, and workers began winning gains such as unemployment insurance. Evans and others were charged under Section 98 of the Criminal Code for "membership in an unlawful organization" - the RCWU. But the cases died when the new Liberal government was compelled to repeal Section 98.

Slim Evans continued his labour activities, helping to organize workers at Cominco in Trail, B.C., into Local 480 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union. In 1937 he led a campaign for medical funds to support the MacKenzie Papineau Battalion fighting for the freedom of Spain. During World War Two, he was a shop steward of the Amalgamated Shipwrights in the Vancouver shipyards.

Tragically, Slim Evans died on February 13, 1944, from injuries after being struck by a car three weeks earlier. He was buried in Ocean View Park cemetery in Burnaby. His place in Canadian history was regained with "Work and Wages," the most complete collection of information on his life, edited by his daughter Jean Evans Sheils and Ben Swankey, published in 1977 by the Trade Union Research Bureau. Anniversary celebrations of the On to Ottawa Trek held in 1985 and later years have also done much to educate new generations of labour activists about the contributions of this remarkable Communist.

(The above article is from the June 16-30, 2011, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)

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