Conscientious Objector Ginger Goodwin Fought and Died for Fundamental Workers’ Rights

Labor activist Ginger Goodwin spent his life fighting for the rights of working people in British Columbia, and on this day in 1918, he was killed for it. His story is a reminder of the need for uncompromising socialist politics.

Ginger Goodwin ought to be held up as the radical he was. (Cumberland Museum & Archives)

Just over one hundred years ago, on July 27, 1918, a disgraced former provincial police officer turned hotel owner and Dominion Police special constable shot labor pioneer Albert “Ginger” Goodwin to death in the forest outside Cumberland, British Columbia. The officer, Dan Campbell, was permitted by law to track down, but not murder, people evading conscription into the First World War. That hunt included Goodwin, a conscientious objector and pacifist. Then as now, state, quasi-state, and market power tended to get what it wanted. Goodwin’s life and death is a reminder — in the depths of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of so many workers — that the struggle for justice, at times a deadly undertaking, is an ongoing project that calls for a full-throated, uncompromising socialist politics.

Ginger Goodwin started work in the mines as a child in Yorkshire, England, before immigrating to Canada — he came first to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and then to Vancouver Island in British Columbia. A labor leader and advocate for worker safety agitating for, among other things, the eight-hour workday, he took part in the “Big Strike” on Vancouver Island from 1912 to 1914. The movement was put down by strikebreakers and industry power, and Goodwin was blackballed. He headed to the town of Trail in the British Columbia interior, where he entered the smelting industry and ran for the provincial legislature as a candidate for the Socialist Party. He lost. But Goodwin was elected to the executive of the BC Federation of Labour, and later became president of the local of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

Criminalizing Conviction

In 1917, as the First World War continued, Goodwin led a strike at the Trail mill, fighting once more for the eight-hour workday. As John Mackie writes, the strike action might have led to Goodwin being drafted into the war. A chronically ill man, as many in the mining industry were and still are, Goodwin was initially classified as unfit for service. “But after he led the Trail strike,” Mackie writes, “he was told to report for re-examination, and was classified as fit.”

Tom Hawthorn echoes the possibility that Goodwin was punished for his union work. Writing in the Globe and Mail, he notes Goodwin’s reexamination order came a mere eleven days after the strike. “Already-suspicious labor supporters were not surprised when he was reclassified as being fit for service.”

In his book Dead Ends, excerpted in The Times Colonist, Paul Willcocks speculates about who might have been behind the reexamination. “The smelter owners might have pulled strings to get an effective union leader out of the way. The military might have become more desperate for conscripts.” Either way, the reach of the state and industry was powerful enough to direct Goodwin’s future. Same as it ever was.

Goodwin fled to avoid service in the war, hiding outside of Cumberland with other resisters. His evasion was a deliberate and principled stand. As Willcocks puts it, “He was a union leader and socialist and didn’t see why working people should be killing each other so capitalists could make money.” All wars are atrocious in their own way, but the First World War was particularly stupid and pointless — an imperial dispute by way of a family feud that led to more than 40 million casualties, roughly half of which were deaths. Mass slaughter in the service of insatiable power, inequitably distributed.

Bowdlerizing Goodwin’s Legacy

Pacifism and a refusal to serve in an imperial army fighting a meaningless war were consistent with Goodwin’s radical politics — a politics we would be well served to remember today. In the Tyee, Mark Leier writes, “To praise Ginger Goodwin is to revere a radical.” Such acclaim is welcome, he suggests, because “comfortable compromisers are easily forgotten.” Look around today. Think back on recent years. Leier isn’t wrong. The field is largely bereft of the courage and conviction of fighters like Goodwin. And it is in need of the mass politics on which the organizers of Goodwin’s era anchored their activism and which produced general strikes of the sort that are rare — and more and more necessary — today.

Much like the liberal tendency to de-radicalize Martin Luther King Jr — to venerate the man as a caricature — Goodwin is today celebrated by the government of British Columbia with a day of remembrance and celebration and physical markers. Goodwin should be celebrated and remembered, but he ought to be held up as the radical he was — and the commemoration he is owed is that his politics ought to be the policy of the day.

Contrasting radicals and compromisers, Leier quotes from Goodwin’s political writings at length, several lines which deserve to be highlighted once more:

We know that all this misery is the outcome of someone’s carelessness, and that someone is the capitalists, those who own the machinery of production. . . . This class of parasites have been living on the blood of the working class, they are responsible for the conditions existing at the present time. . . . In order to throw this system over we have got to organize as a class and fight them as class against class . . . and our weapons are education, organization and agitation . . . and the principles of Socialism, for it is necessary that you know when to strike and how to strike, and if we have not these weapons when the time comes, we shall not be able to predict the outcome of the fight. . . . We have the power and the lever to overthrow the existing society.

Death by Cop

Dominion Police special constable Dan Campbell killed Goodwin with a single shot through the neck on July 27, 1918. He was thirty-one. Whether the killing was murder or self-defense remains unknown, in large part because Campbell never saw a full trial. But we can make an educated guess.

Journalist Roger Stonebanks, who wrote a book about Goodwin, notes that “provincial police charged Campbell with manslaughter and produced witnesses who told the preliminary investigation that he had vowed to ‘get’ the fugitives ‘dead or alive.’” The irregular circumstances of the legal proceedings in the wake of Goodwin’s killing make it hard to drill down on the truth about the precise nature of his death. As Stonebanks writes, “The trial at the fall assize was moved to Victoria from Nanaimo at the request of the defense. The grand jury in closed session returned ‘no bill,’ that is, a refusal to commit Campbell for trial.”

In death, Goodwin’s radicalism was rewarded in kind. His funeral procession was a mile long and his demise sparked a one-day general strike in Vancouver — Canada’s first — in which 5,500 workers took part. The strike was a prelude to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

Today, Goodwin’s politics and unflagging defense of worker’s rights are a reminder of the value of the old mantra of no retreat, no surrender. The Left must move forward by recommitting to an unabashed socialist politics, rooted in a structural critique of class and the institutions that perpetuate class division and all that accompanies it. We should take a page from Goodwin’s book. Now, as during his lifetime, we have the tools — and as pressing a need to use them.