Author Tags: Fishing, Labour
Fifty years ago when Homer Stevens was 19 his uncle John said, “One of these days soon I’m going to have to take you down to a meeting of the United Fishermen’s Union in Vancouver. It’s run by a bunch of Reds but they’re pretty good people."
The invitation was a turning point in the life of the young fisherman who grew up in the multilingual community of Port Guichon in the Fraser River delta, one member of an extended family who argued constantly about affairs of the day. Within four years of that meeting Stevens was a full-time organizer for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union, running from "float to float, man to man” signing up new members. He later became president of the union and shepherded its members through the arduous Cold War years. The log of his travels up and down the B.C. coast paints a detailed picture of life in busy fishing ports and canneries from the Depression years to the present. During his term as president he led the 1967 strike of Prince Rupert fish Workers, spent a year in jail for contempt of court, and headed a drive to organize Nova Scotia fishermen. He also had to relearn, after years of union work, how to fish in a modem and very different salmon industry.
"If someone were to ask me 'Would you do it again? I'd say 'Yeah, I'd do it again'," says Stevens. "I’d try to do it better if I could, but I'd be willing to tackle it.” Over the past 20 years Stevens corresponded with Vancouver anthropologist and writer Rolf Knight. Each time Knight published a book he mailed a copy to Stevens who in turn wrote back a note of thanks and detailed responses to the topic. Knight saw in Homer Stevens a kindred spirit. Like the union leader, Knight grew up in the resource towns of B.C., and, in spite of his university education, identified strongly with working people. His books mostly oral histories included A Very Ordinary Life, Work Camps and Company Towns, Stump. Ranch Chronicles, A Man of Our Times, Along the No. 20 Line and Voyage through the Mid-Century. "I've known of Homer since I was a child and a young man," Knight says, "and he always struck me as the image of the incorruptible and decent union leader."
In 1986 Knight proposed the idea of a book on Stevens' life to him. The two soon agreed and began taping. It was to be a major undertaking. "In all my other histories my job was to stimulate people to get them to remember," Knight says. "I would assure them what they had to say was worthwhile, and draw out all that hidden information. With Homer
he's a very loquacious guy. I would ask one or two questions and he would talk for two or three hours." Stevens almost overwhelmed Knight with detailed reminiscences. The flow of words provided Knight with 90 hours of interviews, which Knight transcribed prior to compiling the book. Knight was so concerned about accuracy that he took the first draft of the manuscript up to Stevens' home on Lasquiti Island and "read every word of the book aloud while he listened, mending his nets, and interrupting me occasionally with 'That's not right' or 'That's Telegraph Cove, not Telegraph Bay'."
The result is Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (Harbour $29.95). The oral autobiography is both a history of the B.C. coast and the portrait of a complex man. Says Knight, "Here is an account of a person who represents an amalgam of different peoples his ancestors were Croatian, Finnish, Greek, Native -but Homer's radicalism was very much indigenous to British Columbia."
Knight has spent the last 20 years writing life histories of working people in western Canada. During that time Knight has sometimes felt despondent about the extent to which his work has been recognized. "Then lo and behold, one day this spring I got a phone call from the Canadian Historical Association," says Knight. The prestigious society which generally doesn't honour oral historians awarded Rolf Knight its Career Contribution Award for outstanding contributions to regional history. "I've received a Masters degree and a PhD, but this award meant more," says Knight. 1-55017-070-8
[BCBW, Autumn, 1992]
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing