1227 John Jensen, northern socialist
No Compromise: A Memoir
by John Jensen, edited by Rod Link, foreword by George Heyman
Vancouver: Walhachin Press, 2021. This book is for sale at Munro’s Books (Victoria), People’s Co-op Bookstore (Vancouver), and Misty River Books (Terrace) — Ed.
$20.00 / 9781777582302
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Northern Socialist. Tracing the life of a B.C. trade unionist who stayed true to the working class
British Columbia’s labour history often focuses on the Lower Mainland where leaders of the big unions made headlines with major strikes, clashes with police, and the hard work of making the industrial workplace safer. This brief memoir shifts the focus to the forests, waterways and mills of Northern BC, and it is a welcome change.
John Jensen is one of those local trade unionists who epitomized the defiance of men and women who inherently distrust invading corporations, profit-hungry entrepreneurs and politicians who thought they knew the north better. Judging from this account, he was among the activists, radicals and revolutionaries in the province’s far reaches that served the community as well as their fellow workers.
He was a breed of worker that found ways to make a living off the land, but he cared about the environment and fought for its safe-keeping. He was sensitive to Indigenous issues and often fought for their rights. He was a shrewd negotiator for collective bargaining rights as well as cases where injustice was afoot in the land.
As he put it, “we made major advances in the North.” Those advances included the fight to stop forest clear-cutting, improve safety in the mining and smelting industry and block the pipelines from devastating the land.
He was labour leader who recognized the role of women in trade unions and on the job and worked for women’s equality. He worked to change attitudes about Indigenous land claims and generally strived to “slow down the attacks on the working class.”
Jensen was born in Denmark and was a young teenager as the Nazis rolled into Copenhagen to occupy the country. He tells of “delivering the forbidden underground newspaper” and passing “messages to and from members of the Underground.”
There may be other BC trade union leaders with such wartime stories to tell, but few lived as long as Jensen to share it. He died in 2019 at 90. “They can no longer dispute my facts or argue with me,” he writes teasingly in “John Jensen’s Credo.” “Truth be known, I would prefer them to be here now.”
He may have been removed from the mainstream of the official labour movement, but Jensen found a unique way to weave some of the local labour stories into his personal account. Take the story of labour martyr Ginger Goodwin who was killed by a special constable at Comox Lake in 1918.
To help independent construction workers receive unemployment insurance when work was scarce, Jensen and his local union set up the Ginger Goodwin Construction Company. It was a perfect match: Goodwin the radical socialist and Jensen the pragmatic socialist. From his grave, Goodwin helped construction workers amass enough work hours to qualify for benefits.
His working life included stints as a fisher, sawyer, furniture finisher, logger, carpenter, college educator, and construction worker. And that is not a complete list. A promotional release correctly added “shit disturber” and “firebrand.” His vast work experience well equipped him to represent other workers as a union leader and eventually president of the Kitimat-Terrace and District Labour Council.
Jensen, or JJ, saw himself as a socialist, although some of his friends dubbed him a “freelance Bolshevik.” He voted NDP and had great respect for the late northern NDP MP Jim Fulton, a man who shared some of Jensen’s special traits. But he wasn’t always happy with the party’s shift to the right. He was also upset when people called themselves democratic socialists; surely all socialists were democratic so why the qualification?
A natural storyteller, the memoir also shares intimate moments such as duck hunting with his eldest son, fishing trips with his son Mikael and road trips to First Nations villages to attend festivals. Driving along narrow logging roads or boating into less-travelled waters, Jensen describes some dangerous experiences with a simple uncluttered writing style.
The book provides a timeline of Jensen’s long life, some reminiscences about his friends, among them MLA and current BC environment minister George Heyman, who wrote the book’s foreword, and a selection of Jensen’s newspaper and other comments. The latter displays a sense of his no-nonsense approach to whatever he did. “The union is not some outside force,” he wrote in the Terrace Standard, “but the collective wisdom and strength of its members.”
For those of us who did not know Jensen this is an opportunity, thanks to his wife Larisa and son Mikael, to visit a life lived with the fullest dedication to helping others. It was his willingness to take on the big enemies of workers, his ingenuity in doing so, and his determination not to back down, that define the best of trade unionism.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His work has appeared in The Ormsby Review since it was founded in 2016. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Charlie Hodge & Dan McGauley, Ravi Malhotra & Benjamin Isitt, Allan Bartley, Eric Sager, Michael Dupuis & Michael Kluckner, Elizabeth May, Rosa Jordan, Vera Maloff, and Peter Nowak for The Ormsby Review.
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