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New book chronicles Building Trades history in B.C.

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by Warren Frey

The story of those who built British Columbia is now bound between the pages of a new book.
New book chronicles Building Trades history in B.C.

The BC Building Trades recently marked its 50th anniversary with the release of We Build BC – History of the Building Trades, by Jim Sinclair.

"The impetus of the book was that there really wasn't a history of construction workers and there wasn't a lot about the organizations that represent carpenters, pipefitters, bricklayers and the many other professions that make up the construction industry," said BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson.

The BC Building Trades wanted a history to mark the anniversary of the organization but at first they weren't sure which avenue to pursue, he added, a sentiment Sinclair, the author of the book, echoed.

"In early conversations with Jim, we had a blank page and Jim said, 'I really don't know where to begin,'" Sigurdson said.

Sinclair has a background in journalism and had been the president of the BC Federation of Labour for 15 years. He had written papers but not a book, and "I thought he was a good fit," Sigurdson said.

Amongst the events Sinclair chronicled were the development of an apprenticeship system in the province, battles with what Sigurdson termed the "anti-union sector," conditions faced by workers in construction camps in the 1960s and efforts at asbestos abatement.

"This is an amazing story between a group of workers who understood that if construction workers were going to be able to make a decent living on job sites that were safe, then they were going to have to be organized," Sinclair said in a release. "Over the decades, these workers have built enduring institutions, training programs and pension funds that will support generations of working people in this province. It was an honour to tell their story."

Another story covered in the book was the gradual introduction of women into the trades, Sigurdson highlighted.

"Women struggled to get into the trades. The plumbers' union in the late 1960s didn't allow women, and Anne St. Eloi pushed back. Her own father was the business manager for the union and he didn't want her in," Sigurdson said.

Eventually St. Eloi did become a union member and went on to further success in the trades and as an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, but "these barriers still haven't completely come down," he said.

The book is meant as a history of the BC Building Trades, but Sigurdson said the organization didn't want to shy away from self-criticism.

"We've shown a couple of warts. If you're going to have a history, it should be a critical history," he said.

The BC Building Trades held a gala celebration to mark their anniversary and to launch the book at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster, B.C. on Oct. 28. About 10,000 copies of the 250-page book have been distributed to affiliates and Sigurdson added 500 copies have been set aside for B.C. schools and libraries.

"Some organizations already want more copies," Sigurdson said. "We might need to do a second printing."

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