Northwestern B.C. labour activitist honoured

John Jensen given lifetime membership in labour council

  • Fri Dec 4th, 2015 12:00pm
  • News

LEANING forward in his chair at his kitchen table, John Jensen gives his philosophy in a precise sentence.

“There are two kinds of people. The working class and the ruling class, at least that’s what they used to call it where I’m from.”

It is a philosophy that has guided Jensen, now 86, through decades of labour, political and social activism in northwestern B.C.

From Denmark, Jensen is a carpenter by training and came to Canada in 1959 at the age of 32, settling first in Vancouver.

Several jobs followed, including framing houses at $1 a square foot.

“Because I had a pick up, I was the foreman and would pick up the guys for work,” said Jensen of his purchase of a $50 vehicle.

A friend from Denmark living in Kitimat told Jensen of work opportunities farther north, and he made the move in 1964.

“He told me there was work, that there was always work in Kitimat,” Jensen recalled.

Working at his craft, Jensen quickly became involved in northwest labour issues through the Carpenters’ Union eventually becoming the local business agent followed by other union positions, weaving together other trades into the Northwest District Council of Carpenters.

That brought on involvement with the Kitimat-Terrace and District Labour Council and Jensen, over the years, served several times as its president.

“Maybe they regarded me as a wise old guru but perhaps later on they wondered who this old fart was,” says Jensen of his later years with the council.

Jensen’s scope broadened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, becoming a key participant in an early-on group called Victims of Industry Changing the Environment (VOICE).

When the predecessor vocational training school in Terrace expanded to become today’s Northwest Community College, Jensen was chair of an advisory group setting up academic programs.

He then became an instructor at the college as those programs took shape.

“We had labour studies, women’s studies, aboriginal studies,” recalled Jensen of course offerings in the 1970s and into the early 1980s before they were then dismantled by the college’s administration of the day.

“We’d go everywhere, to the (aboriginal) villages to the band councils to teach parliamentary procedure. If you needed it, we did it,” said Jensen.

He also helped organize two conferences in the 1970s, bringing in labour, aboriginal, environmental, peace and church groups to speak about common goals for the region.

A cyclical collapse of the northwest forests industry in the early 1980s brought on widespread unemployment and the carpenters responded by forming their own company.

“We were talking one day and decided that’s what we should do,” said Jensen.

The Ginger Goodwin Construction Company had all the hallmarks of a business enterprise so that those working could then accumulate the hours they needed to qualify for unemployment insurance.

It was named after a Vancouver Island coal mine union organizer killed by police in 1918.

“We had phone calls from people asking to speak to Mr. Goodwin,” Jensen noted.

The carpenters’ construction company was based out of a hall on Sparks St. bought from the local Elks club in 1973.

The building was first used as an officers’ mess when several thousand Canadian troops were stationed in Terrace during the Second World War.

It has since been sold to the Bread of Life soup kitchen, supported by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which operates a soup kitchen Sundays and on weekdays rents out the hall, now called the All Nations Centre, to the Terrace and District Community Services Society and at nights during the winter to the Ksan House Society for an emergency shelter.

There is an even more direct connection between Jensen’s labour and social activism and the Second World War – the present day Terraceview Lodge.

Its location on the Bench overlooking Terrace once housed a hospital built during the Second World War which would have tended wounded service people had there been an invasion of the north coast.

After the war it was converted into a provincial psychiatric and other care facility called Skeenaview Lodge for more than 100 men.

But in late 1977, the facility, a substantial employer, was set to be closed down and have patients transferred south.

The labour council organized a picket line early one December 1977 morning and stopped ambulances which were to start the transfer.

“We got wind of what was to happen, made some phone calls and that’s what we did,” said Jensen of the picket line.

A series of negotiations with the provincial government followed, resulting in the construction of today’s Terraceview Lodge.

“That was one thing I’m very proud of to this day,” said Jensen.

In many ways Jensen laments the differences between past labour activities and the present ones in the northwest.

There are not nearly the numbers of trades union members as there once were and the white collar unions, mostly those in the public sector, now outnumber the blue collar unions and priorities have shifted.

“When I left the labour council there were two people from blue collar unions except myself. It used to be the other way around. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just different,” said Jensen.

“As a business agent I could make some calls at 7 a.m. and there’d be 90-100 people there [on a picket line]. That just wouldn’t happen today,” said Jensen.

If anything, Jensen says modern day union members need to learn more about the history of organized labour.

“To go where you want, you have to know where you’ve been,” said Jensen.

“People died, went to jail, were deported. There’s very little memory of that.”

Jensen’s achievements were recognized at a Nov. 23 gathering in Terrace where Jensen was given a lifetime membership in the Kitimat-Terrace and District Labour Council.

Current labour council president Debra Thame said approximately 50 people attended the gathering and that messages were read from those who could not attend.

“He’s just had such an influence on labour issues,” said Thame of Jensen.