Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986


211 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-919573-48-7





Edited by The Working Lives Collective
Reviewed by Gene Olson

Gene Olson was Reference Librarian at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, University of Alberta, Edmonton.


Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986 “celebrates the achievements and lives of those ordinary Vancouverites whose skills and labors are the city’s true foundation — and whose vital role is usually ignored in standard history books.” As a centennial project published by a collective of 50 writers and funded by civic, provincial, and federal grants, Working Lives tries to provide the working people’s view of the first 100 years of Vancouver’s history. Since there is little mainstream published history of this sort, much of the material had to be developed from union and government records and documents and from the oral traditions of older citizens. Over 100 photos, maps, political cartoons, and reproductions of archival materials supplement the text. The most moving of these illustrations are the unpretentious personal photographs taken by anonymous workers.

Structurally, the book consists of a lengthy introduction that orients the reader to its three thematic chapters: Working, Living, and Organizing. In turn each chapter begins with a prefatory essay followed by a number of one-page articles relating to its theme. The landscape format of the book (wider than it is tall) allows for a full-page illustration to face the text of each vignette. Typical of these are oral histories and personal experiences of such situations and events as technological change, parades, economic busts and booms, night schools, industrial injuries, food banks, women’s right to work, picnics, and sports-days. A seven-page list of source materials and a remarkable three-page subject index round out the book.

As a picture book with short articles, Working Lives can be quickly scanned, or dipped into here and there for the fun of it, but for its full effect — an appreciation of a century of the good and bad times faced by ordinary Vancouverites — a thorough reading from cover-to-cover is recommended. As a well-illustrated nostalgic centennial memoir, it should find a receptive market among the working class majority of Vancouver’s citizenry. For the rest of Canada, it presents an interesting but definitely anecdotal glimpse of one facet of the nation’s social and labour history.


“Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 10, 2023,