Bringing Labour History Alive Through Photos & Film

Image D-01635 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Image D-01635 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

By Erica Landrock

 Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been working to produce a three part history series about Working People and labour history in British Columbia for BC’s non-profit broadcaster, Knowledge Network.  When my team and I began the project back in 2011, it seemed like a straightforward and easily manageable task. How hard could it be to produce a series without filming anything? Choose the stories, write the scripts, select images, edit and voila! Easy. Or so it seemed. We quickly learned there was a very fine balance between making the stories accessible and engaging for an audience, while still telling a true account of history.

The origination of the series came about in a very organic fashion. Jack Munro, a well known British Columbia labour figure was watching Knowledge Network one evening when another documentary I was involved with Edge of the World: BC’s Early Years came on the air. He liked the approach and easy access to history and thought why couldn’t we have something like that but about labour and working people? At the time, Jack was the chair for the Labour Heritage Centre, an organization that helps to bring a voice to the province’s working people. Jack contacted Rudy Buttignol, CEO of Knowledge Network, to see how one would go about getting a series like this made. Not realizing this suggestion was going to spark over two years of work, the idea was a hit and a call went out for proposals to BC’s independent filmmaking community. My team was selected and by the fall of 2011 we were underway.

The project started off routinely. Familiarizing ourselves with the subject matter and bringing together a core team. We were fortunate with the involvement of the Labour Heritage Centre, that we were given access and introductions to many of the top consultants, experts and labour historians in the field who were interested in lending their expertise and passion to the project. With passion however came many ideas and opinions on what stories people thought we should tell. It became evident that we were in a powerful (and challenging) position of deciding what history was to be passed along to future generations.

From labour activist Ginger Goodwin to the famous On to Ottawa Trek, the Dunsmuir coal mines on Vancouver Island and the Fishermen’s Strike of 1900 in Steveston to the Second Narrows Bridge Collapse and Operation Solidarity, the list of stories continued to grow. With the daunting task of producing thirty short 2-3 minute films, suddenly thirty didn’t seem like many! As our team of researchers continued digging up images and providing us with material, it became clear that each individual story could be a feature film in itself! Through many deciding factors, we narrowed down our list, carefully trying to balance keeping the stories short, succinct and entertaining while still staying true to the history and the telling of the events.

City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Can P25

City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Can P25

As our team continued to uncover the past through photographs and archival footage, we often found ourselves pausing and reflecting on the history that lay before us. These individuals were the voices of legislative changes that often took not just years, but at times decades to implement. Many of these regulations we take for granted today. From the 8 hour work day to the start work age, from Chinese citizens being granted the right to vote and legislative changes within the Workers Compensation Board, knowing what challenges and struggles were experienced by earlier generations was an important reminder that history matters.

As the research continued, our next task was finding images to bring the stories to life. Our team of researchers scoured archives, museums and private collections. If we didn’t have a way to tell the stories visually, scripts had to be re-written or stories dropped. This sometimes proved to be heart-breaking. With more than 1,000 images from over 80 archives in the final series, the media management and image research was an extremely challenging task.

While the stories are captivating and the images often breathtaking, the question still remained, how would we keep the audience engaged for the duration of the show? This is where animation, 2.5D, parallaxing, particle effects, sound design and other editing techniques came into play from our talented team of editors and motion graphic artists.

With the series getting close to completion and the tone, look and feel of the series in place, we were able to take a step back and look at this group of important stories, knowing we were playing a small part in preserving our province’s colourful history. Amongst many lessons garnered from the project was the reminder about the history in our own backyard.  I encourage everyone, go to your local museums, explore the archives, speak with your grandparents and learn about those that came before us. History matters and we are the ones who will continue to pass it down for generations to come in whatever form we choose to do so.

Working People: A History of Labour in British Columbia, premiered on Knowledge Network in March and can now be viewed online across Canada:

Erica Landrock is a film and television producer living in North Vancouver, BC. She recently completed a documentary about professional video game players that aired on Global Television. Erica sits on the board for the Documentary Organization of Canada’s British Columbia Chapter. For more information on her latest projects and news, visit her online:

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