‘He was the best of who we are’: Tribute Sunday to gritty labour leader Homer Stevens

By Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, Saturday 19 October 2002

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Homer Stevens, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers
Gritty labour leader, proud civil libertarian, fearless political activist, passionate warrior for social justice, revered fisherman, environmentalist before the term was invented, devoted husband, father and grandfather, Homer Stevens has been described as the epitome of the truly indigenous British Columbian.

He sprang from the rugged landscape itself and came to represent the fusion of cultures that is the emerging future of this province. He braved the dangers of the restless Pacific to wrest a living from its resources, stayed true to his conscience and kept faith with his political ideals when others reviled him for those beliefs.

When British Columbia Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair went to visit Stevens not long before he died in Nanaimo earlier this month at 79, he found the old fisherman from Lasqueti Island in rough shape but just as feisty as ever, still talking about how working class people never got anything without fighting for it and how they'd never hang on to what they had without being prepared to fight for it all over again.

I saw him three days before he died, Sinclair said. His whole life was spent fighting on behalf of working people. He never wavered.

More than 30 years ago, Stevens was campaigning against the industrial effluents that would later contaminate thousands of kilometres of seabed and against the dumping of untreated sewage into the Fraser River. He fought federal policies which discriminated against aboriginal fishermen and against racism in general.

He agitated for a 200-mile economic zone off Canada's West Coast and for a North Pacific treaty that would curb the mid-Pacific salmon catch of Japan and South Korea and regulate Russian fishing operations in the northeastern Pacific.

As recently as 1996 he was still campaigning vigorously against the de-staffing of coastal lighthouses in favour of automated equipment and calling for more federal resources for maritime search and rescue.

But he was best known as an eloquent yet straight-talking advocate of working people, their rights and the union movement that gave voice to their aspirations.

Today, at the Maritime Labour Centre on Triumph (at Victoria Drive), a memorial service will be held for Stevens, a former long-time president of the United Fisheries and Allied Workers Union.

The service begins at 1 p.m. It promises to be a rousing affair.

A bunch of old timers are going to talk about Homer's life—but there'll be a lot of celebration, too said Sinclair, who once worked with Stevens in the UFAWU. That's as it should be. There was a lot of vital, committed life to celebrate and the fisherman was never a man to waste time and energy mourning what could not be undone.

What his son, Bruce Stevens, remembers best about his dad, so often away organizing up the coast or travelling with union delegations, is the intensity of the fatherhood he practised when he was at home with his four children.

He'd load up all the kids in the neighbourhood and away we'd go on a fishing trip or to the beach. This was at a time when most men didn't do that kind of thing with their kids. But we certainly never wanted for quality time when he was home—and it was real quality time.

Homer Stevens was born of Greek and aboriginal ancestry on Aug. 2, 1923, at Port Guichon, near Ladner. His grandfather, Gjan Giannaris, came to Vancouver when it was still known as Gastown. Giannaris married a Cowichan Indian woman named Emma who had been born in 1871—just as B.C. was itself being born as a province—and went gillnetting on the Fraser for the Annacis Island cannery operated by Alexander Ewen.

That crusty cannery owner decided Giannaris needed a more easily pronounced name and announced that henceforth his employee would be known instead as John Stevens. The name stuck and Homer's hybrid family tree took root in the rich, black soil of the Fraser delta.

If Homer was born of and into fishing when the commercial industry was in its muscular heyday, then an enterprise to match logging and mining for importance to the provincial economy, he also came by his credentials by personal choice.

At the age of 13, in the depths of the Great Depression, he was already out in his little boat, the Tar Box, setting gillnets for the Fraser River salmon runs off Ladner. A decade later, he had left the water to work as a full-time organizer for the United Fishermen and Allied Worker's Union, established in 1945 through a merger of the United Fishermen's Federal Union and the Fish, Cannery and Reduction Plant and Allied Workers Union.

His tireless organizing of fishermen to resist what he described as their roles as vassals of big companies would eventually make Stevens a household name on both the West Coast and in the Atlantic fishery.

When Vancouver Sun reporter Eve Rockett went to a meeting at Fishermen's Hall 30 years ago, gathering material for a profile of the union leader she'd never met, she said at first glance she knew instinctively which man was Homer Stevens.

Physically—and not just in size—he somehow made the minister of fisheries beside him look like a bank clerk, she wrote. He had those excesses necessary for a union leader; a man who makes other men, balancing the delicate political treadmill, seem inconsequential. His voice seemed to dwarf the others; not in volume but in control and quality of irresistible persuasiveness.

But he didn't persuade everybody.

The UFAWU was suspended by the Trades and Labour Congress for alleged Communist activities, the union's application to join the Canadian Labour Congress was rejected and the UFAWU's organizing drive in the Maritimes didn't succeed.

But Stevens was a man governed by his own conscience, not political expedience. He left the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP, to join the Communist party at a time when McCarthyism and the Cold War made his politics uncomfortable at best.

And he stood by his principles when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, abandoning the Communists for reasons of conscience.

In 1948, the same year he married Grace, his wife of 54 years, he was elected president of the UFAWU and soon emerged as one of the most powerful, effective and controversial labour leaders of the next three decades.

Everybody knew who Homer was, recalls Bruce Stevens. It opened some doors and closed others. He was a communist and you had to deal with that to some degree. But everything was up front with Homer. What you saw was what you got.

He refused to play down his Communist affiliations, indeed, was proud of them and ran as a Quixotic candidate—he once polled 391 votes to Progressive Conservative Tom Siddon's 29,633 in the riding of Burnaby-Richmond-Delta—in several elections.

He paid a price for that honesty. When Homer served as the fishermen's delegate to the advisory committee of what's now the Pacific Salmon Commission, U.S. authorities refused to allow him to cross the border and the commission was asked to hold its future meetings in Canada.

In 1967, during a labour dispute in Prince Rupert, Stevens was prosecuted for criminal contempt of court for refusing to order shoreworkers to unload fish during a strike, as directed by a B.C. Supreme Court injunction.

Instead of following the court's orders, Stevens and UFAWU secretary Steve Stavenes polled union members in a secret ballot, which the court said amounted to gross criminal contempt. The two labour leaders were sentenced to a year in prison and the union was fined $25,000. Union members responded by re-electing both men by acclamation while they were still in jail.

Stevens stepped down as president of the UFAWU in 1977 and, at an age when many people would be thinking of retirement, returned to fishing aboard his gillnetter, the Emma S, named for the beloved Cowichan grandmother who taught him how to spear fish from a dugout canoe and to put up clams.

He really was the best of who we are, said Terry Glavin, author of an award-winning natural history of the North Pacific and a former Sun fisheries reporter who wrote about Stevens, his union and the fishing life.

I loved Homer. He was a truly great working-class leader.