Two Strathconas

Residents of Strathcona encampment at city dump, 1931 (CVA, Ref AM54-S4-: Re N3.2)

For at least a century there have been two Strathconas in Vancouver: the Strathcona of urban elites and the Strathcona of the working class. From early-colonial settlement into the late-colonial present, the first Strathcona has been built as a peaceable property-owning enclave for the middle and upper classes. But at important moments the second, popular Strathcona – the neighborhood of immigrants, workers, and Indigenous people – has been able to resist, build alternatives, and stand in the way of state and capitalist plans for the area.

Recently, in April 2021, the local state fulfilled one such plan with a mass eviction of Camp H.O.P.E.S. in Strathcona (formerly KT Tent City). The eviction occurred at the exact location of a tent city that once stood decades before, a large “East End jungle” evicted by the City in 1931. While the individual cast and characters are new, the historical cycle of displacement is far from unprecedented in the neighbourhood.

Forced displacement and the eviction of tent cities is a key if forgotten part of the history of Strathcona, beginning in the late nineteenth century with the original settler-colonial displacement from Indigenous settlements at Kumkumalay (present-day Dunlevy) and elsewhere in the area. History is never the simple author of lessons for the present, but these moments of displacement – and the counter-movement of resistance and self-organization that accompany them – need to be remembered and revisited in our process of learning, organizing, and resisting today.

East End Jungles

Map of Strathcona in 1931, with “hobo jungles” marked by a “J” (see Jill Wade, Houses for All, p. 15)

Though each new tent city in Strathcona and Vancouver seems to elicit fresh shock and outrage from local government, police, and elites, the existence of encampments in Vancouver is more common than not and the Strathcona neighbourhood is no exception. Following the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the housing crisis intensified in Vancouver and Strathcona. Low wages proved unable to match high rents and an endemic shortage of affordable housing, leading to regular evictions. In a June 1931 report to Vancouver’s Mayor and Council, officials estimated there were at least four East End ‘hobo jungles’ or encampments in the area to the east of False Creek, housing more than 1,000 people (the East End was later renamed Strathcona).

The local state responded with overwhelming force. By September 1931, city crews raided, demolished and burned each of the tent cities.1 Like tent cities today, each encampment had forged its own separate community, built on bonds of survival and political solidarity. The jungle near the Georgia viaduct sheltered up to 200 unemployed residents and was known as a place to drink in relative isolation from the enforcement of temperance and prohibition. In contrast, an encampment of unemployed workers perceived to be more sober and “respectable” was set up near Dunlevy Avenue. Like most of the camps, this encampment excluded Chinese residents. Another 100 men lived in shacks near the Great Northern Railway buildings. Lastly, the jungle at Prior and Campbell Avenue housed many immigrant workers laid off from the logging industry. This was also the location of the city dump, and the exact location of today’s Strathcona Park.2

Residents of the “jungle” at the City dump, CVA Ref AM54-S4-: Re N8.2

Despite their differing levels of disfavor with the government and media, all camps were smashed and dispersed by the end of 1931.3 Many residents were either forced to live in other clandestine locations in the East End or take up residence in the growing number of shelters run by Central City Mission. At the time the government officially cited typhoid as a cause for the evictions. In truth it was a strategy to break up concentrations of working-class life and the threat posed to Vancouver’s property-owning social contract, because the East End hobo jungles had had in fact transformed into urban hotbeds of Communist, leftist, and IWW organizing.4 In short they had become an urban version of the relief camps. The relief camps had been set up in rural and interior BC during the depression by the federal government in a scheme to provide room-and-board in exchange for hard labour.

Makeshift kitchen at the city dump jungle, encampment residents posing with leftist preacher of the “social gospel” Reverend Andrew Roddan (First United Church), CVA Ref AM54-S4-: Re N7

Anti-Communist Repression in Strathcona 

A wave of strikes and occupations across the 1930s marked a period of increased class tension in Vancouver, punctuated by the Ballantyne Pier strike (1935), the occupation of the Vancouver Museum (1935), and the Vancouver Post Office occupation (1938). Each of these events was indelibly tied to Strathcona. The strike at Ballantyne pier started on the waterfront but soon turned into a prolonged battle between workers and police that criss-crossed through the streets of the neighborhood, including right up to the door of the Lord Strathcona School itself. Supporters also turned Strathcona’s Ukrainian Hall into a makeshift hospital for strikers, which would not be the last such act of solidarity. In 1938 the Women’s Emergency Committee would be formed out of the same hall to help build support for the Post Office sit-down strike.5

The Ballantyne strike and the sit-in occupations are now canonical historical events in Vancouver working-class history, but there were also a whole series of similar events in Strathcona throughout the 1930s that might help shed light on our present moment. In 1933 the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League (WEL) was evicted from the Strathcona School – the event can be found in the VPD archives under the euphemistic designation “Strathcona School disturbances.”

Ex-servicemen who had fought in WWI formed the WEL, which had 2,000 members by 1933. The group was aligned with the Communist Party and had prominent Communist members in its leadership but was not officially a “Red” organization. WEL members had seen the horrors of the trenches and were resolutely antiwar. They argued that resources should be used for social reconstruction instead of remilitarization.6

The politics of the WEL also extended beyond their opposition to war and fascism. An August 1933 resolution of the WEL made demands to abolish the relief camps, increase the minimum wage, provide adequate housing, and provide dignified benefits for the families of ex-servicemen – to which the local elite responded with astonishing repression.

WEL letter denouncing the “dictatorial and terrorist methods used by Mayor Taylor and Chief of Police Cameron” (December 4, 1933), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

The WEL demanded “the right to eat and sleep where they choose.”7 This was both a response to the eviction of the Strathcona encampments, and also to the conditions in the shelters and other relief institutions, which were deemed “unfit for human occupancy.”8 If workers refused to accept the state’s “offer” it resulted in being cut off from any future relief, a policy that Mayor Gerald McGeer continued when elected the following year.

The policy echoes loudly in today’s eviction of tent city encampments. At Strathcona Park tent city residents were recently given a stark “choice”: face arrest or accept coercive slum conditions in SROs and shelters. Like the Strathcona Park residents today, the Ex-Servicemen demanded adequate social housing run by democratic state bodies, rather than private developers and charities. Specifically, they called for housing right by the DSCR (Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment).9   

Police Riot at Strathcona School

In late 1933 the WEL booked and paid for a reservation of the auditorium at the Strathcona School. The November 9 meeting was intended to prepare for a march and rally on Armistice Day, where WEL resolutions for adequate housing and the abolition of the relief camps would also be reiterated. In the weeks leading up to the events, WEL delegates made several visits and letters to the constable of the VPD, attempting to get confirmation that their event would be allowed to proceed.10 Finally on the afternoon of November 9th, only a few hours before the meeting was to be convened, the constable and Mayor Taylor abruptly cancelled the meeting and forced the Strathcona School principal to send back the reservation fee paid by the WEL.

5,000 copies of this pamphlet were printed and distributed, before the meeting was cancelled by the Mayor with a few hours notice. CVA Ref VPD-S181

When ex-servicemen arrived at the school for their evening meeting, WEL leadership read aloud the City’s letter stating that the meeting would be cancelled. At this time, mounted police arrived and began brutally assaulting WEL members with fists and clubs. Affidavit testimonials of the repression and police violence are harrowing. The attack on the crowd was sudden and unannounced, with officers swinging clubs and loudly cursing at members of the crowd. In a chilling testimonial, one member recounts: “…instantly a squad of Mounted Police Officers charged through the crowd, clubbing over the head every man who could not get out of their way, at the same time using such expressions as, ‘Run you degenerated Sons of Bitches, Dirty Bums and Bastards.’”11

On the ground, this was a conflict between starving workers and comfortable police, or in the words of the WEL: “overfed Police…let loose with curses and clubs.”12 In the bigger picture this was a class conflict between the bourgeois state and resistant masses. Later, Mayor Taylor claimed he had directed police not to use their clubs, but the damage was already done.

Flu, disease, and biopolitical control 

The strategy of naked police repression to displace the unwanted was matched with a subtler strategy to weaponize medical power in a language of public health. As today, when threats of COVID-19, E-coli and “shigella” are used to justify mass evictions of tent cities (irrespective of the fact that people do not have anywhere else to go and are likely at greater risk of contracting illness or disease if forced to disperse), public health was a key tool in the state’s arsenal to displace and disperse.

In the 1930’s this mode of “biopolitical” control essentially meant invoking public health as a more neutral and scientific cover for property-owning interests in Strathcona and underlying policies of white supremacy. This process had already reared its head in Strathcona in previous decades, with Chinese residents facing down new forms of discriminatory power during the flu pandemic in 1919.13 At the time, Chinatown and the Chinese community were simultaneously contained and attacked, designated as “reservoirs of disease,” as Mary Ellen Kelm points out in her study on the flu pandemic in British Columbia in 1918-1919.14

Chinatown and Strathcona were consistently framed in pathological terms as a place of deteriorating health and “degenerate” bodies. This discourse provided a basic justification for both invasion and repression, but also public health neglect and segregation. Throughout the 1930s, the state’s raids against places of working-class survival intensified, including encampments, hospitals, residences, brothels, and rooming houses.15 In response to this repression and to worsening conditions of unemployment, a growing counter-power took shape in what we may call subaltern Strathcona.

Subaltern Strathcona

Mother’s Day, 1935. March from Cambie Grounds to Stanley Park (See Irene Howard, Ibid. p. 263)

By the 1930s, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews descended from across Eastern Europe, and Slavic people of all nationalities were entering a universe of East Vancouver socialist and Communist community, political organization, and daily life. The Strathcona of the 1930s and 40s was made up of people like the well-known Bezubiak and the Polowy families from Ukraine, who participated in the May Day rallies, linked arms with the Communists, and immersed themselves in the anti-fascist politics of the neighborhood.16 Throughout the 1930s the Ukrainian Hall (Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association) played an important role in the class politics of the city, providing political education, mutual aid, and self-help for the Ukrainian community. As one worker put it, “we knew we needed a meeting place for mutual support. There was no welfare or social services – we had to do it for ourselves.”17

By the middle of the 1930s the demand to close the relief camps had grown undeniably strong. After the government conceded in 1937 and announced the closure of the camps, no genuine transition plan was made and thousands of unemployed workers were forced into deepening poverty. Communists organized the unemployed into different sections to carry out various survival activities like “tin-canning” (organized begging) but when the city banned tin-canning, the movement was further emboldened in its demands. On May 20, 1938, around 1,200 unemployed workers occupied the Georgia Hotel, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Vancouver Post Office.18 A Women’s Emergency Committee was formed out of Strathcona’s Ukrainian Hall to help build support for the Post Office sit-down strike.19 The occupations at the Art Gallery and the Post Office lasted for five weeks, until state repression was unleashed during “Bloody Sunday” on June 19th. The actions of the Women’s Emergency Committee would be one of their last acts of political solidarity before the Ukrainian Hall was seized by the government in 1940 under the War Measures Act.20

Unemployed sit-down strike at the post office (1938), City of Vancouver Archives, Ref: AM1576-S6-12-F12-: 2011-010.1891

When city planners surveyed Strathcona in the 1940s, they described not only a biopolitical threat to public health, but also an insurgent social threat. It was clear that the propertyless were continuing to organize after WWII, and that their self-organization would continue to come under assault much like the previous generation of unemployed workers evicted from the “jungles.” Often this threat was reframed in euphemistic terms of urban criminality and delinquency, and in technocratic jargon as an area “badly in need of rationalization.”21 It was an area of “crime, delinquency and vice,” as one politician described it at the time, and an area whose very existence posed a threat to Vancouver’s bourgeois legal order.22

Police removing man from building, Post Office sit-in (1938), CVA, Ref: AM1576-S6-12-F47-: 2011-010.1695

In addition to its expression as colonial, anti-Black, and anti-Asian racism, this medico-biopolitical characterization of Strathcona was also racialized in its reference to Jews, “Slavs,” and other European immigrants who had not yet been fully integrated into the “caucasian” race at this moment in history.23 The attempt to “drain the swamp” of urban rebellion in Strathcona was inseparable from the Canadian project of white supremacy. The effort to build “white Canada forever” remained a clear goal of planners, politicians, and property owners across Vancouver.24

In reading the history of a neighborhood, references to “crime” and “irrationality” must be peeled back – their true meaning is something closer to the political intelligence of a class in revolt. When postwar Canada launched its political attack on Communism, it also extended into a cultural politics of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism, expressed as “WASP” anxieties about cultural Bolshevization. These dovetailed with wider imperatives of colonialism, white supremacy, and Canadian nation-building in Vancouver.  

This quasi-racial element was always inseparable from the class aspect and was often a way of flattening or coding an explicit class project and replacing it with a more amorphous framing, in the form of a fear-mongering and moral panic about contaminated “others” and a “criminal” underclass who did not respect the allegedly democratic order.25 New strategies of class containment were necessary in this evolving conjuncture. What followed was the Marsh Plan in the 1940s.

Marsh Plan and Popular Insurrection, or, Planning Against Communism

After WWII, workers organized locally in the face of chronic poor-quality housing, low vacancy, and a systemic lack of affordable housing options in Vancouver. Tenants came together spontaneously and in formal organizations of the Communist and non-Communist left over the course of the 1940s. These organizing efforts included the 5,000 Homes Now! campaign, a coalition of over 50 organizations based in Vancouver. The campaign was in large part organized by Communist activists, who at the time were active under the umbrella of the Labour Progressive Party (LPP).26 LPP members helped build broad support for the campaign through direct and militant tactics that drew the disapproval of the established Left and other moderate forces. Direct action became an important strategy for the movement, in particular the numerous emergency picket lines at sites of new evictions.27

Throughout this period, state authorities responded to the housing crisis reluctantly but with increasing levels of urgency. The private housing market was not meeting the basic housing needs of a massive number of people. In turn, this failure was seen by planners as a source of subaltern revolt, and hence as a threat to the liberal order both in its repressive-policing and parliamentary-democratic institutions. Planners and elites began to genuinely feel their power being put into question and feared that events like the occupation of Hotel Vancouver were part of a “public insurrection.”28

To make matters worse, this local threat was, in the eyes of elites, paired with the international bogeyman of Communism. It was in this context that the Marsh Plan was born. In the electoral sphere the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), the more left-leaning equivalent of today’s NDP, was also polling at record levels in the years immediately after the war.

“Suggested plan for the redevelopment of the twenty-seven blocks in East Vancouver [Strathcona] as a modern neighborhood,” Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery Bulletin, front cover (September 1945)

Marsh was a social democrat influenced by the economic ideas of Keynes, who believed that state planning was a means to both relieve the hardship of working-class communities and manage the political crisis of capitalist inequality. Uprisings like the occupation of the Hotel Vancouver in 1946 were an urgent reminder to planners and politicians that the class politics of the 1930s had in no way been left behind or superseded by the war.29 With the mounting strength of labor and with the Soviet Union playing a central role in the defeat of the Axis powers, the anti-Communist lesson was newly written into the consciousness of Canadian liberals: provide a bare minimum of social welfare or face upheaval.

The construction of mass housing and the planned regulation of the private housing market were introduced as responses to this threat, and Marsh was explicit about the reactive aspect of postwar reconstruction. As he said in a talk delivered to the CBC in 1958, “democratic national planning is the strongest of all bulwarks against Communism.”30 Without the looming threat of Communism, it would be impossible to understand the Marsh Plan. 

Soon these imperatives of anti-communist planning would more fully merge with a politics of anti-Black slum clearance at Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s only black neighborhood. The Marsh Plan would serve as a guide for the postwar state to carry out slum clearance and “urban renewal” in Strathcona, which included the demolition of Hogan’s Alley between 1967 and 1971. Urban renewal would also continue to fuse with a wider politics of colonial urban resettlement and segregation across Vancouver, drawing deeply on a project of white supremacy inherent in the “Canadian” nation-building project. Part II of this essay will discuss the politics of displacement in Strathcona and Hogan’s Alley, but also the fierce resistance on the part of Black and Chinese communities. These events were followed by decades of continued Black, Indigenous, and working-class resistance right up until the present, revealed in the strong communities who fought back – but were eventually uprooted – at Strathcona Park this past April.


Thank you to the archivists at the City of Vancouver Archives, and thanks to Sasha Bondartchouk for transcription assistance. Also thank you to Caitlin Shane, Vince Tao, Byron Peters, Andrew Witt, Andrei Mihailiuk, and Maria Wallstam for reading versions of this essay, all possible errors remain my own. 

[1] Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber, A Sign for the City (Vancouver: City of Vancouver Public Art Program, 2012), unpaginated, see entry for September 4

[2] Jill Wade, Houses for All: The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-50 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994) pp. 44-45

[3] Today’s demarcation of a deserving and undeserving poor was clearly already being put in motion by the early part of the century. See Jesse Proudfoot, “The derelict, the deserving poor, and the lumpen: A history of the politics of representation in the Downtown Eastside,” in Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2011), pp. 88-105

[4] Hal Griffin and Sean Griffin, Fighting Heritage: Highlights of the 1930s struggle for jobs and militant unionism in British Columbia, Ed. Sean Griffin (Vancouver: Tribune Publishing, 1985); Mark Leier, Where the Fraser River Flows: The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star, 1990)

[5] Irene Howard, “The Mothers’ Council of Vancouver: Holding the Fort for the Unemployed, 1935-1938,” BC Studies No. 69/70 (Spring/Summer 1986) p. 278; See also Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, Eds. Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter, Sound Heritage Vol. VIII, Nos. 1 & 2 (1979) pp. 134

[6] Statement of the WEL Central Committee (September 28, 1933), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[7] WEL letter to Vancouver City Council (December 4, 1933), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[8] C. Willmott Maddison letter to Oscar Orr (November 20, 1033), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[9] See “Comrades! Wake Up!,” WEL statement (September 28, 1933), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[10] “Statement of F. Fox, T.R. Casey, and G.E. Laycock” (see p. 5), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[11] Statement of T.R. Casey (p. 7), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[12] WEL letter to Vancouver City Council (November 16, 1933), CVA Archives Ref VPD-S181

[13] Ellen Scheinberg, “Battling both Racial Persecution and the Flu Pandemic: The Chinese Community of Strathcona, Vancouver” (Defining Moments, 2018)

[14] Mary Ellen Kelm, “Flu Stories: Engaging with Disease, Death and Modernity in British Columbia, 1918-1919,” in Epidemic Encounters: New Interpretations of Pandemic Influenza in Canada, 1918-1920, Eds. Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), pp. 167-192

[15] As Ellen Scheinberg points out, the Chinese community in Chinatown and Strathcona faced two pandemics in 1919: both the outbreak of the Spanish flu, but also an outbreak of state repression against the Chinese community and its neighborhood infrastructure, including repeated police raids against its hospital on East Pender Street.

[16] Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, Eds. Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter, Sound Heritage Vol. VIII, Nos. 1 & 2 (1979) pp. 132-138

[17] Vancouver Moving Theatre, Bread & Salt: A tribute to the East End’s historic Ukrainian Community (Vancouver: DTES Heart of the City Festival, Vancouver Moving Theatre & Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, 2013) p. 21

[18] “Fighting for Labour: Four Decades of Work in British Columbia, 1910-1950,” Sound Heritage, Vol. VII, No. 4 (Victoria: Aural History Program, 1978) p. 49

[19] Vancouver Moving Theatre, Bread & Salt (Ibid.) p. 29

[20] Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End (Ibid.) p. 134

[21] Leonard Marsh cited in Kate Murray, Seriality and Invitation: Knowing and Struggle in Vancouver Chinatown’s Historic Area Height Review, PhD Thesis, University of British Columbia (2007) p. 231

[22] Kate Murray, Seriality and Invitation (Ibid.) p. 231

[23] Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006)

[24] W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Towards Orientals in British Columbia (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978)

[25] More accurately, the discourse on race was often permeated with moments of class and vice versa As Stuart Hall put it, “[race is] the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced.” Stuart Hall, “Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance,” in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, Ed. United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Paris: UNESCO, 1980) pp. 305–345

[26] Jill Wade, Citizens in Action: Local Activism and National Housing Programs, Vancouver, 1919-1950, PhD Dissertation, Simon Fraser University (September 1991) p. 315

[27] Jill Wade, Citizens in Action (Ibid.) p. 308

[28] Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, The New Spirit (Ibid.) p. 184 (f.n. 68)

[29] Jill Wade, “A Palace for the Public: Housing Reform and the 1946 Occupation of the Old Hotel Vancouver,” BC Studies No. 69/70 (Spring/Summer 1986)

[30] Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, The New Spirit (Ibid.) p. 64