Tag Archives: graphic history collective

Land, Labour, and Loss: A Story of Struggle & Survival at the Burrard Inlet

By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.


Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them.

So when I read “Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet,” from the Graphic History Project, my first thought was, “This will totally appeal to young people.”
Working on the Water
Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet
Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton
Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation)
To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles)
More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History Collective website.

Art has a way of connecting us to ideas, or, in this case, a time in Indigenous (and Canadian) history recognized or known by few. Writer and illustrator Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) uses relief print panels in captivating black-and-white to draw out a nonfiction narrative of economic survival. The comic was co-written by Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton with the Graphic History Collective.

On her blog, Willard says, “… [T]his work will tell the story of Indigenous [longshoring] on Burrard Inlet and how early labour organizing by Indigenous people [helped] to support the wider land struggle against colonization and capitalism.”

A quick geography lesson from the comic: Burrard Inlet connects the traditional territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s in area perfect for hunting and fishing, and easy-access resource exploitation.

working on the water1

The narrative itself is straightforward, and easy enough for elementary-aged readers to comprehend: Colonizers came in, territory was acquired, resources were identified, brief working relationships were achieved until guaranteed unfairness ensued, Indigenous people protested, protests were squashed by excessive force and bullying, and a legacy of underemployment began.

For context, it’s important to note the labour environment in modern times. Quick summary: It’s not good.

According to the Canadian Labour Program, workforce disparities for Aboriginal people include an over-representation in low-skilled occupations, and under-representation in managerial and professional occupations, according to the latest statistics. At 18 percent, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginals is three times the rate for non-Aboriginals; comparatively, the employment rate is just 48 percent among Aboriginals. If that weren’t bad enough, the wage gap continues to widen between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal full-time workers; the latest numbers show Aboriginals make 73 percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts’ incomes ($37,356 to $51,505). Dismal.

The government attributes this gap to lower educational attainment for Aboriginal people. Using that logic, the government itself is then responsible. Consider the history of oppression faced by Canada’s indigenous populations, in particular the education system dedicated to first wiping out Aboriginal children in boarding schools and then inadequately teaching (or simply refusing to teach) Aboriginal history, accomplishment, and impact on modern-day Canada in school curricula. In this light, one sees clearly the role and connection the government and its policies played in the contemporary Aboriginal workforce outlook.

But Willard’s comic flows matter-of-factly through basic labour moments from the mid-1800s through the 1920s and early 1930s and stops there, although the last panel notes how longshoremen continue to work the inlet today. The bulk of the narrative discusses how Indigenous workers unionized themselves to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, when the highly skilled Indigenous longshoremen went on strike in 1918 to earn 5 cents an hour more, non-Indigenous workers swept in and took those jobs, which left the tribal people of the inlet in desperate situations.

working on the water 3

I appreciate that the text isn’t pumped full of stylized drama. It’s very, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In an era where much of what non-indigenous people know about us is less fact, and more fantasy, the no-nonsense style of writing rings with authenticity, and is a breath of fresh air from shape shifters or mutants.

Reading as an outsider, the story Willard is telling feels unfinished, and perhaps that’s purposeful. However, the title (‘Fighting for the Land’) leads readers to believe there will be some sort of reclamation (or attempts, anyway) by the longshoremen or tribal communities. Outside of “processing ancient timbers,” there isn’t really anything land-based happening.

Regardless, the lino-cut drawings are the star of this show, and I went back over the panels again and again, because previously missed camouflaged images and symbols kept swimming to the surface with each pass. With Indigenous history – and ours being a history traditionally told through stories, not written words – perhaps this is the point.

A quote from Willard made during an unrelated interview 10 years ago addresses this: “I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”

The comic is part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles (to be published in 2016), which will focus on Canadian labour history. star

working on the water_final



Interview from the makers of MAYDAY: A Graphic History

“The work we do defines how we live, and how we fit into society.” That’s the first sentence in MAYDAY:  A Graphic History, recently re-published by Between The Lines Press for the group known as the Graphic History Collective. To me, the depth in that simple statement speaks volumes. It’s on the first page of the book, but it’s probably my favourite panel.

MAYDAY is an entry-level look at labour history, and as such is more P.S.A than prose. I’m pleased to be able to share this interview with Sean and Robin of The GHC about this project. In it I feel they’ve offered some important insight on how politics and history can be simplified without being dumbed down… the trials of indie comic book publishing, and the ongoing importance of a political holiday that began with blood more than a century ago.

NMG) I like the way that Graphic History highlights the importance that Mayday has had for working people through the ages, and its transformation from a seasonal/cultural holiday to a socio-political holiday. From your research, when were the earliest expressions of Mayday in relation to labour contracts?

“May Day as a day of celebration for honouring the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring has roots in pre-capitalist traditions. May Pole dancing is perhaps the most familiar expression, but celebrations of this seasonal change also appear in many Indigenous cultures around this date, although “May” was not used to as a term to define time. However, as capitalism began to emerge as a mode of production, the first of May also became the day for renewing contracts in some areas. This possibly could be identified as the real emergence of a relationship between May Day and labour contracts, but the more recognized starting point for May Day as a day of worker resistance, renewal, and protest is generally talked about later, in relation to the fight for the 8-hour working day and the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Out of that grew the 1889 declaration for May 1st to be recognized as an international day for workers (Blogger’s note: This was made by the Second International, a pre-union federation of workers from some 20 countries). Since then, celebrations continue, in different forms and in different contexts, but consciously linked to identities as workers.” 

NMG) How long did this take, from beginning to end?

“The project happened in stages, sometimes with long lapses in time going by without too much progress. It was a side project for all of us, and we worked on it when we could. Research began in 2006, but things really started to come together in 2008-09. We self-published for May 1, 2009, did another print-run in 2010, and then worked with Between the Lines Press for the most recent release in 2012.”

NMG) How are you drawn to history, and what makes the graphic experience of history interesting to you? (This is sort of that essential “Why history? Why comics? Why politics?” type question.)

(Sean) “I have always followed and enjoyed comics; however, when I first read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale in the early 2000s I realized that the genre was capable of so much more. I started following the graphic novel phenomenon more closely and found that there were many politically minded projects out there (Persepolis and A People’s History of American Empire were two very influential ones.) For me, political graphic novels are appealing because they are visually appealing and yet are very accessible and quick to read. Not everyone can sit down on a rainy afternoon and finish Marx’s Capital, but they can get through May Day: A Graphic History of Protest and a few other novels and get that itch to do something personally about the injustice in the world.” 

(Robin) “The history I usually find most inspiring wasn’t part of what I learned when I was younger. Once I began to study history seriously–and moved to a larger area where there were bookstores and bigger libraries–I had the opportunity to more critically engage with ideas. I realized a lot of what I had thought true was actually limited in scope and that the stories were always much more complex.

“This myth-busting component of history really appeals to me, and carries over into my interest in politics. The two are very much linked, and the past is frequently referenced to make political points in the present. History is used as a means to define or shape identity, which in turn influences decision-making processes in many ways.

“All of the Collective members engage in our own separate projects that explore history, politics, and education, and enjoy experimenting with new ways to translate big ideas into smaller chunks of information. Reading detailed, in-depth studies and essays do serve a purpose. Songs, posters, poetry, plays, films, and of course, comics, also serve a purpose and can be used to share information and spark interest in a topic. Comics are also great because of the flexibility and wide range of options that are available for the visual side. I love comics that layer narratives through the text and visuals, particularly when there are story details hidden in the images. These hidden gems compel me to read and re-read comics, historically-focused or otherwise.”

NMG) The larger audience outside of comix culture has been pretty slow in realizing that comics aren’t “just for kids”. Most comics written and published today are for the 20 – 35yr old crowd. Who is MAYDAY’s intended audience? Were you picturing a particular readership when you were writing/drawing?

“Over the past few years an increasing number of scholars, librarians, educators, and youth have started to make the case that comics can be used as teaching tools, and this idea is something that speaks to all of us. We wrote and illustrated the comic influenced and inspired by the growing numbers of really great comics out there. In our own project, we are hoping to appeal to a number of different communities. The comic will likely appeal more to those who know little about the history of this day; it is more of a general overview than a deeply detailed analysis.”

NMG) How did you create this comic as a collective? What was the division of labour? Did one person research while another wrote – or did everyone research? How did the writers contribute to the graphics? etc….

“Creating the graphic history unfolded in many stages and the boundaries of labour were fairly blurry. Robin, Mark, and another researcher, Jeremey Milloy, originally spearheaded the research and drafting. Robin continued on with the drafting of scripts and coordination and then Sean came on to help with writing and editing. From there the three of us, with Sam and Trevor’s suggestions and guidance, wrote and finalized the “script.” At different times, we each took on some of the other work–tracking down graphic designers, making choices about printing and costs, coordinating our launch party, for example–depending on our paid work load and familiarity with the task at hand. We’ve all learned a bit more about that “behind the scenes” work and it has been useful elsewhere in our lives.”

NMG) I’ve recently seen postings by the Collective to collaborate with readers and followers on other historical events. Can you say a little about the ideas and aspirations of any future projects right now?

“We are currently embarking on a new project with Professor Paul Buhle, who has an impressive level of involvement in documenting political graphic histories. Our intention is to create a new “Graphic History Project” which would bring together all those people interested in radical graphic histories and help promote them and the medium at the same time. We are still calling for submissions to the project and the deadline is 21 November 2012.”

“Full details as well as an example of what we are looking for is up on our website.”

For more information about MAYDAY: A Graphic History, the GH Collective, or their call-out, please visit their blog:


(And one final Blogger’s Note: There is, in fact, a comic book version of Marx’s Capital that I’ve yet to read–but if you’re interested, you can find more information about it here. I hope there are speed lines used to depict workers’ alienation towards capitalist production, in true Manga fashion…)