an introduction


I’m a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Department of History at York University. I hope to use this website as a means of sharing my research as well as some of my other projects.

My dissertation, which is tentatively entitled ““Natural Allies”: A History of Organized Labour’s Relationship with Gay and Lesbian Movements in Ontario, 1945-2000″ examines the ways in which gay and lesbian movements in Ontario integrated organized labour into their strategies. It also explores the working-lives of post-war gay and lesbian workers and the strategies used to cope with workplace discrimination and maintain their livelihoods.

I hope to use this site to highlight some of my research and writing, as well as any pictures or ideas I come across in the process of completing my doctoral studies.

Carrying Sisyphus’ Stone: Operation Outreach and the Mobilization of Queer Communities in Northern Ontario

This past March, I had the pleasure to be invited by the Société historique du nouvel-Ontario (SHNO) to give a research talk. Although at first I had the intention to talk about my research on lesbian and gay rights and unions in northern Ontario, because my research deals so little with this region, and because I was busy in the lead-up to the CUPE 3903 strike at York University, I decided instead to focus my talk on a campaign in 1980 to mobilize queer communities in northern Ontario, called Operation Outreach. Below is a translation of the talk I gave in Sudbury (with a few minor changes). The talk was originally titled “Au travail et dans la communauté : les droits des gais et lesbiennes, les syndicats et les communautés nord-ontariennes,” but given the focus on Operation Outreach, I am presenting it here with a new title.

la version originale en français est disponible ici

Continue reading “Carrying Sisyphus’ Stone: Operation Outreach and the Mobilization of Queer Communities in Northern Ontario”

Tenir le rocher de Sisyphe en place: L’Operation Outreach et la mobilisation des communautés gais et lesbiennes dans le nord ontarien

Au mois de mars dernier, j’avais le plaisir d’être invité par la Société historique du nouvel-Ontario (SHNO) afin de pouvoir présenter une partie de ma recherche. Au début, j’avais entièrement l’intention de parler de la relation entre les syndicats et les mouvements gais et lesbiennes du nord, mais comme ma recherche touche très peu sur cette région, et comme les mois précédent la présentation étaient en partie occupée par la préparation pour la grève du SCFP 3903 à l’Université York, j’avais décidé au-lieu de me concentrer sur un événement particulier qui avait eu lieu en 1980 : l’Operation Outreach. Ci-dessous, vous trouverez le texte de ma présentation (avec quelques petites corrections). Le présentation avait originalement comme titre « Au travail et dans la communauté : les droits des gais et lesbiennes, les syndicats et les communautés nord-ontariennes, » mais étant donnée de la concentration sur l’Operation Outreach, je vous la présente ici avec un nouveau titre.

An english-language version of this text is available here.

Continue reading “Tenir le rocher de Sisyphe en place: L’Operation Outreach et la mobilisation des communautés gais et lesbiennes dans le nord ontarien”

CUPE 3903 and the Failure of Top-Down Mobilization

Picket sign with slogan “Strike To Win!” (Photo by author)

As many of you may know, CUPE 3903, the union representing Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Contract Faculty at York University (a union of which I am a member) recently concluded a successful strike. Our month-long strike ran from March 3rd until March 30th, and ended with the ratification of a contract that met virtually all of our major demands.

The strike was a tense and emotional event, and we all went through our share of ups and downs. With the strike over, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to reflect on what I feel were important moments in the months leading up to and during the strike. In particular, I want to discuss some of the divisions that have been present in 3903, and that I believe played an important role in shaping events surrounding the strike.

Although some of the disagreements and debates that have occurred between members on both sides of this divide over the past year have been personal and unproductive, the nature of these divisions are not personal. Rather, what we have are two fundamentally differing visions of how the union should function. On one hand, we have active components of the rank-and-file that believe in, and advocate for, a union that operates from the bottom-up and is driven by its membership. On the other hand, there are those who last year ran in the union’s elections on a slate called “Union Renewal,” and that have served on the executive during the past year, that seem to favour a more top-down approach to union organizing in which the leadership exists not to follow directions from the membership, but to direct them instead.

I want to talk a bit about these competing divisions and some of the ways in which the top-down approach of the slate members of the executive and their supporters (many of which are currently running for the Better Union slate) has manifested itself over the past year. I’ll do this by referring to three events that I feel best reflect their mode of organizing. The first are events that occurred during a December 2014 meeting held to decide on a timeline on the strike vote and potential strike, a meeting that was stacked by the executive in order to ensure that the vote went their way. I will then discuss how the slate-dominated executive’s mode of organizing failed during the strike, allowing membership-driven unionism to prevail and win the strike. Much more could be written about the internal politics of CUPE 3903, but I will leave the rest to be written by someone with a lot more time on their hands.

This analysis is largely based on my own experiences. My hope is that it will make a worthwhile contribution to the post-strike analysis of the events leading up to and during the strike of March 2015. Contributions and/or disagreements are more than welcome!

Continue reading “CUPE 3903 and the Failure of Top-Down Mobilization”

In Memoriam: Leslie Dickirson, 1922-2014

One of the benefits of researching the recent past is that I get to meet some of the people in the events that I write about. Through the course of my research, I’ve met dozens of people who were (and often are still) involved in the lesbian, gay, and labour movements. Meeting people, either in person, over the phone or on skype, is always a pleasure and one of my favourite of my research. However, sometimes there are also people that you would love to meet and discuss but, for whatever reason, never have the opportunity to meet. Les Dickirson was one of those people.

I’ve never met Les, but he figures pretty prominently in my research. He was the chair of UAW local 195’s human rights committee in the 1970s, and pushed his local to include sexual orientation protection in their collective agreement as early as 1974. He was ahead of his time in that regard.

Leslie Dickirson (centre)receiving the 2007 Charles E. Brooks Labour Service Community Award (source: The Guardian, December 2007)

Leslie Dickirson (centre)receiving the 2007 Charles E. Brooks Labour Service Community Award (source: The Guardian, December 2007)

Local 195 was (and is) a composite local, made up of several different workplaces (Units), each with their own contract. In the 1970s, when Les and UAW 195’s Human Rights Committee recommended that sexual orientation protection be included in its contracts, it had about 60 or so different units. This meant convincing 60 separate Units to fight for the same amendment at a time when same-sex sexuality was not only widely misunderstood, but often loathed. Getting each of them to include “sexual orientation” in their no discrimination clauses would be a tough sell, especially considering that a number of them didn’t even have anti-discrimination language in the first place. Still, Les and his co-workers were able to make progress, not only in getting a number of the local’s Units to include sexual orientation protection, but also in creating a friendlier and less homophobic workplace culture and union. In a letter written to a friend in 1980, he wrote about the progress that they were making in these regards. He wrote: “I’m glad that the subject is now one that we can talk and laugh about in such an open manner. It wasn’t that easy a few years ago when I first introduced the subject.”

I did try to get in touch with him to see if he would participate in an interview. Another person I interviewed gave me Les’ contact information (with Les’ permission, of course), so I gave him a call. I was told that he had been in and out of the hospital, so I didn’t get my hopes up. When I called, there was no answer. I got the machine and left a message. Unfortunately I never heard back from Les, so I missed out the chance to speak to him. It’s a shame that his voice won’t be as present in my research as I would have liked, but I guess that his ultimate legacy lies in the results that came out of the work that he did in both his local and in his community.

Leslie Dickirson. 1922-2014

Publication: “Arbitrating Class and Gender: Working-Class Women and Labour Arbitration in Tourcoing, 1848-1894”

I received a nice surprise when I arrived home last night. Propped up next to my door was a box containing my copy of a new book by Ashgate Publishing containing an article of mine.

women in law
The book, Women in Law and Lawmaking in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Eva Schandevyl, is a collection of articles exploring “the recent feminisation of justice, its historical beginnings and the impact of gendered constructions on jurisprudence.” My contribution to the volume is an article based on my Master’s thesis. The article, titled “Arbitrating Class and Gender: Working-Class Women and Labour Arbitration in Tourcoing, 1848-1894,” examines the impacts of an 1848 reform that allowed male workers to elect and run to serve as representatives to the French labour arbitration boards known as the conseils des prud’hommes. The prud’hommes were essentially local arbitration boards first created in 1806 to provide France’s workers and employers with a means of settling minor workplace disputes through conciliation rather than resorting to collective action. Although women were not allowed to elect or run for positions on the board, they could access its services as plaintiffs or defendants. My chapter examines how the presence of male workers on the prud’hommes affected its rulings in cases concerning female workers. The article is a much shorter, more condensed version of my Master’s thesis, which I successfully defended in 2009 at the University of Ottawa.

This is my first publication, and working with Dr. Schandevyl on this project was a pleasure. For more information on the book, visit Ashgate Publishing’s website.

Research highlights (and lowlights)

My favourite part of being an historian is doing research. In addition to the excitement of finding something that might be key to my project, there’s always a chance that conducting research in the archives and libraries will turn up some gems that, while completely unrelated to my work, are nonetheless fascinating (and sometimes hilarious). In all of the years that I’ve been going through old records and publications (I do post-WWII history, so not that old), I’ve come across some pretty interesting research finds, some of which I thought were worth sharing. Here are four of the highlights (or lowlights) that I found in the course of conducting research (citations included wherever possible):

Sunday Dancing…the Horror!

Sunday Dancing

In March 1950, a group of Oshawa teens were cited with violating the Lord’s Day Act by not only operating on Sunday, but by committing the unforgiveable sin of hosting a dance on the day of rest! Although this article struck me as a hilarious example of outdated prudish behaviour, the recent and ongoing controversy in Toronto overelectronic dance concerts might suggest otherwise. (Toronto Star, March 31, 1950)

Snow Balls Against Police Brutality!


I wasn’t sure what to make of this ad for government annuities that I found in an issue of the PIPSC (Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada) newsletter from the 1950s. A grown man who joined a group of kids in a snow ball fight, only to miss his mark and instead hit what appears to be a police officer (or, as a friend suggested, the Maytag repairman). Was there a subversive anti-police message behind the ad, or was it meant to imply that buying government annuities would improve one’s aim? I’d like to think it was the former, but given the political conservatism of the labour movement in this period, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Spanking as Workplace Discipline


I had the pleasure of looking through old issues of Justice Weekly, a Toronto-based tabloid that ran from 1946 until 1973. Some of the headlines were funny, some were depressing, and a lot of them were racist. Out of the countless ridiculous stories and headlines, this one stood out more than any other. In the early 1950s, the newspaper ran a series of articles, editorials, and letters about the value of spanking children. I skimmed through them all, but this headline caught my attention. It was a letter from a woman who recounted her experience as a clerical worker in an office during the Depression. The woman admitted that she had stolen a small number of office supplies from her employer. When her employer caught her, she pleaded for her job. As Katrina Srigley demonstrated in her book Breadwinning Daughters, during the Depression, daughter often became the sole breadwinners for families whose parents could not find work. Given this reality, it isn’t surprising that the woman here would plead so adamantly for her job.

According to the author of the letter, her employer took pity on her, and rather than dismiss her or alert the police to the theft, he decided that the best way to discipline his employee was to bring her into a back room and spank her. Yes, you read that right. Today, any employer that used this type of discipline would be buying themselves a one-way ticket to sexual harassment and assault charges. However, as the headline suggests, this wasn’t the case on this occasion. Rather than accusing her employer of assault, the woman in question expressed gratitude that he let her off so lightly. The entire episode was strange and I was tempted to write it off as just another example of how attitudes change over time, but given the fact that so many young women acted as the sole or main breadwinners in this period, I couldn’t help but wonder if her relief at being subjected to this demeaning form of discipline was caused by the thought of what might have happened to her or her family had she been fired. It also raises the possibility that her employer exploited her vulnerability for sexual purposes. (I unfortunately did not write down the citation, but memory serves me right, it was published in 1949 or 1950).

Class Conflict

guardian comics

These cartoons from The Guardian, the newspaper of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Windsor, Ontario, are two of my favourites. They’re direct and they demonstrate a kind of combativeness and class antagonism that we don’t find in many labour publications anymore. (Right: November 1975; Left: October 1978)

Speaking Event: “A Defining Moment for Gay and Lesbian Activism: Toronto in the 1970s”

Gay Picnic picture (Part of the first Pride Week events): Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, Toronto Gay Action, Vertical File (c. 1972).

Gay Picnic, c. 1972. (Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, Toronto Gay Action, Vertical File)

On June 10th, I will be joining Tom Hooper, a colleague of mine from York University, to give a joint talk at the North York Central Library on the history of lesbian and gay activism in Toronto in the 1970s. Our talk will focus on the concept of gay liberation and its relation to the gay and lesbian movement for human rights. In my portion of the talk, I will be highlighting some of my research on lesbian and gay activism within the labour movement, particularly within the unions representing workers in Toronto libraries.

This will be my first opportunity to present my work in a non-academic setting and I’m looking forward to it.

The North York Central Library is located at 5120 Yonge St. (Click here for directions). The event begins at 7pm and is free.

Click here for more details about the event.

POSTER: “A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario”

This past week, I presented a poster at the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) 2014 meeting. The experience of presenting my research through a poster rather than an oral presentation was certainly an interesting one. Although preparing a visual medium through which I could present my research was definitely a challenge, having the opportunity to interact more closely with an interested public made the experience a rewarding one. In many ways, I think I preferred the experience to an oral presentation. Whereas presenting on a panel might usually allow three or four presenters to share fifteen minutes of questions and answers, a two hour poster presentation provided me with the opportunity to have much more in-depth and detailed discussions about my research with the people in attendance. Although I have always appreciated the questions and feedback I’ve received at panel presentations in the past, I found that the quality and depth of the feedback I received at the poster presentation was much greater, which made it an overall more worthwhile exercise. The poster presentations are relatively new to the CHA, and I applaud them for integrating this medium into their annual meeting.

From the moment my poster was accepted into the conference, my intention had always been to make it accessible to the public through this website. I’ve included it below in three formats. The image you see below is a JPG (click to enlarge). Also included below is a PDF version of the poster, as well as a Word document containing the text from the poster, which I handed out at the session.

A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario

A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario

(Click here for PDF version of the poster)
(Click here for Microsoft Word version of text from the poster)

Dallas Buyers Club, HIV/AIDS, and Harm Reduction

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. 2013.

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. 2013.

I had initially posted this next entry as a longer than expected comment on facebook. As it turns out, a few friends and friends-of-friends ended up sharing it, which is more than I expected to happen with an early morning rambling. Because it seems to have gotten a bit of interest, and because it was informed by my research, I decided to put it up here as well (with a few minor changes).

I watched Dallas Buyers Club last night (a bit late to the game, I know). It got me to thinking about a three-hour interview I did for my dissertation. It was with a gay activist who has been involved in gay activism since the early 1970s. Even though he’s lived through a lot of stuff, he stayed pretty positive throughout our entire discussion. The one time when he got visibly upset was when we talked about AIDS. I knew that a lot of people had died, but I didn’t really get a sense of the pain and anger that some of the people who lived through went through. An eye-opening moment was when he told that in one year, 1987, he went to 26 funerals of friends that had died as a result of AIDS. That’s one funeral every two weeks. I don’t think any of us can relate to what losing 26 friends in the space of one year can do to us.

It also reminded me of another interview I did with an AIDS activist. I asked her if she remembered people losing their jobs as a result of being diagnosed as HIV positive. She answered by saying that “when I started doing AIDS work, people who were in hospitals were not even being fed.” Some doctors and nurses refused to be in the same room as people with AIDS, for fear that they would get sick themselves. So when friends and activists would visit the hospital, they would have to do everything for their friends: feed them, fix their sheets, clean them, and even change diapers that had been soiled for hours because nurses and doctors refused to help. “So, yeah” she said, “Lose your job? How about you’d almost die in the hospital from lack of care.”

I knew that it was bad. People got sick. People died. A lot of people got sick and died. However, before speaking to people that survived a plague (to borrow a phrase by AIDS activists), I had no idea exactly what it was like. How could I? When I was a kid, HIV and AIDS were just things that made you wear a condom. HIV and AIDS were what made me ask my mom what a condom was and why you had to wear one (which is the question that led to “The Talk”). It was something that people I didn’t know died from. It was an abstract. Meeting people who lived through it and watched as dozens of their friends died while governments either ignored them or messed around with potentially life-saving drugs because, who cares if a bunch of fags and junkies die, right?

I was also reminded of the kind of discourse that is used today against harm reduction initiatives, such as safe injection sites, as well as needle and crack pipe distribution services. Studies conducted on the impacts of these types of services have proven, time and time again, that they save lives. Despite these results, people and government still oppose them because the people they serve are drug addicts. Like the communities afflicted by HIV/AIDS, they’re often deemed to be less than worthy of support and help that has already saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives by preventing overdoses and transmission of infections. Yes, drug users deserve access to safe, free, and adequate detox programs, but anybody who knows anything (and I don’t, but I’m going on what people who do have already said), people can’t really be forced to kick their addictions, and that it doesn’t always hold, that can people slip and go back a few times. In the meantime, and when they do slip, harm reduction services are there to make sure they don’t overdose or get infected by sharing needles or pipes. When people say they oppose harm reduction services, this is what they’re opposing. Don’t give them potentially life-saving goods and services because, who cares if a junkie gets sick and dies, right? They brought it on themselves. Opponents of harm reduction services rarely stop to consider that, as the California punk band Fifteen in their song My Congressman, “there’s needle users sleeping with your children, with your daughters, with your sons and with your husbands.” Drug users are members of our communities, whether some people like it or not, and if we want to keep our communities safe and healthy, then we need to provide services and resources to make sure that these members of our communities are can stay free from infection and protected from overdoses until they are able to enter rehabilitation programs to help them to kick their addiction.

When people in the 1980s went around the law to make sure that people who were dying could have access to life-saving medication, the government went after them. Today, as people are working to provide drug users with access to life-saving and harm-reducing services and resources, the government is still going after them. Luckily, this time the Supreme Court of Canada had enough sense to listen to the numbers and saw that these services save lives, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, people are denied access to life-saving drugs and services. Then that happens, those who deny them that access become responsible for the deaths of those whose lives were lost as a result of their refusal to provide life-saving services and medication.

No Longer Dependents: Unions, Benefits, and Relationship Recognition

Last week, CBC reported the story of Della Wolf, a BC child whose birth certificate lists three parents: her two mothers and their male friend. The story of Della’s birth certificate made the news because hers was the first birth certificate in British Columbia to list more than two parents, something made possible by the province’s new Family Law Act, which allows up to four parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate.

This news story got me to thinking about something that I came across in my research. In 1990, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) published a series of reports titled Employment Benefits for Lesbian and Gay Workers and Their Families. The reports outlined a number of potential measures that the labour movement could adopt to help with efforts being made by lesbian and gay activists to obtain greater recognition for same-sex relationships. The reports dealt with issues such as bargaining, insurance policies, legal decision, and discrimination. Although they could at times make for some dry reading, some of the arguments made within the reports provide a fascinating insight into a time when the fight for relationship recognition was beginning to heat up.

One particular section in the report about ending discrimination stood out. The section dealt with the manner in which eligibility for benefits was determined by employers and insurance carriers. The report argued that, although the term “dependent” was often used to describe those who could be included on a worker’s benefit plan, actual dependence had very little to do with it. As the report stated, a “dependent” was not defined by actual dependency, but by their relationship with the worker. More specifically, someone was defined as a dependent one if they were a child or spouse of the recipient of a benefits package. In other words, someone could only be a dependent and therefore eligible to access a worker’s workplace benefits, if they were that worker’s child or spouse. The report continued by pointing out an obvious flaw in this manner of determining eligibility, stating that using biological and spousal relationships as the determining criteria did very little to meet the needs of many workers, gay or straight. Rather, it argued, this system was “devised to answer the needs of the traditional, one-income nuclear family.” In other words, it was tailored to meet the needs of a very particular family model, one in which one adult, usually the man, worked outside of the home, while his wife and children (dependents) stayed at home. The system, the report argued, was therefore not designed to meet the needs of a majority of workers, regardless of their sexual orientation, whose families and intimate relationships did not fit this model.

(Our Times, December 1989)

Despite these flaws, CUPE nevertheless admitted that the “most immediately attainable” approach to obtaining recognition of same-sex relationships and expanding benefits to same-sex partners was to simply expand on the current definitions of ‘dependent’ to have them include same-sex partners. Although there was recognition by the report’s authors that the current method of determining eligibility was limited, and that there was a desire to challenge these limits, they nevertheless recognized that doing so would be an uphill battle. The decision to move forward by redefining spouse to include a same-sex partner instead of attempting to challenge the limits inherent in this model of sharing workplace benefits and insurance coverage was therefore a deliberate strategic decision.

What does this have to do with the recent story of Della and her three parents? When I read the story, it reminded me of CUPE’s report and their criticism of the system of eligibility used by employers and insurance carriers, often with the consent of unions, to grant coverage based on criteria rooted in familial relationships.* Despite the advances made in the areas of women’s rights, as well as lesbian and gay rights, many of the benefits outlined in collective agreements still rely on an outdated system of criteria and use language, such as ‘dependent,’ that do not reflect the reality and relationships of an increasing number of people. This is the case with my own employer and union, whose insurance provider continues to define a “dependent” as a spouse or child.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since CUPE issued the report critiquing this model of granting benefits. With the legal recognition that families often assume different shapes, it would be to the labour movement’s benefit to push for benefits packages and insurance coverage that also reflected this. One way of doing this, as suggested by CUPE’s report, would be to allow workers to designate one or more people as recipients of their coverage, regardless of the nature of their relationship, or what the report referred to as a “designated beneficiary” system.

In addition to allowing the labour movement to provide greater recognition of different relationship and family models, a designated beneficiary system would also provide those who are not married or in a common-law relationship to grant coverage to other members of their communities who may be in need of greater health care. This was something that was brought up by a number of people I interviewed for my research. One interviewee stated that he currently cares for a neighbour dealing with hepatitis C. The interviewee does not have any children, nor is he in married or in a common-law relationship, yet he would like nothing more than to be able to provide his neighbour, with whom he has a close friendship, with the type of coverage that could greatly improve his access to health care. A similar argument was made by another interviewee who stated that his inability to include friends who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in his insurance plan meant that he was unable to help and care for them as much as he otherwise would have liked to.

So, while redefining the definition of ‘dependent’ to include same-sex relationships was a much needed and important step forward in terms of allowing lesbian and gay couples access the same benefits as their straight counterparts, doing so under the same set of criteria that relied on parental or spousal relationships to determine eligibility to employer insurance programs and union benefit packages unfortunately perpetuated the exclusion of certain workers whose relationships did not fit the mold of the nuclear family model. Unions are in a position to lead the charge on this. If the province of British Columbia can recognize that families come in various shapes and sizes, surely organized labour can help workers whose relationship models currently exclude them from accessing and providing the benefits to their own loved ones, however they may be defined.

*Those familial relationships that are recognized by most insurance providers are limited, as parents, siblings, and extended relatives are often excluded from insurance coverage and benefit plans.