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”

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

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)

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)