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The life and death of Ginger Goodwin: Martyr or myth?

Labour leader Ginger Goodwin was killed 67 years ago. This story on Goodwin is taken from Paul Willcocks’ book Dead Ends, which recounts some of B.C.’s most fascinating and notorious crimes. It took less than a minute.
Ginger Goodwin, labour activist and pacifist, was shot and killed by a policeman on July 27, 1918.

Labour leader Ginger Goodwin was killed 67 years ago. This story on Goodwin is taken from Paul Willcocks’ book Dead Ends, which recounts some of B.C.’s most fascinating and notorious crimes.

It took less than a minute. Dan Campbell and Ginger Goodwin came together in the hills above Cumberland, a scrappy Vancouver Island mining town. It was July 27, 1918.

Goodwin had been in hiding in the forests for three months, avoiding conscription and military service in the First World War. He was a union leader and socialist and didn’t see why working people should be killing each other so capitalists could make money.

Campbell was a special constable, a hotel owner paid to help in the hunt for draft dodgers.

Campbell fired his hunting rifle. Goodwin fell dead. There were no witnesses.

Murdered, or martyred? Almost a century later, no one knows.

Albert (Ginger) Goodwin was 31 when he died. He had spent more than half his life in coal mines.

First in Yorkshire, where he followed his father into the mines when he was 12, driving the pit ponies that pulled carts of coal to the surface. When Ginger — he had red hair — was 15, miners staged a two-year walkout. The owners evicted strikers’ families from the grimy company row houses, including the Goodwins.

Canada, he decided, might offer better opportunities. At 19, he crossed the Atlantic and took work in a coal mine in northern Nova Scotia’s Glace Bay. A new country, but the same struggles. In 1909, the miners were on strike in a bitter battle for union recognition, and families were again facing eviction and hunger.

Goodwin stuck it out through the strike, but in 1910 was on the move again, first to a mine in B.C.’s East Kootenay region, then to Cumberland. The town was built practically on top of the mines. Mountains and the Comox glacier looked down both on the town and the Strait of Georgia a few kilometres away.

It was a beautiful setting, with the most dangerous mines Goodwin had seen. Methane gas seeped from fissures in the rocks. Explosions and fires took a terrible toll. During 92 years of operation, 295 men died — 64 in one 1901 disaster. Miners heaved a small sigh of relief any day they emerged, black-faced, from underground.

Goodwin liked the town, with its tidy rows of wood-framed company housing, and ramshackle Chinatown and Japantown, home to about 430 Asian miners. He was a skilled soccer player, and did well in the local league.

But in 1912, a major labour battle hit the mines. Goodwin was emerging as a union leader and a committed socialist. The two-year strike over union recognition failed — in part because of pressure to restore production as war loomed. But Ginger’s role was noted. He was blacklisted by the mining company, and left for Trail, where he worked in a smelter.

Goodwin was 29, short and slight, likable and persuasive. He had decided that unions and socialism were the keys to better lives for working people. He was an activist, powerful speaker and leader. In Trail, he was elected secretary of the union, vice-president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, then a political arm for workers, and president of the Trail labour council. In 1916, he ran for MLA under the Socialist Party banner. It wasn’t a token effort. In the previous election, socialists had captured 12 per cent of the vote and won two seats. Goodwin came third, with about 19 per cent of the vote.

But another, bigger issue was looming. By 1916, the war in Europe was more than two years old. Grinding trench warfare and new weapons brought massive casualties. Returning Canadian soldiers told horrific tales of life in the trenches.

Voluntary enlistment slowed just as more troops were needed. Conscription — the draft — was introduced in 1917.

Goodwin opposed the war, but registered and applied for an exemption to avoid service. (More than 90 per cent of those who registered for the draft joined him in seeking an exemption.)

The doctors who assessed Goodwin found him a poor candidate for the military, with bad teeth and stomach problems. He was slight — even skinny — and had trouble eating. He received a temporary exemption from service. (Ill or not, he was still a star player for local soccer teams.)

Less than two weeks after a strike at the smelter began under Goodwin’s leadership, he was ordered to report for re-evaluation and declared fit for service.

The smelter owners might have pulled strings to get an effective union leader out of the way. The military might have become more desperate for conscripts.

Either way, Goodwin wasn’t having it. Instead of reporting for duty, he headed back to Cumberland and the woods. If the army wanted him, they would have to find him.

Goodwin wasn’t alone. A small band of evaders, most local, took to the mountains west of Cumberland, helped by locals like Joe Naylor, a socialist and union activist who been a mentor to Goodwin.

The Dominion Police was ordered to bring them in. It was no easy task. Local supporters helped the evaders, who knew the woods. For almost three months, officers had little success. They started hiring trackers and special constables.

Like Dan Campbell. He was a crack shot and skilled woodsman. He had been running a hotel outside Victoria since he had been kicked off the B.C. Provincial Police for extorting a bribe from two women he caught recklessly driving a buggy.

On July 27, Campbell came upon Goodwin in the woods. Both men had rifles. Campbell said he called for Goodwin to surrender. Instead, Goodwin raised his rifle.

So Campbell killed him.

Goodwin’s friends and union leaders didn’t believe it. They were convinced it was murder.

The authorities had suspicions as well. On July 31, Campbell was arrested and taken to Victoria.

That didn’t defuse the mounting tension. In Cumberland, the mines were shut down and a huge procession followed Goodwin’s coffin to the cemetery.

In Vancouver, union leaders called a one-day general strike, and about 5,500 workers walked off the job, including longshoreman and shipbuilders. It was a day of violence, as returned troops opposed to the strike clashed with union members and denounced strikers as traitors.

A week after Campbell’s arrest, he appeared before two justices of the peace. They were to decide if there was enough evidence to proceed with manslaughter charges. They heard that Goodwin’s wounds — the bullet through his wrist and into his neck — were consistent with someone raising a rifle to shoot. But witnesses also said Campbell had talked about killing draft evaders. They decided there was enough evidence to justify a trial.

But in October, a grand jury heard the same evidence, and reached the opposite conclusion. There would be no trial. Campbell walked out of the courthouse on Victoria’s Bastion Square a free man.

And Ginger Goodwin became a symbol of workers’ struggles in British Columbia.