City on Edge
By Kate Bird. Greystone, 160 pp, hardcover
Vancouver has always been a city on the edge: on the edge of Canada’s westward expansion, on the edge of the Pacific Rim, and even, quite frequently, on the edge of the national zeitgeist.
But it has also, from its very beginnings, been a community on edge—one ready to get its hackles up, ready to throw up the barricades, and ready, for better or worse, for direct action.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Kate Bird’s new (and aptly titled) collection of photojournalism, City on Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes. Through more than 160 carefully selected shots from the archives of the Vancouver Sun and the Province, Bird recounts the area’s long history of popular unrest, illustrating that protest is nothing new in our fair city. From the dawn of the 20th century (quite literally—the oldest photo in the book documents striking fishermen in July 1900) to 2017’s 15,000-strong anti-Trump Women’s March, there’s been a pretty much nonstop parade of labour demonstrations, political protests, antiwar rallies, civil-rights marches, and yes, even multiple football and hockey riots.
While the book is a topnotch primer on local unrest, it also serves as an incomparable study of the evolution of photojournalism. Early photos simply document masses of people (as in the case of a 1935 relief protest), and while the who-what-when-where-why of events may be transmitted, the limitations of both early cameras and artistic temperaments are evident. By the time the 1940s roll around, however, better lenses, faster film, and more creative attitudes begin to take over, and the photography becomes more inventive, emotional, and arresting for the viewer.
Of course, the main event here is the collection of photos itself, and there are some real corkers: a seersucker-clad Pierre Trudeau staring down Vietnam War protesters outside the Seaforth Armoury in 1968; deliriously happy rioters trashing a Christine-like Dodge on the occasion of the 1958 Grey Cup; a 1964 protest by Squamish First Nation members over railway construction; and stone-faced punks in the midst of a 65,000-person 1983 peace march. But these are just a few examples—the book is literally chock full of outstanding and artful images, ready to inspire, startle, and provoke serious thought.
In no uncertain terms, City on Edge visually belies the long-held assertion that the city is a laid-back, no-fun Lotusland. Vancouverites, it’s clear, are not above taking it to the streets—both frequently and loudly—when they feel they’ve been wronged.