BAIRD, Irene




Author Tags: 1900-1950, Essentials 2010, Fiction, Labour

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Born Irene Todd in Carlisle, England, in 1901, Irene Baird moved to Victoria in 1937 and disguised herself as a nurse to visit the downtrodden and to write more effectively about their plight. Her novel Waste Heritage (1939) has been regarded as Canada’s classic novel of the Depression. It is based upon the volatile aftermath of the 1938 occupation of the main Vancouver Post Office by unemployed “sit-downers” who were evicted by police with tear gas. This event sparked a protest trek to Victoria in which the two main characters in Baird’s story participate. They are aptly named Matt Striker, a 23-year-old from Saskatchewan, and his simple-minded companion Eddy, who is obsessed with the idea of one day getting a new pair of shoes. Naive and reluctant to confront authority, they yearn for a fair deal after six years of drifting, looking for work. Matt is arrested, Eddy dies. Vancouver is fictionalized as Ascelon and Victoria as Garth. The dialogue is forced but the empathy for the unemployed is strong. A Globe & Mail reviewer claimed the novel was “the only piece of Canadian fiction on this topic which could be compared for quality with Grapes of Wrath.” George Woodcock praised the novel and Bruce Hutchison decreed, “I think it is one of the best books that has come out of Canada in our time.” Baird herself said of the work, “I wasn’t a journalist, just a writer, but the theme gripped me and it seemed as though journalists and writers both could share a rare opportunity with a story like this, and at the same time do a little something for Canada.”

Baird’s series of radio addresses in 1940 and 1941 on war were published in the pamphlet The North American Tradition (1941). She wrote a column for the Vancouver Sun in 1941 and joined the Vancouver Province in 1942. She moved to Ottawa to work for the National Film Board, serving as the NFB’s representative in Washington and Mexico City. In 1947, she joined the Federal Department of Mines and Resources and the Department of Northern Affairs. She was appointed to work as senior information officer and then, as of 1962, as chief of Information Services. Baird became the first woman to head a federal information division. Her non-fiction books include The Eskimos in Canada (1971).

Irene Baird returned to Victoria in 1973 and died there in 1981. Waste Heritage was reissued both in 1974 and 2008 but the novel remains obscure.


FULL ENTRY:

Irene Baird's Waste Heritage (1939) has been touted as the classic novel of the Depression in Canada. It's based upon the volatile aftermath of the 1938 occupation of the main Vancouver Post Office by unemployed 'sit-downers' who were evicted by police with tear gas in 1938. This event sparked a protest trek to Victoria in which the two main characters participate. They are the aptly named Matt Striker, a 23-year-old from Saskatchewan, and his simple-minded companion Eddy who is obsessed with the idea of one day getting a new pair of shoes. Naive and reluctant to confront authority, they yearn for a fair deal after six years of drifting, looking for work. Matt is arrested; Eddy dies. Vancouver is fictionalized as Ascelon and Victoria is Garth. The dialogue is forced but the empathy for the unemployed is strong. A Globe & Mail reviewer claimed the novel was "the only piece of Canadian fiction on this topic which could be compared for quality with Grapes of Wrath." George Woodcock also praised the novel; Bruce Hutchison wrote, "I think it is one of the best books that has come out of Canada in our time." Baird herself said of the work, "“I wasn’t a journalist, just a writer, but the theme gripped me and it seemed as though journalists and writers both could share a rare opportunity with a story like this, and at the same time do a little something for Canada.”

Irene Baird was born Irene Todd in Carlisle, Cumberland County, England on April 9, 1901. She immigrated in 1919. She married Robert Baird in Vancouver. They had two children, Robert and June. She moved to Victoria in 1937 where she disguised herself as a nurse to visit the downtrodden in order to write more effectively about their plight. Her series of radio addresses in 1940 and 1941 on war were published in the pamphlet The North American Tradition (1941). She wrote a column for the Vancouver Sun in 1942 and joined the Vancouver Province in 1942. She moved to Ottawa to work for the National Film Board, serving as the NFB's representative in Washington and Mexico City. In 1947, she joined the Federal Department of Mines and Resources and the Department of Northern Affairs. She was appointed to work as senior information officer and then, as of 1962, as chief of Information Services. Baird became the first woman to head a federal information division. Her freelance articles and poetry appeared in publications such as Saturday Night, Canadian Georgraphical Journal, Unesco Courier and Beaver.

Baird's first novel called John (1937) was a character study of a philosophical Scot named John Dorey who homesteads on a ten-acre Vancouver Island retreat. Her third novel He Rides the Sky (1942) is a series of letters from a young RAF pilot to Victoria prior to his death defending London during the Blitz. This novel is patriotic in its intent. Baird retired in 1967 and moved to London where she wrote The Climate of Power (Macmillan, 1971), a final novel that reveals the federal government's misguided attempts to improve Inuit culture. "George McKenna's long career as a senior civil servant in the Canadian corridors of power is drawing to a close and he is fighting desperately to stay in power..(trouble arises) in Parliament over a fake rumour of trouble in a remote Arctic village, and one way or another this puts McKenna on the spot. The story moves to the far north where the smouldering conflict betwen McKenna and (the younger, ambitious) Wragge reaches crisis point. Only his young wife, with whom McKenna is very much in love but who makes no secret of her infidelity, guesses what happened up there.." Her non-fiction books include The Eskimos in Canada (1971) and Canada's North: A Land on the Move (1972). She returned to Victoria in 1973 and died there on April 19, 1981. Her work is little-known in the 21st century but the University of Ottawa has reprinted Waste Heritage as part of new series of "lost" Canadian fiction edited by University of Toronto English professor Colin Hill.

[A companion work *as of 2010* to Waste Heritage is Earle Birney’s equally overlooked novel, Down the Long Table (1955). Among the many B.C. authors concerned with civil rights, see abcbookworld entries for Barnholden, Michael; Baxter, Sheila; Berger, Tom; Cameron, Sandy; Culhane, Claire; Dickinson, Peter; Dixon, John; Fuller, Janine; Goldberg, Kim; Hannant, Larry; Hunter, Kendall; Krawczyk, Betty; Lambertson, Ross; McLaren, Jean; Mujica-Olea, Alejandro; Osborn, Bud; Rodriguez, Carmen Laura; Rule, Jane; Russell, John; Stanton, John; Swanson, Jean.]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Waste Heritage

BOOKS:

John (Collins, 1937; Toronto & Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1937; Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1938)
Waste Heritage (1939; Toronto: Macmillan, 1974; University of Ottawa Press, 2008 $35 0776606492)
He Rides the Sky (1942)
The Climate of Power (1971)
The Eskimos in Canada (1971)
Canada's North: A Land on the Move (1972)

[BCBW 2010]

Lost Canadian novel recovered after 30 years
Press Release (2008)



OTTAWA, ON – Unavailable for thirty years, Waste Heritage, a novel by Irene Baird is gaining critical and popular attention as the best Canadian novel of the 1930’s, and a book that all Canadians should read.

Set in British Columbia in 1938, it follows the harrowing journey of Matt and Eddy, two itinerants in search of work who unwittingly become part of a sit-down strike and riot. Told in frank honest language, this insightful book is once more available to the public with a new introduction by Colin Hill.

"Baird’s novel reappears at a time when the development of modern Canadian writing is being re-evaluated by critics, and when early twentieth-century literary forms are being vigorously reconsidered both in Canadian and other literary traditions," explains editor Colin Hill.

Author Irene Baird is one of Canada’s most original and under-appreciated writers. For Waste Heritage she disguised herself as a nurse to visit the off limit slums of Victoria to be accurate in their portrayal in the novel and was devoted to realism in fiction. She wrote four novels, worked for the National Film Board, and became the first woman to head a federal information service. She died in 1981. Waste Heritage is the first book in the University of Ottawa Press’ new series Canadian Literature Collection/La collection de la litérature canadienne.

Colin Hill is rewriting the literary history of the early twentieth century. Through his bibliographic and archival research, he has recovered significant lost works of Canadian fiction. He is an author, book reviewer, and assistant professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto.

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Waste Heritage
Trade Paperback/$35.00
352 pages/6" x 8" x 1"
Published by University of Ottawa Press
ISBN: 0776606492