Author Tags: Biography, Labour, Mining, Women

Born in Prince Rupert on November 19, 1922 of Scandinavian parents, Irene Howard grew up in mining camps around Smithers and the Bridge River area. Her father was a miner. She has consequently written a great deal about labour and immigrant history.

Howard wrote the first book underwritten by the Vancouver Historical Society, Vancouver's Svenskar: A History of the Swedish Community in Vancouver, and presented the book on behalf of the Swedish Cultural Society of Vancouver to King Carl XVI Gustav and Queen Silvia when they visited the city in 1988. She also wrote Bowen Island 1872-1972, published by the Bowen Island Historians in 1973.

Howard's important biography of social reformer Helena Gutteridge, the first woman to be elected to Vancouver City Council, earned a B.C. Book Prize nomination and won a UBC Medal for Canadian Biography. Elected to council in 1937, Gutteridge was a labour organizer who fought for low income housing and women's rights until she died at age 88. She had emigrated from England in 1911 as a tailor.

Irene Howard has an M.A. in English from University of British Columbia and has taught at UBC and Capilano College. She's a life member of the Vancouver International Folkdancers and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In 1999 she wrote, produced and directed a dramatic reading of Ann Radcliffe's 18th century Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho.

“I had to commemorate their labour, their monumental labour. I had to tell their heroic lives.” That’s how Irene Howard introduces her own monumental work, Gold Dust on his Shirt: The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family (Between the Lines $26.95), an inspiring and heart-wrenching tribute to her Swedish and Norwegian-born parents Alfred and Ingeborg Nelson whose unremitting toil and physical prowess contributed immensely to company towns around British Columbia from the outset of the 20th century. Doubling as a social history, rich in research, Gold Dust is easily one of the most impressive family memoirs ever written about a B.C. working class family. Arriving at age 30 in 1905 as Nils Alfred Nilsson, the author’s father couldn’t speak a work of English. Her mother had to overcome the stigma of a previous marriage ruined by tuberculosis. Theirs is an epic tale of perseverance, superbly told, as a celebration of dignity. [For information see review by Alan Twigg below.]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Bowen Island, 1872- 1972
Gold Dust on His Shirt: The Story of an Immigrant Mining Family
The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, The Unknown Reformer
Vancouver's Svenskar: A History of the Swedish Community in Vancouver


Gold Dust on His Shirt: The True Story of a Pioneer Mining Family (Between the Lines, 2008) 978-1-897071-45-8 • $26.95
The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, The Unknown Reformer (UBC Press, 1992)
Bowen Island, 1872-1972 (Bowen Island, B.C.: Bowen Island Historians, 1973)
Vancouver's Svenskar: A History of the Swedish Community in Vancouver (Vancouver: Vancouver Historical Society, 1970)


Shortlisted, City of Vancouver Book Award, 1993.
Shortlisted, Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, 1993 BC Books Prizes.
Winner of the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography, for The Struggle for Social Justice: Helena Gutteridge, The Unknown Reformer, 1992.

[BCBW 2008] "Swedish"

Gold Dust On His Shirt (Between the Lines $26.95)

If Woody Guthrie had visited B.C. mining camps, he might have written a song about Irene Howard’s parents, Alfred and Ingeborg Nelson. The stalwart couple in Howard’s Gold Dust On His Shirt (Between the Lines $26.95) represent the heroism of pioneer labour generating profit for others.

Knowing only Swedish, Nils Alfred Nilsson emigrated from northern Sweden in 1905 and worked his way west for the Grand Trunk Railway, reaching Prince Rupert, population 300, in 1908.

After Nilsson changed his name to Nelson, he married a beautiful young widow, Ingeborg Aarvik, newly arrived from Norway in 1913.

In Norway, at age 19, Ingeborg had married a village tailor, Kristian Viggen, who had tuberculosis. After her husband died of TB in 1909, Ingeborg succumbed to so-called “Amerika fever,” the desire to start anew on another continent.

In order to join her brother in Port Essington, Ingeborg left behind her infant daughter, Inga—with hopes of bringing her later.

“Did Inga wave goodbye?” writes Howard, imagining her mother’s situation. “I will never know, and Inga would remain a shadowy figure belonging to the Old Country of my childhood, except for this: when I was a young mother, I had to wave goodbye to my two-year-old son when I stepped out of our house, not to enter that door again for a year. Like Kristian, I had tuberculosis.”

In 1917, Alfred took his family to Mullan, Idaho, to take a railway construction job but severe labour strife eventually forced them to return to Canada. “You can't beat the System,” Alfred Nelson used to say, “They'll beat you every time.”(Swedish-born folk singer Joseph Hillstrom, more famously known as Joe Hill, had been murdered by Utah state authorities in 1915 for his songs in support of the migrant workers.)

Irene Howard was born in Prince Rupert in 1922. She was raised with her brothers in mining camps, mainly around Smithers and the Bridge River area.

At the Duthie Mine, her father was shift boss for a crew of miners and doubled as the family shoemaker and barber. Her mother carried water from a creek for washday “with a yoke across her shoulders and two pails of water sloshing water at her side with every step” until her brothers Arthur and Verner were able to erect a flume.

The unremitting labour of raising a family of seven—“so impossibly taxing, both physically and mentally, that it can scarcely be even imagined”—was ultimately less demanding than the rigours of an other kind of labour, childbirth.

Irene Howard recalls her mother and father in the living room, facing one another, in a rented two-storey house in Kamloops in 1930, not long after the Duthie Mine had closed.

“She is telling him that she is pregnant. She doesn’t know that I understand what she’s saying. I’m looking at my father’s face. I think he looks angry. My mother reaches out and holds me to her. But he wasn’t angry. I know that now. What he was feeling was utter dismay and helplessness at the turn of events: the mine closing and everything they’d built up at the Duthie lost, the family uprooted again, a job that didn’t even pay wages, and now this, another child.”

Howard’s narrative detours into social history, explaining that the dissemination of information about birth control was made illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code of 1892. (In B.C., the door of secrecy wasn’t unhinged until the radical journalist A.M. Stephen started the Birth Control League of Canada in Vancouver in 1923.)

Ingeborg Nelson was worn out in 1931, in no condition to have another child. Her family had moved five times, from one mine to another, between 1920 and 1930. “Who can know the turmoil in her mind,” writes Howard, “[during] those last weeks of her nine months when she no longer felt the child moving, kicking in her womb? And knew that her child had died.”

Three weeks after the still-born birth at the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, Ingeborg Nelson died of a blood clot on February 8, 1931. Nils Alfred Nelson died of tuberculosis brought on by silicosis in May of 1948.

“Unaccountably,” writes Howard, “I feel as though I share the blame for what the System did to my father’s lungs. I grieve because I didn’t know what to say when I sat beside his bed, as he struggled for breath in an oxygen tent.”

Irene Howard has now found all the words she needed to say. Gold Dust On His Shirt is a stunningly vivid and in-depth family history that doubles as progressive labour history. This is a fitting follow-up to Howard’s biography of labour organizer and social reformer Helena Gutteridge, the first woman to be elected to Vancouver City Council, who fought for low income housing and women’s rights until she died at age 88.


[BCBW 2009]