Vol 33 (2013): Special Issue: Working Lives: Special Issue on Oral History and Working-Class History

Reconstructing Alberta Working-Class History via Oral History: A Challenge for a Politically Engaged Academic

Alvin Finkel
Athabasca University
Published December 10, 2012


Until recently, the literature on Alberta working-class history focused on institutions and on major events, particularly strikes and protests.1 But what do the participants themselves make of their lives as workers and in some cases militant workers and trade union activists? What do they regard as their victories and their failures? Interviews by the Alberta Labour History Institute have focused on letting workers tell their own story, and that general concept informs the organization’s publications and videos, including a video on the closing of Edmonton’s Celanese plant and a recent book on the history of working people in Alberta. Given that focus on letting workers speak for themselves, how does an academic involved in the project go about interpreting what these workers have to say? This article reflects, from a critical insider’s point of view, the extent to which oral histories add new dimensions to Alberta’s labour history and the extent to which they may also create new mythologies because of reluctance either to critique or place in context the evidence of oral sources. All of this then raises the issue of how far an academic, trained to plumb all discourses for more critical meanings, can go if they wish to be part of an endeavour in which they share with trade unionists an effort to extract meaning from labour’s past that is of use to working people’s struggles in the present and future.