The CBLA Remembers Dawn Fraser CB Poet
his book: Echoes from Labor`s Wars
Dawn Fraser was not educated at university, did not edit literary magazines, nor did the elite of Canadian culture support his work. His politics came out of the First World War and the years of poverty following the War, in Cape Breton. Fraser is our hard-hitting working class minstrel, a popular local poet from Glace Bay who wrote narrative poems about the gruelling 1920's in industrial Cape Breton. Ronald Caplan in a publisher's note to Echoes from Labor's Wars states, "Fraser's stuff is two-fisted, face-to-face, and strong...it is a compelling testament to courage, peace, and community" (vii). Fraser is best understood as a bard in the tradition of Robert Service (whose poems he knew off by heart), and as part of a strong oral culture in Cape Breton that preserved working class traditions and values. In their introduction to Echoes, David Frank and Don MacGillivray describe Fraser as a populist poet wh o read his poems on the street, at local union meetings, and at the Savoy and Russell Theatres in Glace Bay. The poems were published in pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers, or posted at the main intersection in Glace Bay. They were also collected in a few books: Songs of Siberia (1919), Songs of Siberia and Rhymes for the Open Road (1924), Echoes from Labor's Wars (1926), The Crime of Johnny Kyle and Other Stuff (192-), The Case of Jim McLachlan (192-), and Narrative Verse and Other Comments (1944). (None of these dates are terribly secure, apparently.) Fraser was born in Oxford, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. He was baptized Oswald Vincent, but his family called him Donald, and he preferred Dawn. Go figure. He spent his early years in the Antigonish area, and moved to Glace Bay in 1901. He got as far as high school, but didn't graduate; in "A Biography of Oswald Donald 'Dawn' Fraser", he states that what knowledge he had came from reading and travelling. His favourite writers were Jack London, William Drummond, Robert Service, and Oscar Wilde. Later, he moved to New England for a period before the First World War, a "footloose working class youth on the roam through the Boston States," but he also received a certificate in pharmacy from the state of Massachusetts. He returned to Glace Bay after the war, where he spent his last forty years. The jobs he sampled included a male nurse, soldier, pharmacist, labourer in lumber and construction camps, a gravedigger, circus barker, copywriter, salesman, picture framer, and a small shop owner. His poems provide a populist critique of industrial capitalism. Songs from Siberia came out of a four-month stint in Siberia, while he was in the army--an "ill-advised Allied effort to quell the Bolshevik Revolution" (Echoes xi). These poems reveal the experiences of suffering of a determined people in the midst of war. "Rhymes of the Road" explore his years as a foot loose drifter, writing about the lives, the loves, the hard drinking of sailors, hoboes, labourers, and card players. Echoes of Labor's Wars, his most widely read collection, is about the class conflicts of industrial Cape Breton in its most turbulent decade: the 1920's. Here we experience, first hand, the bitter conflict of capital (in the form of British Empire Steel Corporation) and a militant trade union. Fraser is one of the few literary voices of the new and independent working class culture, a voice no longer willing to defer to capital. He was intent on telling the truth about the lives of the miners, as illustrated in the story of Eddie Cummins, who, in 1924 was "too poor to buy, too proud to beg": And before he died he suffered As many have before. When the mines closed down that winter He had nothing left to eat And he starved, he starved, I tell you On your dirty, damned street. 1924, the bleakest year for the miners in Cape Breton, brought low wages, little work and near starvation for most of the families. Fraser condemns the newspapers for telling how "the prince/ Had caught a cold, and how the princesses' youngest kid/Was nearly four years old" but not reporting that Crimmons and others like him died starving to death in the street. Poems such as "The Case of Jim MaLachlan", the union's secretary/treasurer who was arrested and convicted of seditious libel for telling the truth about conditions is a paean to the men in the frontlines of a union dedicated to improving the 'living wage' of the coal miners. Politics remained important to Fraser. In the 1930's he joined the CCF and ran as a local candidate, and during the 1940's he was campaign manager for Clarie Gillis, the area's first CCF Member of Parliament. He continued to write, but the poems dwindled in volume and intensity, as Frank & MacGillivray suggest, this too reflected the mood and spirit of the community. In the 1950's his health failed, and he died in the Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax in 1968. It discouraged Fraser that the press showed little interest in his poetry. Ironically, as Frank & MacGillivray point out, even his obituary made no mention of his writing. But like Robert Service, Fraser needs to be included in the anthologies. Populist poetry is important to our memory, our history; it is the voice of the common man or woman, telling it like it is.
Matt Minglewood-Performance Dates