A Radical Tradition: KPU Prof. Explores Vancouver’s History of Anarchism and Punk Rock

“This is not a boring political speech. This is a fast-paced, angry, aggressive punk song”

Members of the legendary Vancouver punk band D.O.A. Mike Hodsall, Joe Keithley, and Paddy Duddy. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his upcoming book, Kwantlen Polytechnic University history professor Dr. Eryk Martin explores Vancouver’s history of radicalism through the lenses of anarchism and punk rock.

Martin was inspired to write Black Flags Rising: Anarchism, Activism, and the Vancouver Five, 1967-1984 because of his own experiences growing up amidst the Vancouver-area counterculture. He says that the roots of anarchism in Vancouver run deep but have remained largely unexplored by local historians.

“Anarchism in Vancouver and other places was this really interesting political scene that brought together almost every other political activism that you can think of and mixed it,” says Martin. “The anarchist scene in Vancouver brought together Indigenous politics, feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, anti-imperialism, alternative forms of living, alternative education. Pretty much any form of dissent you can look at through the lens of anarchism.”

Black Flags Rising uses the experiences of a Vancouver-based anarchist group called Direct Action—deemed the “Vancouver Five” by the media at the time—and an affiliated group called Woman’s Fire Brigade to tell a broader story about anarchist activism and radical politics in Vancouver.

These groups were responsible for several acts of extreme anarchist activism in Canada in the 70s, including the bombings of a BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island and a factory in Toronto that was building navigation systems for U.S. cruise missiles. The Woman’s Fire Brigade was best known for acts of arson on several pornography stores around Vancouver. Martin’s book looks at the roots of anarchism in Vancouver as early as the 1950s and draws connections between Vancouver-based movements and the wider world.

“Vancouver has a very strong anarchist tradition and I think that, because radical traditions in Vancouver are generally strong, the diversity, the dynamic nature of anarchist activism is inseparable from the broader power of the left,” says Martin.

Radical movements of the 20th century were also connected to contemporary music scenes. This connection is more than just thematic in the case of Vancouver’s anarchism and punk scenes—Gerry Hannah, who was one of the members of the Vancouver Five, was also the frontman of Vancouver-based punk band Subhumans.

In his history classes at KPU, Martin uses the punk scene of the 1970s as an example of the culture of political anger during the era.

“The expansion of anarchism went hand-in-hand with the expansion of punk,” explains Martin. “There’s this radical tradition that gets expressed not only in political activism but also in music.”

In particular, Martin likes to use the song “Oh Canaduh” by the Subhumans as an example of a song that captures what people in the punk scene and anarchist movement were thinking and feeling at the time.

“[Oh Canaduh] really speaks to the economic crisis of the 1970s, this emerging cynicism and radicalism,” he says. “The song talks about environmental problems, about corporate greed. All of these things are really relevant ways of picking apart the 1970s, but in a fun, entertaining way. This is not a boring political speech. This is a fast-paced, angry, aggressive punk song.”

Even before the emergence of punk rock in the city, Vancouver had a culture of radical music that fuelled movements like Greenpeace and anti war projects in the 60s.

“The idea that you would use popular rock n’ roll music as a political medium that makes politics relevant to youth culture is absolutely essential for explaining why punk developed in Vancouver,” says Martin. “Yes, people in Vancouver were drawing from the Ramones and Sex Pistols, but they also have their own traditions, their own local culture in Vancouver that explains why punk is so deeply rooted in this place.”

Martin’s interest in radical movements stems from his experience growing up in the punk and metal scenes on Vancouver Island during the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was profoundly captivated by music that was loud and aggressive and yet made commentary about social issues that he couldn’t find elsewhere. Instead of strictly learning about history, politics, and international relations at school, Martin turned to music.

“I looked at these movements, both in music and around me, and I wanted to find out where they came from. What are the origins of these things? That took me back to the 1980s, and that took me back to the 1960s,” he says.