By Janet Guildford
Mike Earle pursued an unconventional career as a historian, starting late and never having a standard academic appointment. Nonetheless he made important contributions to regional history through his research and writing on Cape Breton labour history, his pioneering televised courses on Atlantic Canadian history at Mount Saint Vincent University, and as one of the principal organizers of a union for part-time teachers at Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and the Mount. I am one of many who benefited from Michael’s work for our union, CUPE 3912—it provided job security through the precedence system and slowly increased wages. Although he majored in history as an undergraduate at Mount Allison University from 1958-1961, Michael was a late-comer to professional history, and had many adventures before enrolling in graduate school in the late-1980s.
Born in Charlottetown on 3 November 1939 to parents Jean Ross and C.N. (“Clarrie) Earle, he was the second of six children who formed a large, happy household. His childhood was the subject of many of Mike’s stories. The family moved with their father’s career as a bank manager, from Pictou, Sydney and Amherst. Mike’s sister Mary Bourgeois described the family as “matriarchal’ and this was reflected in Mike’s special affection and respect for his mother Jean and sisters Mary and Christine. Mike often spoke very fondly of his mother, and his sister Mary expanded on this theme. Even when he was a teenager his mother was his regular movie and chess partner. Mary told me that there were days the house was filled with teenage boys playing chess with Jean! It has long been my contention that intellectual life is very often formed and shaped by family life and Mike’s family seems to provide an excellent example of this process.
As a young adult Mike moved from job to job. He tried following his father into banking and found it did not suit him. He worked as a child protection worker in Lunenburg County but that too was not to his taste. He then headed down the road to Toronto where he earned good wages doing what he regarded as boring work. It was there he met his wife, Sharon Anderson, and it was from Toronto that the two set off for London, England.
The London years: “We were a little Bolshy”
In 1968, Michael, and Sharon left Toronto for a decade in London, England, drawn in large part by the fact that Mike’s sister Christine and her husband Dave MacKinnon were living there. Sharon often commented that in Britain they were a “little Bolshy,” a phrase which always amused me for its understatement. In 2015, fearing the dementia that shaped his final years, Mike produced a timeline of his life (for which I am very grateful). In it he wrote that once in London he, Sharon, Chris, and Dave “became acolytes of [Manu] Manchanda”, an Indian born Maoist who had left the British Communist Party to lead his own movement. The two Canadian couples became part of Manchanda’s inner circle and were especially active in anti-Viet Nam protests and anti-racism work. This was hard-core Marxist-Leninist politics with a Maoist flavour and opposition to the Viet Nam War was at the heart of their activity. It was more than a little Bolshy! Although Michael later said he had trouble being a true believer, this period of intense political engagement certainly shaped his political views and provided lots of stories to dine out on for the rest of his life.
In addition to an active political life, Mike also had to make a living. At first he moved around from job to job again, but in 1975 he took a truck mechanics course. By the next year he was working as a mechanic for British Leyland – a good working class job that he would hold for two years until he came home to Nova Scotia.
Return to Canada
Mike and Sharon returned to Canada in 1978 because Sharon wanted to attend university (she went on to receive her BA from Saint Mary’s University). In 1980, Michael joined her in taking history courses at Saint Mary’s. From there he went on to a MA and PhD in Canadian history at Dalhousie University. His earlier political involvements shaped his program of study, and his two theses, both supervised by Dr. Ruth Bleasdale, addressed the left-wing politics of Cape Breton miners. His master’s thesis explored the history of the Communist-led Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia with a particular focus on the conflict with the much larger American-based United Mine Workers. The PhD dissertation, “Radicalism in Decline: Labour and Politics in Industrial Cape Breton, 1930-1950,” deepened his engagement with the politics of the coal miners. As the title suggests, Earle argues that “(t)he militancy and radicalism of the miners and steelworkers of earlier years had almost completely disappeared by 1950. Dramatic anti-communist episodes in both the steelworkers’ and miners’ unions in the 1949-1959 period marked the triumph of union bureaucrats and Cold War politicians over radicalism in Cape Brenton. In 1989, Acadiensis Press, in association with the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada studies, published Workers and the State in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia, which Michael edited. It included two of his own essays, one in collaboration with Sociologist Herb Gamberg, “The United Mine Workers and the Coming of the CCF to Cape Breton,” and “‘Down. With Hitler and Silby Barrett’: The Cape Breton Miners’ Slowdown Strike of 1941.” And as he was finishing up his PhD Mike was hired by the Steel Workers Union and the University College of Cape Breton to prepare a history of the Sydney Steel Plant.
By 1990, with his PhD in hand, Mike set out to support himself as a historian. I don’t think Mike ever entertained the idea of moving away from Halifax, and the likelihood of a regular academic appointment in the city was very slim. He developed two strategies that served him very well. The first was to organize a union for part-time university teachers in the city. In 1992 CUPE3912 was chosen to represent part-time academics at Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent Universities. The key wins in the contracts that followed were to provide job security through a precedence system and, slowly and grudgingly, slightly higher wages. I would certainly argue that the success of the union is an important legacy of Michael’s work.
The second strategy was the creation of the Beach Meadows Research Associates. Mike and I pretty much were the research associates, with a little help at various times from his wife and my daughter. The business was set up, as Mike suggested, to enable researchers to have an employment insurance claim if the work dried up. We provided research services for a variety of clients in the public and private sectors. Our first contract was research for the redesign of the Navy Gallery at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most interesting contracts we had were to write histories of two of the Jodrey group of companies, interesting in large part because the group is very quiet about its businesses. The Beach Meadows Research Associates was a useful mechanism for Mike and I to supplement our part-time teaching income and it was Mike’s skills as a bookkeeper that kept us out of trouble.
I think we could argue that there was a third string in Mike’s bow as he joined High Hopes Housing Cooperative in the late 1980s. It provided him with secure low cost housing for most of the rest of his life. Mike served as treasurer of the co-op for many years and developed a system of rent to income for the co-op that was unique and exceeded usual co-op financial management strategies. This system meant that when co-op members had years of especially low incomes their rental fees were subsidized by the rest of the members. Mike’s politics shaped his whole life.
Career as a teacher
Thanks to the precedence system developed by the part-time union, Michael had all the part-time teaching he could handle for, at various times, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ College, the University College of Cape Breton, his alma mater Dalhousie University, and Saint Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent University. But it was his years of teaching the history of Atlantic Canada for Mount Saint Vincent University that made him a minor provincial celebrity and provided him with an adequate living. The courses had large student enrollments and the courses ran year round. I would argue that thanks to the union local, CUPE 3912, Michael was able to negotiate special terms for these popular courses in terms of both wages and marking assistance.
An active leisure life
Mike was a very sociable man and had regular groups with whom he played his two favourite games, bridge and chess. He also loved to travel and, beginning in the early 2000s, took European tours—he particularly loved antiquities. And each trip ended with a visit with his beloved sister Christine MacKinnon and her family in London.
Michael Earle’s life story is not easy to define in a conventional academic biography. One of the things that has struck me in remembering back over his life is his effectiveness in a number of spheres and arenas. He always presented himself as a very laid back man who enjoyed wandering around the city and its campuses. But whether it was training as a truck mechanic, completing a PhD in Canadian history, managing the finances of his housing cooperative, or organizing a trade union, Mike always seemed to achieve what he set out to do. And he was always willing to think about new skills and new ideas. He told me at one point, for example, that he and his Maoist friends in London were wrong about two things: women and the environment. That’s a pretty big rethink.
I’ll end with what I think of as a very Mike story. Sometime in the early 1990s my teenage son and I were walking home from a Christmas party. As we neared home we saw Mike staggering home from his own party (we were neighbours on Agricola Street). When we caught up Mike said to my son: “Peter remember the next time you see a drunk on the street, it could be your mother’s friend.” He was my friend and that was good advice.
Janet Guildford is a longtime friend and colleague of Michael Earle. She taught in the History Department at Mount Saint Vincent University.