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Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy

by Mark Leier

The common complaint that Canadian history is boring is understandable considering the endless supply of books that recount the exploits of a small group of elite politicians, businessmen, and military leaders.

Fortunately, a growing number of works may put that complaint to rest. These books illustrate the history of inequality in Canada and celebrate the lives and work of the union agitators, environmentalists, pacifists, and others who dream not of conquering new markets and creating bigger mansions for themselves, but of social and economic rights for all.

Included among these is Mark Leier’s Rebel Life, a fascinating biography that follows Robert Gosden, one of the thousands of transient male workers who rode the Canadian rails during the first part of this century and became involved in revolutionary labour struggles against harsh economic conditions and exploitative corporations.

Equally intriguing is that Gosden later turned to spying on fellow labour activists for the RCMP. Although Leier began his research having concluded Gosden was a class traitor, he refuses to treat this labour spy as anything less than a fully rounded human character torn by the conflicting currents of his time. Leier does not defend Gosden’s choices; rather, like a good historian, he tries to understand them.

Leier is a refreshing, unabashedly partisan writer who cares about his subject both for his historical value and for the lessons that can be gleaned for contemporary times. His well-documented study concludes with a chapter that demystifies the process of writing history and encourages those outside of academe to record the important struggles in the daily lives of people who don’t make millions of dollars or coast on their pedigree.