Rolf Knight is that rare bird, an independent thinker. Knight, an anthropologist by academic training and an outsider by temperament, has written several unorthodox books about BC working people. My own favourite is Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (1980), a combination oral history/memoir evoking industrial Vancouver pre- and post-World War II, but probably the most important is Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Labour in British Columbia, 1858−1930 (1978), a groundbreaking study of the role of Aboriginal people in the economy of the province. (Indians was updated and reissued by its original publisher, New Star Books, in 1996; Along the No. 20 Line got a fresh lease on life in 2011.)
Now Knight has published a more formal memoir, Voyage Through the Past Century (New Star Books). His story begins during the first year of World War II, in a logging camp in Haida Gwaii, where both his parents are working. The four-year-old Knight is the only child in camp and the experience might be said to set the pattern for his later life as a participant-observer of the working class. His outsider status is confirmed by his experiences at school on Vancouver’s east side. “Reading, roting and arithmetic, laced with great dollops of tribal mythology and obedience training” is how he bitterly describes his not-very-happy school days.
As an adult Knight travels widely, for work and for education, but he always ends up back in British Columbia, toiling at odd jobs in construction camps and factories. For me the most valuable parts of the book are these descriptions of the industrial frontier in the boom years of the 1950s and ’60s, when W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit government was transforming the province. Knight eventually obtains a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and teaches at universities in Winnipeg, Burnaby and Toronto, but he becomes alienated from academe and ends up returning to his working-class roots driving taxi in Vancouver, a jaded refugee from the halls of learning.
Even as a writer Knight preserves his outsider status, publishing some of his books with New Star, a well-respected small, independent Vancouver press, but also self-publishing others. He seems permanently at odds with the world, unmellowed and unrepentant. Not a bad position for a writer to occupy.