What do you do if you’re a labour supporter and the movement you’re a part of has effectively stalled?
You make hay with it.
Last year, Max Fraser made a five-minute video about the faded, red square that attracts a hive of oldtime NDP and labour supporters to the High Country Inn each Friday afternoon.
Back at the end of the bar, near the coffee machine and the wicker couch that’s too uncomfortable to sit on, is a two-foot crimson square that’s been abused by sharp heels and ground-in popcorn kernels.
The square is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the official Red Square in Moscow where the Soviet Union once held May Day parades and the Bolsheviks staged their October Revolution in 1917.
The Yukon’s ‘Red Square’ may be a rip-off, but it’s fairly unique. It’s the only other Red Square in the world that Fraser knows of.
Back when his band of left-leaning beer drinkers used to frequent the Taku, they suggested chipping out a section of tiles in one corner of the room and replacing it with a red square.
They weren’t met with the welcoming reception they were hoping for.
After hearing their suggestion, the manager of the bar purposely re-arranged the furniture in the Taku so the group wouldn’t meet there anymore.
It left them “migrant, homeless beer drinkers,” said Del Young who stars in the short documentary.
“After wandering through the hallways of zymurgy (the study of beer distilling) for some time, we ended up here at the High Country,” he said.
The manager of the bar even painted the first red square.
“The former owner (of the High Country) was very supportive – not for political reasons – he just liked to see the cash register ringing,” said Young.
Each Friday after at work anywhere from 20 to 30 people hover above the red square draining beer mugs and hashing out politics.
But that first square didn’t impress the crowd of dippers.
“It was an awful looking square; the colour was all wrong,” said Young.
The colour was more of a fire engine red than it was a “communist red” or a “Che Guevara red,” he explained.
A friend came in and saw the square and said we desecrated all the good communists because it wasn’t red enough, he said with a laugh.
Being confused with communism – usually the bane every NDPer – is taken in stride by the red square folk.
“When people call us ‘commies,’ we laugh and joke,” said Fraser.
“We obviously don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Young added.
Neither does the movie, apparently.
Painting Red Square, which first premiered at the Dawson City Film Festival in April and was eventually picked up by the International Film Festival in Ireland and the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, doesn’t dig deep into the labour and socialist movement in the Yukon, or at least what’s left of it.
Both Fraser and Young have a long history of being involved in the labour movement.
Young was 19 when he got his first union job at a Woodwards Store while Fraser was only 18 when he joined the newspaper guild as a copyboy for the Vancouver Province newspaper.
Both remained involved in the labour movement after that, a time when the labour movement was still going strong and people lived under a cloud of a nuclear threat.
Times have changed since then and the movement has dwindled, in part because of
“radical changes in the economy.” But the struggle for workers still exists, they both concede.
The film is a first-time effort from amateur filmmaker Fraser.
He filmed the movie over a three-hour period last winter while Young was taking part in the yearly “pilgrimmage” of scraping and re-painting the square.
As Young chips away old paint and rolls on a fresh coat of ‘cardinal red’- the next best paint to ‘communist red’- he muses about the history of the square, the importance of having a place in the city for lefties to congregate and the “famous” people who have visited it.
That includes Rick Mercer, who signed the square when he was in Whitehorse four years ago for Rendezvous and the unsuccessful attempt to get Paul Martin to take a picture beside the square some years back.
“Paul Martin was sitting at the High Country having a coffee and I tried to get him to stand by the square,” said Young.
“His handlers had a fit though.”
Then there was the time that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a near brush with the Red Square.
He was “back-doored” into the High Country because of a protest over national daycare funding at the front of the building. But he also didn’t pose near the square.
But it has been visited by labour leaders Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress and Gord Larkin.
And former NDP premiers Tony Penikett and Piers McDonald have visited the square, the former even buying several rounds of drinks for the Red Square folk at the bar.
Hidden away at the back of the bar, the smoothed down planks of painted red wood are “sacred” to the less famous people, the proletariat one could say, that do go and visit it each week.
“Oh yeah, it’s like some kind of religion to them or something,” said one of the cooks at the High Country with a sly smile.
The film, complete with additional cuts, will premiere in Whitehorse this weekend at the Labour Films in Whitehorse festival this Saturday 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Beringia Centre.
Other films to be shown include: Six Weeks of Solidarity (a 75-year retrospect of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike); Defying the Law (a look at the 1946 Stelco strike in Hamilton); and Memory and Muscle (real footage from the 1965 CUPW strike).
Contact Vivian Belik at