GWG: Piece by Piece

“This is a magical collaboration in community storytelling. In a word, it’s wonderful.”
- Linda Goyette - Freelance writer and editor

GWG: Piece by Piece is a 60-minute Video Ballad created by Maria Dunn in collaboration with Don Bouzek and Catherine C. Cole. The show features video footage of immigrant women who worked at Edmonton’s GWG clothing factory interwoven with the live performance of songs inspired by their stories.

What’s the show all about?

The GWG factory, founded in 1911 and closed in 2004, produced a variety of clothing, including GWG blue jeans. The show focuses on the plant through the eyes of the women who worked there. Because work in the plant did not require a strong knowledge of the English language, GWG hired many women shortly after their arrival in Canada as refugees or immigrants. Thus, the arrival of various groups of women who worked at the GWG factory over the years reflects the immigration patterns to Edmonton.

The stories of urban immigrant women are not often told in Alberta. Some stories of pioneer women are available, but very little has been produced by or about women who worked in factories such as the GWG plant. We feel that sharing these stories provides important lessons for Albertans, particularly the current generation of newcomers to the province, members of the labour movement, and young people.

The Video Ballad touches on many themes:

  • the pain and joy of leaving a home country for a new life in Canada, including the women’s tireless efforts to establish their families in Edmonton and provide their children with opportunities that they themselves didn’t have
  • the conditions in the workplace including the positives of English language education and supportive workplace and the negatives of the physical working environment
  • the union’s role in securing a better working environment
  • the impact of Levi-Strauss’ decision to close the plant in 2004

The show was developed in partnership with:

Who’s involved in the show?

Maria Dunn immersed herself in the themes and stories of the women and wrote a song cycle rooted in their words and experiences. Maria worked with Don Bouzek to select which women’s stories would be included in the final version of the show.

A Juno-nominated storyteller through song, Maria (guitar, accordion, vocal) has released four CDs of original music, including The Peddler (nominated for 2009 Canadian Folk Music Award) and 2004’s We Were Good People, inspired by the vibrant people’s history of Western Canada. In addition to GWG: Piece by Piece, Maria has also collaborated with Don Bouzek on the multimedia history show Troublemakers: Working Albertans, 1900 – 1950.

Don Bouzek, GZP’s Artistic Director, selected stories and designed the video material for the Ballad. As a videographer, Don has won several CALM Awards for his Labour work. He is currently collaborating with Banner Theatre on a new project about the fight to retain a strong public sector in these tough economic times.

The research, interviews and archival materials were co-ordinated by historian Catherine C. Cole. Catherine is a heritage consultant based in Edmonton. She has been interested in the history of GWG for many years and has written several related publications. For this project, Catherine has led the majority of the more than 45 interviews with former employees at the GWG/Levi’s plant, compiled significant collections of artifacts and archival materials that are now in the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) and the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA).

The show is performed by Maria, supported by a talented pool of musicians including the following:

Born in Jaipur, Sharmila Mathur (sitar, percussion, vocal) holds a Master of Music degree (Gold Medal honours for sitar) from the University of Rajasthan and currently teaches sitar and directs the Indian Music Ensemble at the University of Alberta.

With a rich understanding of global acoustic music, Shannon Johnson (violin, vocal) is an exceptionally accomplished violinist, producer and 2007 Juno Award winner for her work with her Celtic-world fusion band The McDades (CD: Bloom).

An intellectually compelling songwriter and deeply expressive singer, Terry Morrison (guitar, vocal) has toured extensively throughout North America, shared the stage with Janis Ian and Ian Tyson, and released four independent CDs including Riches and Grace (2007; produced by Mike Lent).

How was the show developed?

GWG: Piece by Piece is the product of a process that began in 2003, with an outreach initiative by ALHI to collect oral histories of workers from culturally diverse communities. Catherine C. Cole has been working on GWG since the time she wrote her graduate thesis about the plant in the period before World War II.

Working together and, at various times, with the Centre for Work and Learning at the University of Alberta and Maria Dunn, Catherine C. Cole and ALHI recorded digital histories with over 45 women in both English and Cantonese. Catherine worked directly with UFCW, Local 120 to archive the history of the union which was established in 1911.

In addition to the video ballad GWG: Piece by Piece, the GWG oral and written histories have also been disseminated through the following projects:

  • The Community Foundation of Edmonton supported Ground Zero in creating a travelling exhibition on the GWG plant.
  • The Royal Alberta Museum has launched a Virtual Museum about the plant.
  • Catherine C. Cole is in the process of completing a photo book about the plant.

The show itself has been presented within the Edmonton community (Royal Alberta Museum Theatre, Arts on the Avenue Festival) and toured nationally to Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Research and development of this Video Ballad was supported by 2007 Edmonton Cultural Capital Funding.

Where can I see the show?

GWG: Piece by Piece is now available for touring. For further information check out the Booking GZP section of this website.

The 2011/12 season achieved a goal which Don Bouzek set when he moved the company to Edmonton almost 15 years ago. We were able to do a multi-city tour of Alberta in non-traditional venues from Lethbridge to Grand Prairie. To mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the AFL supported this provincial tour of GWG: PIECE BY PIECE together with an earlier show, TROUBLEMAKERS. The schedule began in the south performances in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Calgary, East Coulee [Drumheller] and Olds. Red Deer followed and then a northwestern leg to Hinton and Grand Prairie. Last season’s shows culminated in two Edmonton performances including a special event for 1000 people at Fort Edmonton Park.

The next GWG Show will be November 14th, 2014 at the University of Alberta. For information visit the Undergraduate Research Initiative website here.

Tickets can be purchased here for the November 14th show..

What have people said about the show?

“This is history at its best – compelling, entertaining, and important.” Jeremy Mouat, Rose City Roots Music Society - Camrose

“Piece by Piece captures, in a gripping and dignified performance, the lives of the women who worked at GWG over the decades.” Jim Gurnett, former Executive Director - Mennonite Centre for Newcomers

To read a review of the GWG show in Red Deer on the AFL tour click here