For 11-year-old sweet-tooth Jasmine Soon, the book’s title was irresistible: “Maggie and the Chocolate War.” She savoured Michelle Mulder’s fiction based on the 1947 children’s candy bar strike and then craved to know more about the nationwide protest that had first broken out in Ladysmith.
Kids of the day could not accept that the price of a chocolate bar had jumped 60 per cent overnight from a handy nickel to an unwieldy eight cents. They rebelled. They would be seen and heard.
“If I was a kid back then,” proclaimed Jasmine, “I would’ve gone on strike too.”
Instead, Jasmine started a heritage fair project. She watched a 2003 documentary called “The Five Cent War.” Her research took her to museums, archives and libraries in the Okanagan. She found that a strike had been averted in her hometown of Vernon due to a supportive candy store owner named Nick Alexis.
Unable to get to Vancouver Island, Jasmine contacted Bridget Watson of the Ladysmith & District Historical Society and was delighted to receive a package of prime materials.
Jasmine phoned 87-year-old Parker Williams, who led the original protest march in Ladysmith, and he kindly mailed his notes and articles.
Next on the call list was Connie Leblanc, who had marched 70 years ago in Bathurst, NB. Over the phone, Connie sang the song she and her friends had written for the occasion: “We Want a Five-Cent Chocolate Bar.” Jasmine listened gleefully to the four familiar lines (featured in the documentary) and then was astounded when Connie continued to sing eight more unheard-of, undocumented lines, which included references to Sweet Marie and Oh Henry! bars to the music of the Notre Dame Victory March.
To honour Parker, Connie and their co-conspirators, Jasmine also wrote to Canada Post, submitting a nomination letter and design for a new stamp, perhaps as part of a series focusing on young activists. Director Jim Phillips sent a very encouraging letter back, along with a kaleidoscopic array of Canada Post products.
After finishing her presentation board, Jasmine painted picket signs and staged a protest march at her school. The Grade 5 student was one of four to advance from her school to the Vernon and District Heritage Fair. There she picked up the Students’ and People’s Choice Awards, moving on to the regional fair in Kelowna. Next, Jasmine was one of three chosen to represent the Okanagan at the Provincials in Victoria — five days of cultural activities, culminating in a celebratory showcase of the 40 projects at the Royal BC Museum.
History would come alive for Jasmine on Vancouver Island in some memorable ways. She toured the BC Legislature, which kid picketers invaded and shut down in 1947. Also, author Michelle Mulder came to the Provincial Showcase to meet her young follower. She reflected, “It meant a lot to me to see Jasmine take an event mentioned in one of my books and to fly with it.”
After a short solo protest on the grounds of the Legislature, Jasmine headed north to the site of the original strike. Outside Ladysmith’s Wigwam Restaurant, she was joined by historians Bridget Watson and Rob Johnson as well as former Ladysmith Mayor Rob Hutchins. Finally, Jasmine’s pilgrimage reached Nanaimo where she made a delivery of chocolates to candy strike pioneer Parker Williams and his wife Tilly.
The 1947 children’s strike did not bring down the price of chocolate. “But it was a success,” maintains Jasmine, “because kids got their voices heard.” And 70 years later, the story is still inspiring young people like Jasmine Soon to find their own voice.