Saint John’s The Backstays just released a new ode to labour with “No Hot Cargo.” The track will be included on the band’s new album Tributaries due out this spring.
Longshoremen, the port workers who load and unload ships, historically declare “hot cargo” to any shipment they refuse to load or move based on ethical grounds and solidarity.
The “no hot cargo” action in Saint John in July 1979, dubbed the single most “dramatic example of Canadian trade union solidarity” with workers in developing nations, was carried out by Saint John’s branch of International Longshoremen Association (Local 273) in collaboration with anti-nuclear and Argentine expatriate civil rights activists. The action shut down the port of Saint John to block the shipment of heavy water needed for a Canadian-made nuclear reactor (CANDU) to Argentina, when it was ruled by a military dictatorship.
In 1976, a military junta launched a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected Peron government in Argentina. It carried out widespread tortures and forced disappearance against tens of thousands of activists and political opponents. As a result of Saint John protest, future nuclear sales to Argentina were cancelled and the junta released 14 political prisoners.
In 2003, the Saint John Longshoremen (ILA Local 273) joined other Longshoremen to declared “hot cargo” to military shipments as a protest against the War on Iraq. Most recently in 2018, Saint John dock workers honoured the picket line made by peace activists protesting the shipment of Light-Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia to be used in the war on Yemen.
Pete Johnston formed the band in 2018 and is a member of the NB Media Co-op’s editorial board. The NB Media Co-op’s Data Brainata interviewed Johnston about the song and his influences.
Can you tell me more about The Backstays’ latest single “No Hot Cargo”, e.g. what inspired it and what is it trying to say?
Johnston: The words were inspired by the most recent protests in Saint John against Canada’s arms trade and the sale and shipment of Ontario-made combat vehicles called Light Armoured Vehicles or LAVs. In part, the song is sort of grappling with the ruthless sort of attacks on organized labour and other democratizing forces and institutions since the hot cargo strike in Saint John in 1979.
Can you also tell me more about The Backstays, e.g. the background story behind it and the music that influences it?
Johnston: So many varied influences and it changes all the time. We’re a local band. But even if in a small way, one thing I hope we are doing with this song is helping to remind Saint Johners who might be listening about their powerful history of collective action and demanding better for each other. We need that spirit now more than ever.
Your opinion of the local music scene?
Johnston: There isn’t one consistent sound in Saint John but there is a common thread. Everyone plays the music they love and offers something a little different to the city. The only issue we have is we lack a central venue. The scene is a bit splintered without one. It was before COVID-19.
What are you trying to create with your music?
Johnston: Stuff that excites us while we perform it. We don’t really limit what we do in the studio because that’s a big part of the fun of it, but we are sort of mindful of what we can and can’t replicate on stage.
What inspires you to make music?
Johnston: It is a release and an escape and you get those moments when you play with other people you feel like you transcend your neurotic mind or normal state of consciousness if that makes sense.
Who is your audience?
Johnston: Good question. Anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pro-people, pro-democracy, pro-planet earth.
What specific local features that you like to bring to your music?
Johnston: I’m not really sure but it feels feudal doesn’t it? New Brunswick governments don’t really seem to care that much about people. They restrict or defund anything that helps people. Politicians are more interested in market abstractions and old ideas and lies to try to justify existing illegitimate hierarchies. They watch these few billionaires siphon all the wealth out and grant whatever egregious demands they have, no matter how harmful to the people or land for what? Some twisted sense of economic stability or protection in return? As if this is our only option. We need a Green New Deal in New Brunswick and the kind of wartime-esque state mobilization to get us out of this pandemic and out from under this horrendous, but fragile oligarchy.
Data Brainata is a permaculturalist-in-training with an interest in politics.