Imagine a skilled craftsman around the time of Confederation. Born in the mid-1840s, his talents were honed through a process of apprenticeship and work in a small shop alongside a master and perhaps two or three other workers. The community was small — a large city might contain fewer than 30,000 people and even the largest covered a small, walkable space. The work setting was probably familial: the master — his employer — was also the head of the household in which the apprentice lived from childhood. Other family members — old and young — worked alongside him as he grew.
By 1870, competition is increasing as others working in the same trade combine their efforts under one roof, selling their skills for wages. Soon there are a couple of dozen workers per factory. Then a hundred. By the time our craftsman has reached his 30s he will have seen his area of expertise and skill increasingly challenged by machinery and the employment of less skilled workers, including women, children, and perhaps immigrants.
In the late 1880s, at the age of about 45, he looks about himself and sees an urban environment that is utterly different from the commercial market-towns of his childhood. He is working in a shop that is becoming more and more mechanized, the work broken down into component parts. Respect for his skills is diminishing and he’s coming under increasing pressure to be efficient.
He is married and his wife easily recalls the rhythms of rural Canada. There were long working days and not much about it that was very charming or romantic, apart from (possibly) better housing conditions and a degree of independence that is being eroded in factory work. Her own skills as a tailor are being undermined by machinery and her wages are barely half those of the men in the factory. Their children work the same long hours and are at the mercy of supervisors who will discourage talking or playing or daydreaming with physical punishment of their small and tired bodies and minds.
The industrial, urban world presents new social opportunities. Joining lodges and churches are an option. So are new organizations like the Knights of Labor and the Provincial Workmen’s Association. For Ontarian and Québecois working people, the prospect of crossing the border for work is nothing new; the idea of joining an American labour organization that promises to protect the dignity of labour is an easy choice to make.
This is the new normal for a generation of Canadians who can remember that pre-industrial past and, in the 1870s and 1880s, are looking at a future that offers little certainty. Their children — 10 to 20 years old in 1887 — will take those years of lightless childhood with them into the trade unions sponsored by the AFL and the TLC, or into the IWW. It is also very likely they will take those experiences (remember that this generation has far less claim on a pre-industrial standard) into the militant years from 1907-1925. They will take all this with them into the far west, as well, where they will find company towns and new systems of discipline in labour disputes that include the police, local militias, national troops, specials, and private security companies.
The grandchildren of our original craftsman — born in the early 1880s-1890s — will grow up watching a world of conflict in their factory, mine, mill towns, and their distinctly working-class neighbourhoods. Most will experience orphanhood — the death of at least one parent before they turn 15 — and they will likely spend some time moving around their province or across the country as part of a transient workforce. This railway generation is the first for which a trans-continental conception of Canada is easily arrived at. They also have a greater likelihood of receiving a substantial educational experience and they will be the subject of far greater middle-class reform-mindedness than their predecessors. They will object to militarism, but they will die in their thousands in Belgium and France.
Reading the Working Class
If we approach the history of working-class Canada institutionally, from the history of trade unions or the growth of factories, we can easily miss the way it might have appeared to participants on the ground. No one involved in the 1919 General Strike would be much younger than 16 nor much older than 50. If that is all we know about the people involved, then we know they had probably come some distance — perhaps generations — from the farming, fishing, and market town peoples of the first four provinces. We know that many of them would necessarily be immigrants whose experience of work was influenced by local prejudices. We also know that industrial capitalism was a widespread way of life and not something new. It had been around long enough, and the exploitative qualities were sufficiently and frustratingly familiar that a working-class response was timely.
If it seems as though changes in the experiences of working people and their organizations came quickly and repeatedly, it is partly due to the fact that change in the economy and in the way workers lived, was also occurring at a breakneck speed — sometimes erratically. New technologies and resource industries produced significant and very new problems in short order. Some of the organizational shifts were, however, particularly decisive.
Take the differences between the Knights of Labor with their largely autonomous Local Assemblies and the AFL-TLC led craft unions. Distinct constitutions and memberships, and a centralized and bureaucratic leadership marked the latter. A craft union in the late 1880s might discourage one of its locals from mounting what the leadership regarded as an imprudent strike simply by withholding strike funds. The Knights allowed more local freedom while depending simultaneously on the strength of deference to the senior ranks. The craft unions had a local and sectional view of the world while the Knights — and the Wobblies — had a sector-wide perspective.
The growth of these institutions was important to Canadian history in that they reframed the language of citizenship and rights. They posed a challenge, in some instances, to the emergence of capitalism. They had something to say about culture and respectability, and they certainly had something to say about class. Greg Kealey compared working-class testimony from two Royal Commissions — the 1886-89 investigation into Relations between Capital and Labour and the 1919 study of Industrial Relations — and concluded that respectability had been supplanted by radicalism. In the space of 30 years, the working class had changed at a foundational level and at a cultural level as well — it was a much bigger phenomenon and it included far more than the original craft union elements. Along the way, its instincts had changed from a desire to fit into a bourgeois vision of Canadian society to one that had grown increasingly cynical of the state and employers.
Historians continue to debate whether Canada was on the brink of a revolutionary uprising of working people in the first two decades of the 20th century. Without a doubt, it is the direction some outspoken and influential leaders wished to head. Others sought to test the limits of democratic reform. Together, the excitement of events in Russia and the rise of the British Labour Party created a sense that change could be achieved with or without the ballot box. It is also clear that Canadian workers exhibited less unity than they might have precisely because of their federal system and because of cultural differences. This period saw the rise of labour organizations, but we must keep in mind, their immediate reach was never great. On the eve of the Great War, barely one-in-ten of Canadian workers belonged to a union. Their concentration in certain key industries, however, gave these early organizations far greater potential than their numbers indicate.
Just as industrialism built a new economy, it was midwife to a new kind of modern Canadian who was very typically a town or city dweller, a wage-earner (or someone dependent on a wage-earner), probably a renter, and someone who worked and lived alongside many other people — most of whom were unrelated. This is a far cry from the Canada of 1867 and it was one in which new bonds were being forged.
abolitionists: Individuals and groups associated with the movement to end slavery in the United States. In Canada, abolitionists assisted African-Americans fleeing the United States, whether they were slaves or otherwise. The abolitionist movement built the foundation for subsequent social movements in Canada.
American Federation of Labor (AFL): Established in 1886 as an umbrella organization of craft unions in the United States.
automation: A manufacturing process in which assembly or some other part of the production system is performed by machines that are subject to control systems.
blacklist: Sanctions taken by employers against workers whom they associate with labour organization, strikes, certain ideological movements, or other actions contrary to the employers’ interests. Technically, a list of individuals who were denied work on the basis of their involvement in pro-labour activities.
Bloody Saturday: 21 June 1919; during a mass demonstration of solidarity (after ten OBU leaders were arrested, including J. S. Woodsworth) in which a buildup of state resources (troops, Mounties and Specials) were brought in. 30 protesters were injured and two killed.
Bolshevik: A workers’ party that led the Russian Revolution in October 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.
boosters: Civic promoters.
business unions: Trade or craft unions that approach activism from a non-revolutionary position; associated with the unions of the AFL, the TLC, and — later — the CLC.
Canadian Labour Congress (CLC): Founded in 1956 in a merger of the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). Subsequently joined with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to create the New Democratic Party (NDP).
capitalism, capitalists: An economic system (and its practitioners) that is based on the ability of private individuals to accumulate and invest money (capital) in profit-making enterprises. Also, a system that is dominated by the private ownership of the means of production.
chilled steel plough: A significant late 19th century advance in plough manufacturing. Stronger steel enabled the cutting of faster and deeper furrows and the breaking of densely packed prairie soil.
Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand: During the Winnipeg General Strike, 1919, an organization established by the city’s business and political elites to break the strike and challenge the authority of the Strike Committee.
collective bargaining: Negotiation of working conditions, pay, and other issues or benefits by an association — a “union” — of employees. Replaced the many individual arrangements made in one-on-one agreements.
company store: An outlet owned by an employer, one that sells goods to employees of the same firm. Commonplace in company towns. See also company towns.
company towns: A community with one major employer and few other employers; one in which most or all services — in some instances including housing and the supply of food — are controlled by the employer. Associated with remote resource extraction communities.
corporate welfarism: Equates subsidies to corporations with social welfare paid to individuals. In 1972, NDP leader David Lewis coined the phrase “corporate welfare bums” as a way of identifying what he perceived as the hypocrisy of attacks on the poor by anti-welfare business leaders.
craft capitalism: Refers to a transition to capitalism led by craftworkers.
deskilling: Mechanization and automation of work, as well as assembly lines permits the systematization of work and a commensurate reduction in the skills and training needed to perform key functions. The work is said to be deskilled and, thus, the workforce too is deskilled.
dower laws: Formal recognition of a widow’s lifetime interest in matrimonial property on the death of her husband. See also homestead rights.
equal rights: In the context of feminism, the belief that rights accorded to men and women ought to be the same. Diverges somewhat from maternal feminism which claims rights based on gendered differences.
essential industries: Sectors identified in a crisis (such as wartime) as fundamental to the survival of the economy or society or war effort. Workers in those sectors are typically protected against conscription and may also be restricted in their ability to move to other jobs. In some instances, the state takes direct control of the industries for the duration of the crisis or longer.
Family Compact: The elite network in pre-Confederation Canada that dominated colonial politics; in Quebec (aka: Canada East, Lower Canada) it was referred to as the Chateau Clique.
Fédération National Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSB): Founded in 1907, francophone Catholic women activists who also saw themselves as maternal feminists.
female suffrage: One of the central issues of the first wave feminists, involving a protracted campaign with feminist activists laying claim to full political citizenship.
feminism: An ideological position that advances the ideal of equality of women and men.
first wave: More fully: first wave feminists. Advocates for women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; also sometimes called maternal feminists.
fossil fuels: Includes coal, oil, natural gas, and petroleum; any fuel based on the compression of carbon matter over geological time.
free labour: Workers who are not tied to a feudal relationship, slavery, or indentured servitude and are able to move from one employer (or location) to another based on the size of pay and the character of the work.
general strike: A labour stoppage involving most or all unions or workplaces. General strikes have been held that call on all workers in a particular city or a particular sector or across an entire country.
ghost towns: Abandoned communities; associated principally with resource extraction — often mining — towns that have a very short lifespan and which close up once the resource is removed or the market disappears.
gradualism: The idea that great change can occur incrementally in slow, small, and subtle steps, rather than by large uprisings or revolutions. Among left-wing activists, a belief that reforms to capitalism can produce a social and economic order of fairness for working people; sometimes called Fabianism; derided by revolutionaries as delusional. In the context of Quebec’s independence movements the equivalent term is étapisme. See also reformist and impossibilist.
homestead rights: The Dominion Lands Act protected women’s interest in homesteads by forbidding the sale of the homestead by a husband without the wife’s written consent.
household wage: A way of measuring income that extends beyond the breadwinner model and incorporates incomes earned by every member of the household/family.
House of Industry: A facility typically funded out of philanthropic/charitable donations that provides housing and food for impoverished citizens with the expectation that they will do work in return. In the 19th century, associated with workhouses for the poor.
industrial relations: The diplomatic business of negotiating contracts and conditions between employers and employees; typically between employers and labour organizations (unions).
Knights of Labor: Fully, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Established in the United States in 1869-70; expanded into Canada in the next decade; organized workers regardless of race (apart from Asians), sex, or skill levels. Competition with the new craft unions resulted in the Knights’ expulsion from the Trades and Labour Congress in 1902, and its gradual disintegration thereafter.
labourism: Canadian Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) candidates promoted an agenda that consisted mostly of democratic reforms, the 8-hour work day, a minimum wage, and educational opportunities for all.
Labour Party: In Britain, the political face of the Trades Union Congress; established in 1906. While Labour Parties also appeared in Australia and New Zealand, one never fully materialized in Canada.
Liberal-Labour (also Lib-Lab): Typically a pro-labour candidate, sometime running under a Labour or Independent Labour banner, who joined the Liberal caucus on being elected.
maternal feminism: Also called first wave feminism; a movement to achieve greater civic rights for women; based its appeal on the biological differences between women and men, arguing that women have a natural nurturing instinct and ability which ought to be welcomed in a democratic system; women could apply the knowledge and attributes acquired from their universal role as mothers to address various inequities and social ills.
mechanization: The process of replacing manual labour with machinery; distinct from automation, which is a later phase in the deskilling process.
modernity: Also modern and modernism; term given to a constellation of behaviours and beliefs associated with the industrial, urban era. It is associated with challenges to traditional values and ways of looking at the world, and is often used in connection with 20th century artworks, literature, and architecture.
National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC): A feminist activist group formed in 1893; predominantly Anglo-Celtic Protestant women who mostly identified themselves as maternal feminists.
National Policy: John A. Macdonald’s linkage of three policies into one: a tariff wall to exclude American manufactures; an transcontinental railway (the CPR) to link the Maritimes with British Columbia; and the settlement of the West. Although most of the components were in place by 1876, it was only touted as a single National Policy in 1879.
one big union, One Big Union (OBU): In the first instance, the idea (pioneered by the Knights of Labor) that working people should belong to a single organization that can fight for their rights collectively; secondly, an actual organization — the OBU — formed after 1919, as a revolutionary industrial union (which included workers in support of the Bolshevik and other left-wing revolutions).
partial franchise: With the passage of the Wartime Elections Act in 1917, female relatives of Canadian soldiers were granted the vote.
populism: In politics, an appeal to the interests and concerns of the community by political leaders (populists) usually against established elites or minority — or scapegoat — groups. The rhetoric of populists is often characterized as vitriolic, bombastic, and fear-mongering.
profiteers: Industrialists and others who were able to profit from government contracts in wartime.
prohibition: A total ban on the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol products.
proletarianization: The transformation of non-industrial workers or skilled workers and small employers into wage labourers.
proportional representation: Distinct from the first-past-the-post system; can take several forms but common aspect is that political parties will be elect a number of seats that reflect in some measure the percentage of votes the parties receive. For example, in a first-past-the-post system a party might win 49% of the votes in every constituency but not elect a single candidate if the only other party running wins 51% of the votes; proportional representation (sometimes called PR) would ensure that the second-place party received something closer to 49% of the seats.
Red Scare: A complex of political, social, economic, and cultural responses to the rise of pro-communist feeling in Canada and internationally; fear of communist revolution at home or abroad and particularly of pro-communist spies and supporters working clandestinely to advance a communist agenda; manifest in security campaigns against perceived enemies of the state, the creation of blacklists, and other acts of intimidation.
respectability: A term used and an ideal pursued by mid-19th century organized labour — particularly skilled craft workers — and some of their successors; embraced the ideals of fair treatment, law-abiding behaviour, equality, and a commitment to the nation’s stability and growth. Manifest in many ways including working class campaigns for literacy, temperance, and rational recreation.
Second Industrial Revolution: Usually placed between ca. 1870 and 1914, renewed technological innovation which saw a significant expansion in iron and steel production, railway construction, and communications technologies like the telegraph and telephone.
Social Gospel: A social reform movement stimulated by Christian beliefs that linked personal engagement with social salvation.
Specials: Volunteer police drawn from a local population; in the case of the Winnipeg General Strike, the Specials were recruited from the Citizen’s Committee.
squirearchy: Colloquial term used to describe the elite in colonial British Columbia.
standing army: A full-time, permanent, usually salaried army, as opposed to a volunteer militia.
strikebreakers: Colloquial term for a worker who continues working, or who takes a job, while a strike is ongoing. Also called a scab.
sweated labour: Work that takes place over long hours; exhausting and generally poorly paid; very often involves “outwork”, the taking home of materials that are assembled there, usually by female employees, who are paid on the basis of output.
sympathy strike: A labour stoppage by supportive workers who are not directly involved in a dispute.
syndicalist: Advocate of syndicalism, the belief that industry would be best run by syndicates made up of industrial workers who would own and operate the factories themselves.
tariff: Charges (a tax) added to imported goods so as to make their sale price higher than domestic goods and, thus, make domestic goods more competitive.
temperance: One strand of the anti-liquor campaign in the 19th and 20th centuries, focussed on the personal impact of alcohol and personal resolve in limiting or giving up drink. Contrast with prohibition, which called for an all-out ban on the production, sale, and consumption of liquor.
tied housing: In company towns, housing that is owned by the employer and provided to employees. In some cases, residence in tied housing is a condition of employment, which enables the employer to evict strikers during labour disputes.
total war: Describes the engagement of the whole nation in conflict, and not just the military. In the 20th century, applies only to the two World Wars.
Trades and Labour Congress of Canada: A national association of craft unions modelled on the American Federation of Labor; established in 1883 and merged with the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) in 1956 to create the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
truck shop: An outlet owned by an employer, one that sells goods to employees of the same firm. Commonplace in company towns. See also company store.
universal adult suffrage: Introduced a year after the partial franchise, to grant adults the right to vote; however, select populations of women and men were explicitly left disenfranchised: Aboriginal people, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants.
universal male suffrage: Extension of the franchise — the right to vote — to all adult males. In practice in Canada, it excluded non-Euro-Canadians (i.e. Aboriginal and Asian) adult males until the mid-20th century. Also constrained by residency requirements until the mid-20th century.
vertical integration: In economics and business, a system in which the whole or most of the supply chain is owned by the same individual(s) or firm. Early examples come from the steel industry which in some cases controlled the production of coking coal, the supply of iron ore, foundries, and railways that consumed the final product.
wheat boom: An expanding demand for wheat leading to a rapid expansion of farmland dedicated to wheat production; in Canada from ca. 1880-1914.
Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU): One of the largest and most effective anti-drink lobbies in Canada. Established in 1874, months after its first branch was announced in the United States, the WCTU emerged as a vehicle for contiguous reforms in public behaviour, the political environment, and social conditions.
Short Answer Exercises
- Define the Industrial Revolution. What were its main features in the late 19th century?
- How did infrastructure and the energy economy change in the post-Confederation era?
- What were some of the main features of working-class life?
- Was the Industrial Revolution a social revolution as well as an economic transformation?
- What were the main features of the National Policy?
- What sort of roles did children play in urban and industrial society? To what extent were the experiences of boys and girls distinct?
- How did urban life change the experiences of women?
- In what ways was urbanization connected to industrialization? In what ways were Canadian cities distinct from one another?
- How did craft unions differ from industrial unions?
- What were the goals of the early labour centres, such as the Knights of Labor?
- What were the key features of Canadian democracy in the late 19th century?
- Explain the rise of first wave feminism, and what is meant by maternal feminism?
- How did the Great War change Canadian labour and its political ambitions?
Bullen, John. “Hidden Workers: Child Labour and the Family Economy in Late Nineteenth-Century Urban Ontario,” Labour/Le Travail, 18 (Fall 1986): 163-87.
Dunae, Patrick A., Donald J. Lafreniere, Jason A. Gilliland, and John S. Lutz, “Dwelling Places and Social Spaces: Revealing the Environments of Urban Workers in Victoria Using Historical GIS,” Labour/Le Travail, 72 (Fall 2013): 37-73.
Kealey, Gregory S. “State Repression of Labour and the Left in Canada, 1914-1920: The Impact of the First World War,” Canadian Historical Review, 73, 3 (1992): 281-314.
McCann, Larry. “Seasons of Labor: Family, Work, and Land in a Nineteenth-Century Nova Scotia Shipbuilding Community,” The History of the Family, 4, Issue 4 (1999): 485-527.
Radforth, Ian. “Playful Crowds and the 1886 Toronto Street Railway Strikes,” Labour/Le Travail, 76 (Fall 2015): 133-64.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. “’The Citizenship Debates’: The 1885 Franchise Act,” Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings, eds. Robert Adamoski, Dorothy E. Chunn, and Robert Menzies (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002): 69-94.
City Hall and Volunteer Monument, Winnipeg, MB, 1887 by William McFarlane Notman / McCord Museum has no known copyright restrictions.
- Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 289-328. ↵