Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.8 Labour and Its Discontents

We have seen in Chapters 9 and Chapter 10 how work processes were changing with the economy in the 19th century and the impact this had on social relations. By the 1820s, old artisanal traditions of apprenticing as a child to the household of a master, being raised as part of that family, and eventually moving on as a journeyman were weakening. The British Master and Servants Acts were enforced in British North America and reinforced by local legislation in both Nova Scotia (1765) and Canada West (1847); these laws made clear the duty owed by an apprentice to his master and ensured that wage-labour employees could not simply abandon their jobs. That these laws were passed suggests that apprentices and wage earners were, in fact, eager to enjoy the freedom to leave a bad employer or pursue better opportunities.

In some situations, such as logging camps, the employer might provide everything from housing to company stores and schools, and the “boss” stood at the top of a social pyramid built around notions of paternalism. In the best circumstances, paternalistic artisanal masters or major employers could create a good environment for their workers. But, as labour historian Craig Heron indicates, “It was a system ripe for cruelty and abuse.”[1] Heron points out that it wasn’t until the 1860s and 1870s that organized labour became widespread; before that, what historians describe as “the crowd” was the main expression of working people’s power and frustration. These were inclusive events in which women and children participated, calling on mine or mill owners to change their policies, improve pay, or show more equity in their treatment of their employees. This was particularly the case in company towns like Albion Mines, Nova Scotia, or Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where there was effectively one industry, one employer, and one workforce.

The Genesis of Unions

The changing economy created a new social order made up increasingly of men, women, and children who worked for wages year-round. This move away from seasonal work eventually presented an opportunity for labour to organize and find a political voice. Working people, of course, had no entitlement to the vote at any level, not unless (in the rare case) they were also property owners.

It is striking, when looking at this period between 1818 and 1860, to note the extent to which employers scrupulously ensured that their employees would not find a voice. The company towns could cut off credit, and evict and exile troublemakers at will. The early textile mill owners in Montreal brutalized their workforces of women and children with beatings and fines. It could not be said for a moment that the early capitalist elite’s vision of a British North American democracy included their workers.

For some workers, the friendly societies were the answer; for others nothing short of organization would suffice. Early workers’ associations first arose in skilled, town-based industries. As already noted, there was hardly a town in British North America without a shoemaker, a printer, a tailor, and carpenters and joiners. Each of these crafts depended on a master’s ability to employ steady journeymen. As towns increased in size so did the aspirations of some masters, resulting in deskilling the jobs and lowering wages. Embryonic unions thus appeared in all of these crafts.

The printers were among the first to organize, and a particularly well-known dispute occurred in Toronto in 1836. There, the printshop owners — led by the publisher William Lyon Mackenzie — confronted and defeated the printers’ demands for better wages and guarantees for apprentices. The intolerance for the discontent of workers was echoed a decade later by Mackenzie’s Grit/Reformer nemesis, George Brown, at the Globe.[2] Brown fulminated against the organization of labour while, at the same time, championing the Printing Employers Association in Toronto.[3] On this point as on so many others, John A. Macdonald and George Brown disagreed: after Confederation Macdonald introduced legislation to legalize unions. In the meantime pressures were growing for some kind of representative organization in the workplace or in communities.

Craft unions began to appear in the 1850s. By this time some work in the craft sector had been routinized but mechanization had not progressed very far. Craft members became increasingly concerned about the the internationalization of industrial work. They had grown up in a world where, for the most part, labour stayed close to home and prices were determined locally. Now skilled labour was on the move across North America, looking for a better wage and using the new transportation technologies to expand their search. Employers were in a better position to fix wages beyond their immediate vicinity. Locals were buying manufactured goods that were made in British and American factories hundreds of miles away. British and American workers were ahead of most British North American craftsmen on this issue, so the earliest unions were — in English British North America at least — extensions of British and American organizations.

As industrialization grew so too did the size of the proletariat: people dependent on wage-paying jobs to survive. This expanding common experience would prove to have greater impact after Confederation than before. It is worth noting, however, that the advocates for greater democracy in 1830s Upper and Lower Canada in no way envisioned a day when the vote would be extended to a Canadian working class.

Key Points

  • The emergence of larger workplaces — mines, mills, logging camps, and factories — in different ways stimulated the growth of organization among working people.
  • Craft unions were the first to appear, building on the specificity of artisanal skills and the workers’ ability to control the supply of skills.
  • Working people’s political engagement occurred, but outside of the ballot box.

  1. Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1989), 4.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Greg Kealey, "Work Control, the Labour Process, and Nineteenth-Century Canadian Printers," in Workers and Canadian History (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995), 212-213.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation Copyright © 2015 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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