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Canada’s militant working class history

Workers in Canada have a powerful history of confronting employers and state power

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Pickets at the Moncton Hospital during the New Brunswick public sector general strike in June 1992. Photo from Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour by David Frank.

I was deeply disappointed that the Omicron wave made it impossible for me travel out to Ladysmith, BC, for the annual Joseph Mairs Memorial on January 23. I had been graciously invited to contribute to the event with a talk on “social struggles in the wake of the pandemic.” That a memorial event linked to a militant strike in the early part of the 20th century should provide the basis for a discussion of how we resist in the challenging and uncertain times we face today seemed entirely appropriate and enormously exciting. That being so, I’m writing this to try and convey some of the thoughts I had planned to share in Ladysmith.

Joseph Mairs gave his life in the course of a landmark struggle for working class rights: the Great Coal Strike of 1912-14 on Vancouver Island. In September of 1912, when two active members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) were fired, miners declared a one day ‘holiday’ and demanded recognition of their union. The employer, Canadian Collieries, responded by locking them out and a bitter struggle ensued.

In a concerted bid to punish the miners and crush their effort to challenge exploitative and massively dangerous working conditions, Canadian Collieries, also their landlord, evicted them from their homes and brought in strikebreakers. The response came in the form of strong and determined picket lines that defied the constables sent in by the provincial authorities.

In August of 1913, following what was deemed a major riot in Nanaimo, miners converged on the town of Ladysmith, where strikebreakers were lodged, and held it until the militia arrived. Fifty-eight miners were arrested and Joseph Mairs, a 21-year-old Scottish immigrant, was one of them. He was given a 16-month prison term for his part in the resistance and, while confined, developed a serious stomach condition. The prison doctor diagnosed indigestion, despite being told that Mairs had had surgery in Scotland for a bowel obstruction. The young worker died soon after this and an autopsy showed he had tuberculosis of the intestine and that his bowels had ruptured.

The killing of Mairs by a neglectful prison system shocked the labour movement and a mile-long funeral procession laid him to rest in the cemetery in Ladysmith. A plaque on the grave commemorates him as “A martyr to a noble cause - The emancipation of his fellow man.” Over a century later, this incredible example of struggle and sacrifice still brings people to Mairs’ graveside every year.

A militant history

There is a curious and fairly widespread belief that working class militancy isn’t part of Canada’s history or its present reality. You frequently hear people make reference to a strike or powerful protest somewhere else and suggest that such a fight-back wouldn’t happen here. But the idea is entirely wrong.

It is true that Canada has not been spared the defeats and setbacks of the neoliberal decades. Unions have been weakened and the readiness and capacity to fight back undermined significantly. However, this has taken place on an international scale, confuting the notion of an exceptional level of passivity here. A study of industrial disputes by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) includes the strike record in the major developed economies between 1985 and 2015. While a major decline in working class resistance has occurred everywhere, the level of combativeness in Canada has not been driven down as far as it has in a range of comparable countries. Working class people in Canada are looking for an opening and a means to fight back effectively to a degree that is actually quite exceptional.

It is worth offering a few examples, drawn from the historical record, to remind ourselves that workers in Canada have a powerful history of confronting employers and state power. Just a few years after the miners’ struggles on Vancouver Island, the great Winnipeg General Strike unfolded. As James Naylor observes, “What made the Strike ‘general’ was that it mobilized an entire class.” It expressed the “workers’ growing anger and desperation in early 20th-century capitalism” and the explosive confrontations and the bitterness of the Strike’s ultimate defeat that have all “continued to fuel the fight for a working class future” over the last century.

The early 1920s saw titanic class battles in Cape Breton, with coal miners and steelworkers challenging the power of the Montréal-based British Empire Steel Corp. “Dramatic confrontations followed,” according to the historical records, “and 3 major strikes accounted for more than 2 million striker-days.” During the steelworkers’ strike of 1923, provincial police went on a brutal and punitive rampage through the streets of Whitney Pier. When miners responded to this outrage by coming out on a sympathy strike, two of their leaders, Dan Livingstone and J.B. McLachlan, were arrested and charged with seditious libel.

These struggles paved the way for full union recognition and “marked the growth of a persistent tradition of working-class consciousness” in Cape Breton. Another martyr of trade union struggle, William Davis, who was shot down by company police in 1925, is remembered every year on Miners’ Memorial Day.

The Great Depression of the 1930s produced an upsurge of working class struggle, including among the ranks of the unemployed. Those who might have succumbed to hunger and despair organized powerful and ubiquitous resistance. Mass delegation besieged relief offices to obtain benefits for jobless workers and housing evictions were blocked by powerful community-based mobilizations.

In 1935, relief camp workers in BC came out on strike and rode freight trains across the country with the intention of confronting the government in Ottawa. Brutally attacked and dispersed by the RCMP in Saskatchewan, in what become known as the Regina Riot, the On to Ottawa Trek was prevented from reaching its objective, but it created a political crisis for those in power and laid the foundations for later measures of social provision, including unemployment insurance.

Protests in Toronto against cuts to social assistance, 1995. Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star.

The way forward

The immediate post war years saw the consolidation of industrial trade unions, with harsh but decisive struggles taken up to force the hand of those in power. The Ford Strike in Windsor, Ontario, in 1945, paved the way for union recognition and dues check-off. The workers kept the police at bay with a massive car blockade of the plant that sent shock waves through the country.

The following year, textile workers in Québec forced their employers to agree to collective agreements with militant strike action. In Valleyfield, “only after a violent riot on August 13 would the company seriously enter negotiations with the workers.” Union recognition and the whole edifice of regulated labour relations were a tactical retreat before such union power, in which employers and the state sought to limit and compartmentalize working class struggles.

Despite the effort to broker employer concessions in ways that would restrain working class militancy, the decades since the Second World War have seen frequent episodes when those constraints were challenged. Nowhere was this truer than in the very distinct context of Québec. The upsurge that took place there in the early 1970s was remarkably powerful. “At its peak,” writes Hélène Bissonnette, “workers occupied the factories and mines, and the general strike movement brought the economy of the province to a halt.” Generalized working class resistance that broke out of the controls of state regulation was also evidenced in the Operation Solidarity movement in BC in 1983 and in the rotating city wide strikes that marked the Ontario Days of Action in the 1990s.

If we glance at this record of struggle and remind ourselves of how powerful it is, we can look at the present harsh and uncertain situation with considerably more optimism and resolve. The neoliberal decades have had a brutal impact and the present pandemic crisis has made matters worse. Our unions have been weakened and our efforts to build community-based resistance have not yet attained the necessary critical mass. Yet, the history of struggle we can look back on shows us that desperate times can produce upswings of social action and that new organizational forms can take them forward.

Returning to the graveside of Joseph Mairs in Ladysmith, BC, we are reminded of a powerful and inspiring history of working class people refusing to submit to exploitation and repression or give in to despair. Not only can we can learn from this history, but we can build on it at this challenging juncture.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at


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