3 September 1872
The notion that organized labour might celebrate a Conservative prime minister seems far-fetched. Think of Stephen Harper being feted by the Canadian Labour Congress. Doesn’t sound particularly likely. But something like that occurred in 1872 when Ottawa trades unions held a torchlit procession in honour of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, the leader of the Conservative Party.
Behind this incredible event was the growing trades’ union movement in Canada and their push for a nine-hour work-week. Typically, people laboured at least ten hours each day, including Saturdays. But, starting in Hamilton, and later spreading to Toronto, Montreal and other major cities, trade unionists in early 1872 took up the call for a shorter work-week. A major supporter of the movement was the Toronto Trades Assembly (TTA) which had been formed the previous year, consisting of fourteen unions, including the important Toronto Typographical Society.
At this time, union activity in Canada was essentially illegal, even though trade unions had been active in the country for at least forty years. Prior to 1872, Canadian law viewed any group of workers banding together to seek higher wages as a conspiracy to restrain trade. This was illegal under the Canadian criminal code.
In March 1872, the Toronto Typographical Society submitted a range of demands, including the introduction of a nine-hour work-day to the master printers, a.k.a. the Toronto newspapers, including The Globe, owned and edited by George Brown, the fiery journalist and Liberal politician. At the same time, the TTA organized a massive demonstration of more that 10,000 workers in support of the nine-hour work-day. This was to be a major test of the Nine-Hour Work-Day movement.
All but one newspaper rejected the demands, and the master printers retaliated. In The Globe, Brown wrote: “[I]t is impossible that an organized system from without can be allowed to be brought to bear on an establishment to coerce higher wages, or internal arrangements, contrary to the wishes of the proprietors.” Striking union members were fired, and fourteen leaders of the Toronto demonstration were charged for restraint of trade under the existing anti-union legislation. The judge’s preliminary ruling went against the strikers. He said that the facts disclosed by both parties were sufficient to establish guilt: workers had combined; the accused were members of the combination; and a strike had occurred. A second hearing was organized for early May 1872.
The very day set for the second hearing, Macdonald’s Conservative government introduced The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872. The bill, which was modelled after similar British legislation passed the previous year, provided that “the purpose of a trade union shall not, by reason merely they are in restraint of trade, be deemed to be unlawful so as to render any member of a union liable to criminal prosecution for conspiracy.” While giving with one hand, the Conservative government seemingly took with the other. It also introduced a second bill, An Act to Amend the Criminal Law relating to Violence, Threats and Molestation, that made picketing an offence.
In the House of Commons, Macdonald introduced the draft legislation, saying that “the English mechanic who came to this country, as well as the Canadian mechanic, was subject to penalties imposed by statutes that had been repealed in England, as opposed to the spirit of the liberty of the individual.” He added that the bill was the same in principle as the law in England and provided the same freedom of action and the same right to combine. He intimated that the issue of trade unions was under discussion in Britain and should the law be revised in that country, Canada would take similar steps. He also expressed concern that without parallel Canadian legislation, British workers would be deterred from emigrating to Canada.
At the second reading of the proposed legislation a month later, only one member of Parliament spoke against the bill, regretting the “late hour of submitting the bill,” just weeks before the end of that session of Parliament. Macdonald responded that there was nothing in the bill that “could do injustice to either employers or employees” and that a similar bill had passed without dissent in England as “the old law was too oppressive to be endorsed by free men.” He added that recent events in Toronto “had shown the necessity of adopting some amendment here.” Alexander Mackenzie, a senior Liberal Party member who later became prime minister, said he saw no reason for the objection.
The Trades Unions’ Act, 1872 as well as the amendment to the Criminal Code received Royal Assent on 14 June 1872, hours before the Governor General closed the fifth session of the first Parliament of the Dominion.
Organized labour was jubilant and showered Macdonald with praise, notwithstanding the amendment to the Criminal Code that made striking illegal. The fact that trades unions had been legitimized was sufficient. Ottawa trade unions organized a massive parade in honour of Sir John on his return from the western part of Ontario where workingmen in London, Hamilton and Toronto had already expressed their appreciation. Reportedly, it was the first political demonstration ever made by Ottawa labour.
After dusk on 3 September 1872, members of various trades unions in the capital along with the Fire Department marched to Macdonald’s home on Rideau Street where the Premier was escorted to a horse-drawn carriage. Also in the carriage were the Hon. Mr. Samuel Tilley, Minister of Customs, Joseph Currier, the Conservative member for Ottawa, Ottawa Mayor Martineau, as well as the Chairman of the unions’ welcoming committee, Mr. D. O’Donaghue.
The dignitaries were driven between two processional columns of uniformed Ottawa firemen bearing lit torches. A man holding the Union Jack led the parade, followed by the Band Brigade of the Garrison Artillery, the Stone Cutters’ Union and friends, the Typographical Union and friends, the Marshal (mounted), the Bricklayers’ and Masons’ Union and friends, the Plasterers’ Union and friends, the Carpenters’ Union and friends, Gowlan’s Band, and finally the carriages. Following the parade were an immense crowd of well wishers.
At roughly 9:00pm, Macdonald arrived at City Hall on Elgin Street. The crowd was called to order with the firemen standing in front of the building to provide light. O’Donaghue explained to the crowd why they had assembled in case anybody might still be unaware. He said that there previously had been a law that provided that no more than three men could combine together to form a trade union. This law prevented workingmen from telling employers the price they would be willing to sell their labour. “To say it was a great infamy to the workingmen was putting it very mildly,” he said. He noted the recent events in Toronto and praised Macdonald for giving workers equal rights and privileges to those enjoyed by workingmen in Britain. Looking at the assembled crowd, he added that he never knew that there were so many workingmen in Ottawa, and he looked forward to the day when workingmen could put a man of their own class in Parliament to represent them.
Another union man then read out a letter addressed to Macdonald expressing their gratitude and welcoming Sir John back to Ottawa.
Macdonald then stepped to the front to thank the members of the trade unions. He said “The unwise and oppressive action, pursued towards some of the workingmen of Toronto in causing them to be arrested as criminals, forced my attention on the necessity of immediately repealing laws altogether unsuited to and unworthy of this age, and opposed to the first principles of freedom.”
After Macdonald’s speech, many others stepped forward to say a few words. Samuel Tilly said that his first political speech made in 1848 was on behalf of a mechanic who was seeking to represent the men of St. John against a doctor and a lawyer. Joseph Currier, who was a prominent and wealthy lumberman as well as MP for Ottawa, claimed to have always been a workingman. Mr. Williams, the Secretary of the Trades Association of Toronto, said the demonstration indicated the gratitude felt by the workingmen of the Dominion for the services Macdonald had rendered them. Mayor Martineau followed with similar words in French.
The procession then reformed and escorted Sir John back to his residence.
Looking back at these events, many historians have cast doubt on how committed Macdonald was to the trade union movement. It was likely that he had ulterior motives. In a 1984 journal article that studied the 1872 trade union legislation, Mark Chartrand agreed that the growth of trade unionism in Canada had made a number of the statutes on the legal books “anachronistic and oppressive.” However, if it were Macdonald’s intention to remove shackles on the trade union movement, he argued that the 1872 changes “did little,” calling them “a virtually sterile concession to the trade union movement.” Other restrictive laws, including the amendment to the Criminal Code to ban picketing, remained in force. Consequently, while unions were legal, the means by which unions could achieve their purposes remained illegal. There were also provincial statutes. In Ontario, under the Master and Servant Act an employee could not refuse to go to work and had to obey the employer during the period of an employment contract on penalty of a fine or imprisonment. The act was often used to stop workers from organizing to obtain better working conditions. This act was not repealed until 1877.
Instead of bettering the lot of the working man, Macdonald was likely strongly influenced by the approaching election held after the parliamentary session ended in June 1872. The political winds were shifting against the Conservatives, so attracting the workingman’s vote was an astute political manoeuvre.
An even more compelling motivation for the legislation was to metaphorically stick his finger in the eye of his long-time political opponent, George Brown, the editor and owner of The Globe newspaper who was in the thick of the fight with the Toronto Typographical Society and its demand for a nine-hour work-day. Macdonald and Brown had been rivals for decades. The two had even fought over the location of the capital of Canada during the 1850s, with Macdonald calling Brown disloyal for not accepting Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa.
Regardless of his motivations and the minimal practical changes to Canadian trade union legislation, Macdonald gained the goodwill of workingmen. It might have been enough to tip the balance of the 1872 election in favour of the Conservative Party which retained power, albeit just—the first minority government.
Workingmen were less successful in achieving their aims. The printers’ strike in Toronto failed. The quest for nine-hour work-day was over—for now. According to the Hamilton Standard, The Globe had triumphed over its workers. The newspaper was now a non-union shop. In the opinion of the Hamilton newspaper, the printers’ strike had been ill-advised and had only led to considerable pecuniary losses.
While the Hamilton Standard may have been correct in a narrow sense, the printer’s strike marked an important step in the fight by organized labour in Canada for recognition, and their struggle for better wages and working conditions.
Canadian Labour Congress, 2021. 1872: The fight for a shorter work-week.
Chartrand, Mark, 1984. “The First Canadian Trade Union Legislation: An Historical Perspective,” Public Law, 1 January.
The Globe, 1872. “Printers’ Strike,” 22 March.
————-, 1872. “The Printers’ Strike,” 26 March.
Hamilton Standard, 1872. As reported in The Globe under “Canada,” 15 June.
House of Commons Debates, 1872. Fifth Session, First Parliament, 7 May.
Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “No title,” 15 May.
————————–, 1872. “The Premier, Grand Ovation by the Workmen,” 4 September.