Over the past seven years Canadians have been bombarded with a steady stream of nationalist commemorative projects. In 2012, the Conservative Harper government did its best to convince us that the War of 1812 was a proto-national conflict in which a Canadian identity was forged on the field of battle. Commemorations of the centenary of the First World War followed the same format—the war was all bravery and nation building without any of the futility, let alone class conflict, which defined public debate at the time. This continued even after the Liberals took office in 2015. Two years later, in the Trudeau government’s handling of Canada 150, we were mostly encouraged to celebrate John A. MacDonald and other settler statesmen; stories of colonization, genocide and repression were treated as footnotes to official history.
Canada’s sesquicentennial year also saw numerous radical commemorative projects that sought to disrupt and undermine the colonialist narrative. The Graphic History Collective distributed posters telling stories of resistance—opposition to the Ukrainian internment in the First World War, Chloe Cooley’s anti-slavery activism and the Tsilhqot’in War of 1864, for example—as part of their Remember, Resist, Redraw project. Historians Crystal Fraser and Sarah Komarnisky launched a call for 150 Acts of Reconciliation, exposing the seeming reluctance of the federal government and others to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Colonialism 150 meme, which visually subverted the Canada 150 brand, appeared on t-shirts, posters and social media.
In 2019, we workers, radicals and progressives of all backgrounds have an opportunity to build on this resistance and begin constructing new historical narratives. This will be a momentous year for reminding Canadians of our common history of struggle and activism. From May to June we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, in many ways the birth of the modern labour union movement in Canada and one of the most important moments in the political awakening of the Canadian working class. A conference and meeting in Winnipeg organized by labour historians Rhonda Hinther and Jim Naylor will celebrate the militancy and solidarity behind the strike, and there are plans to create a monument in honour of the strikers.
The summer of 2019 will also mark the 75th anniversary of the election of Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan as leader of Canada’s first Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) provincial government, and the 50th anniversary of the election of Ed Schreyer as Manitoba’s first NDP premier. While the NDP and the labour movement have experienced great success in the past few years, notably forming governments in British Columbia and Alberta, workers are also stuck in too many rearguard battles to protect their rights, refighting battles won long ago.
The social contract between labour and employers that was established in much of the western world, including Canada, after the Second World War has been gradually chipped away at over the last 20 years by austerity-driven governments and their business backers. Since his election last year, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rolled back important, if modest, labour reforms introduced by the previous government. Federally, the Trudeau government has shown itself just as committed as the Conservatives were to corporate tax cuts, private sector–financed infrastructure and back-to-work legislation.
Commemorating and embracing the bright spots in radical labour history, while reflecting on our failures, can give us hope and provide lessons for how we might renew the movement for worker protections and social democracy at this critical moment. Sometimes these lessons are direct and unfortunately repetitive, as mine workers in Kirkland Lake, Ontario have discovered over long years of struggle. In the spirit of reflection and renewal, we consider that struggle here.
Between 1941 and 1942, workers at the Macassa goldmine in Kirkland Lake fought a long, drawn-out strike over the right to organize with the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Their struggle would eventually force the Liberal government of Mackenzie King to pass an order-in-council (P.C. 1003) protecting the right of workers to organize and requiring employers to respect that choice. But at that point Macassa held all the cards and chose to ignore the wishes of its workers, who were not able to unionize.
Laurel Sefton MacDowell describes the lead-up, events and aftermath of the strike in her seminal 1983 monograph, Remembering Kirkland Lake: The Gold Miners Strike of 1941-1942. Even at that point, she writes, Eastern Ontario miners were not strangers to workplace resistance. For as long as mining and exploration had occurred in the province, workers had resisted unfair working conditions. The big departure for Kirkland Lake gold miners in the 1940s was their embrace of industrial unionism. The Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers were affiliated to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an international workers organization that aimed to unite all workers across industries. For miners atuned to craft unionism, this was a radical new idea.
But it was exceedingly difficult for workers to form this new kind of association. Single-industry towns offered little social mobility and it was a very real struggle for workers and their children to gather the resources they needed to educate themselves so they could leave the mines. With the local economy beholden to the price of gold, families experienced constant insecurity over whether the mine would remain open. Mine operators were coercive, spread rumours about imminent shutdowns and layoffs, and deployed public or private police forces against unionists. Above all, without adequate labour regulations, employers were not compelled to recognize a union even after a majority of membership cards were collected.
In the 1940s, Canada’s labour legislation was outdated, failed to respond to industrial unionism and was tilted heavily in favour of employers. Unfair labour laws coupled with worker insecurity undermined the strength of unionization campaigns. In 1941, over 4,000 workers walked off the job in their fight to have their union recognized. They fell short. The Kirkland Lake gold miners were forced to return to work, and many of the leaders of the unionization movement were not hired back. Bitter defeat was a typical result for the labour movement at the time. Laws and economic conditions made unionization a virtual impossibility.
The big push for labour law reform in the 1930s and 1940s focused on the need for recognizing industrial unionism. The struggle was about building worker power to rectify an existing imbalance that favoured industrial capitalism. Each major union recognition loss validated the labour movement’s campaign to call for labour law reform. Unionists made their efforts very public, inviting reporters and CCF politicians to become involved in union recognition drives, which were successful as often as they failed. “Remember Kirkland Lake” became a rallying cry among trade unionists. Successful union drives and mobilizations along with political pressure from CCF politicians in the federal and provincial governments resulted in the creation of a new labour regime that would come to define the postwar labour-employer social contract.
But even with the passing of updated labour laws in the last 70 years, unionization remains exceedingly difficult. In 2002, Kirkland Lake Gold reopened the Macassa mine. In a repeat of past history, gold miners again fought to organize with the United Steelworkers, with whom the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union had merged in 1967. The issues—the precariousness of mine employment, decent pay, safety, and the nature of the company town in the neoliberal era—are strikingly similar to those which characterized the early-1940s struggle. The outcome of the drive, however, was a huge disappointment: on May 25, 2018, mine workers found out their vote to unionize with the Steelworkers was defeated.
The result was not so surprising when we account for the significant financial and social resources mobilized by Kirlkand Lake Gold to counter the unionization drive. Workers at Kirkland Lake Gold sought to join a union for the same reason most people today look to unionize: they felt they were being treated unfairly by their employer. Online, workers shared stories of favouritism, health and safety concerns, and expressed fears of unannounced cutbacks to earnings and benefits. Using tactics pulled straight from the 1941-42 battle, employer-friendly disinformation spread quickly in the two weeks before the vote. Workers feared disciplinary action, job losses and mine closure, and the fierce debate undermined the social bonds of the community.
The effects of the employer’s interventions were obvious when the ballots were counted. Organizers witnessed a drop in support for unionization consistent with what unions have seen elsewhere after similar hard-nosed campaigns by employers. These kinds of anti-union campaigns are currently legal in Ontario and across Canada, and the structure as it exists favours employers and their ability to mobilize resources in order to combat union certification campaigns. At a time when unions should be focused on extending rights and protections to all workers, they are stuck fighting laws designed to allow employers to spend an unlimited amount of money in efforts to prevent unionization.
The struggle at Kirkland Lake in 2018 did not make many newspaper headlines outside the region or lead to radical changes in labour laws. Nor is it likely to move public opinion in support of pro-worker legislative reforms, at least not on its own. So what then are we building toward?
We need to remember that throughout labour’s long history of organizing there are far more failures to record than successes. For every successful union drive or political victory there are multiple Kirkland Lakes or Winnipeg general strikes. But we need to remember that those failures also contribute to the strengthening of a movement that will continue to build toward the changes that will make true worker democracy possible.
These wins, though they may not always be apparent, continue to happen. Progressive governments are elected fairly regularly in Canada, at least provincially and always with labour support, and they continue to make positive changes to labour laws and other worker protections. Workers continue to organize, negotiate and strike when needed.
And as we go back and remember over 100 years of labour political activism in Canada, as we remember the tens of thousands of workers who went on strike in Winnipeg hoping to create a better world, we should look with pride on a history characterized by resilience, struggle and hope, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Jonathan Weier is a historian of war and society who writes and lectures on Canadian identity and the politics of history.