A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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The economic Depression of the 1870s was especially bruising for Canadian workers. Working conditions had always been grim, especially in the factories, but during and immediately after the Depression those conditions worsened. There were no safety codes, no health regulations; and welfare did not exist. Exploitation was rampant. Working men, women and children were brutalized into toiling longer hours for smaller wages.

T. Phillips Thompson made it his life's work to protect the interests of the working class. He recognized that it was this part of the population that was most vilified, yet it was these same people who did the most to hoist a new nation into existence. While prosperity returned to Canada in the 1880s and working conditions did improve, social justice was still not evenly applied.

The concerns held by T. Phillips Thompson, labour advocate and social activist, were finally reflected in the first Royal Commission on Labor and Capital. In 1887, the Royal Commission set out to enquire into the condition of the working people of the Dominion. Its primary focus was labour and the experiences of workers across Canada. It looked into how working people could better their physical, material, social, intellectual and moral prosperity, as well as how to generally improve their lot in life. The Commission travelled across the Dominion, visiting large cities and small villages, and listening to the testimony of an estimated 1800 witnesses in total. One of those witnesses was T.Phillips Thompson.

Phillips Thompson, Journalist, of Toronto, called and sworn. Toronto, 28th, November, 1887.

By the Chairman --

Q: What statement have you to make to the Commission?

A: I may say that I have resided in Toronto for twenty years. The point that struck me in connection with the holding of this Labor Commission was, that it would be incomplete if some notice were not taken of the remarkable increase of rents that has taken place in all the large centres. It has been noticeable to anyone who has had occasion to rent a house or a store that the rent has gone up in proportion as the population has become centralized here and the value of property has increased. Speaking for myself, I may say that when I first went into housekeeping fourteen or fifteen years ago I could get a house that suited me, a small comfortable house in a nice locality within reasonable distance of my business for fourteen dollars a month. To get such a house now I have to pay eighteen or nineteen dollars and go twice or three times as far out. That is the tendency of the increase in the city, and it bears with considerable hardship upon a good many of those who have only fixed incomes or salaries. Whatever advances may be made in the way of increase of wages by combination or strikes, these are offset and more than offset by the constant tendency to increased value for the land and consequent advances of rent. The tendency of increase in rents bears down heavily upon those whose income or salary is not increased to any considerable extent by labour movements.(1)

The 1889 Commission Report found that the conditions and wages of the working person in Canada was generally higher than at any previous time, while the hours of labour had been reduced. But on the subject of rents, the Report reflected Thompson's concern:

"The most marked exception to the rule of lower prices for the necessaries of life is in house rents," the Commissioners wrote. "These have advanced in all the large cities, and to such an extent that a serious burden has been added to those borne by people struggling for a living."(2)

Another issue close to Thompson's heart was heard by the Commission: the rights of workers and labour organizations such as the Knights of Labour. In 1886 the Toronto Street Railway workers went out on strike in a dispute with management that lasted on and off over four months. Despite widespread public sympathy for the strikers, the strike was broken. Strikers and labour advocates like Thompson the realized that strikes were always uncertain of success and that a lost strike damaged the growth of a working class movement.

J.J. Franklin, Superintendent of the Toronto Street Railway, called and sworn. Toronto, 25th, January, 1888

By the Chairman --

Q: After a man puts in a square, honest day's work to your satisfaction, do you think that you should tamper with his liberty in regard to saying whether he should belong to a society or not?

A: We never thought so until we had it proved to us. When this was unmistakably proven we made up our minds that we would not interfere with labor organizations so long as they interfered simply with the men's right, but when they interfered with the company's rights that was a different question altogether...Unfortunately, the labor people do not understand the distinction between those men and men in the company's employ, and they take discharged men up and hear what they have to say without hearing the other side.

Q: If it came to your knowledge that a good man, who has been in your employ for some time, belonged to a labor organization, would you discharge him?

A: No, not simply for that fact--not until he brought the organization business into the affairs of the company, and began to work to promote the organization. Then I do not say what I would do. But I am the man in charge of the matters.(3)

The Report's findings on the subject of labour organizations recognized that they were necessary in enabling workers to deal on equal terms with their employers:

They encourage their members to study and discuss matters affecting their interests and to devise means for the betterment of their class. It is in evidence that most labor bodies strive effectively to promote temperance throughout the country, and especially among their members.(4)

Another concern of the Commission was the unjust employment of children, and improper working conditions for men, and women in particular.

James R. Brown, Factory Inspector, called and sworn. Toronto, 1st December, 1887

By the Chairman --

Q: What was the general condition of the factories which you have been through yourself?

A: I may sat that under the Act we take a note of the time worked by the females and children , and also with reference to the closet accommodation, fire-escapes, fencing of belts and gearing and hoists and elevators. These are the principal things.

Q: Did you find in many places where women were employed that they were working longer than the Act contemplates?

A: I found that principally in woollen mills.

Q: What were the longest hours for which you found women employed?

A: Sixty-six hours a week.

Q: Did you notice in those places any large percentage of children?
A: Yes, in some of them, in the cotton mills and some woollen mills, in cigar factories and knitting works, and some others.

Q: Were there many of those children below the age designated by the Factory Act?

A: Well, I found about forty girls under fourteen. Girls are not allowed under fourteen nor boys under twelve. I found six boys altogether nine years of age, and some few ten or eleven, but employers stated that when the Factory Act was passed they endeavoured to meet its requirements, and had discharged quite a number of them before we visited their establishments.

Q: What was the general condition of the machinery in those places you visited?

A: Well, in planing mills I noticed that as a rule there was a great want of fencing in connection with belting. This was also the case in other wood working shops. In many of these places, too, they have no fans to take away the shavings and dust from the machines.

Q: In making an inspection, did you inquire from employees or employers for information?

A: In some cases I have asked employees, but have found difficulty in getting them to say anything. As I understood it, they did not want it to be known that they had said anything to me, I suppose for fear they should be discharged.(5)

The Commissioners responded to this and similar evidence with a strong recommendation for the reform of working conditions and the protection of women and children:

Your Commissioners think that young persons should not be required to work during the night at any time. Further, it is believed that the regular employment in mills, factories and mines of children less than fourteen years of age should be strictly forbidden...Frequent and thorough inspection of factories should be made, and stringent laws should imperatively require safety and proper sanitary conditions in the case of fire. Female inspectors should visit factories in which females are employed, in order that enquiries may be made which men cannot properly make of women. Many employers, as well as employees, asked that the Factory Acts be applied to stores and to small shops in which less than twenty persons are employed. Your Commissioners believe that if these requests be granted the sanitary conditions of these places will be improved, and the evils of the sweating process will be diminished, if not wholly removed(6)

Listening to the experiences of individual worker and immigrants, the Report got a glimpse of the day to day realities of those whom it was set up to serve:

John Falconer, called and sworn. Toronto, 23rd November, 1887.

By the Chairman --

Q: What is your occupation?

A: I am a carpenter.

Q: How long have you resided in Canada?

A: Since sixteen years ago last May.

Q: What is the standard rate of wages paid to carpenters living in this city to-day?

A: Twenty-two and a half to twenty-five cents an hour, with the exception of the foremen who get 27 and a half.

Q: What difficulty would there be for a man who lives in Toronto in getting work? Can he keep pretty steadily employed?

A: Speaking for myself I must say that I do. Perhaps I am a little more fortunate than the majority.

Q: Do many carpenters come to Toronto from outside seeking work?

A: Yes, there is no mistake about that, a great many.

Q: Do more come than find employment?

A: Sometimes. If they come in the winter they cannot expect to find work if the weather will not allow of work being done. But in summer I don't think that as a rule you will find them going idle if they wish to work.

Q: From what part do the newcomers come?

A: From all parts; the great majority come from England and Scotland.

Q: Immigrants?

A: Yes, Immigrants; the great majority come from the two countries, but we have likewise some from other countries outside.

Q: Do hey offer to work for lower wages than the scale here?

A: I am not aware that they do. But there is a wide difference in men when they come because, no matter how competent a man may be in England or Scotland, he may be a first class mechanic there and yet so different is our work here that for some time after they come they are not able to compete with us who have been here fifteen or twenty years. That was my own case when I left Scotland to go to London, England. I thought I was all right, that I was a good mechanic, but I found I was far behind in England; I had almost to learn my trade there, and when I came to Toronto, it was something the same. So when these men come here if they get a little less at first it is not long before they are able to command as good wages as the rest of us.(7)

All in all, the Report concluded that the testimony taken bolstered the commonly held belief that the working person in Canada was enjoying rather better working conditions than in the past:

Wages in Canada are generally higher than at any previous time, while hours of labor have been somewhat reduced. At the same time, the necessaries and ordinary comforts of life are lower in price than ever before, so that the material condition of the working people who exercise reasonable prudence and economy has been greatly bettered, especially during the past ten years.(8)

The Commission also made a recommendation that a central labour bureau be established:

Your Commissioners are firmly persuaded that the interests of working people will be promoted if all matters relating to labor and capital be place under the administration of one of the Ministers of the Crown, so that a Labor Bureau may be established, statistics collected, information disseminated, and working people find readier means of making their needs and their desires known to the Government.(9)

Report on the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada, Volumes 1-4,
(The Queen's Printer, Ottawa, 1889).

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