UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The British Columbia labour movement and political action, 1879-1906 Loosmore, Thomas Robert


The period under study is the formative period of working-class political action in this province. The conditions and events of this time form the foundation upon which the Socialist Party of Canada, the Federated Labor Party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and the Labor Progressive Party grew to be important factors in British Columbia affairs. Consideration of this period is therefore highly relevant to any evaluation or assessment of these organizations. The wage-workers of British Columbia began to organize into unions in significant numbers in the 1880's. Being concerned with improving their lot as workers, some of the unionists turned toward the idea of taking class action on the political field in order to obtain favorable legislation. In the economic sphere, the main complaint of the workers during this period was that the many Chinese in the province worked long hours for low wages, and thus tended to lower the living standards of those who had to compete with them. Another complaint with economic as well as political aspects was that much of the land and resources of British Columbia had been alienated to such corporations as the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway. In their political action the workers demanded a solution of these grievances, and in the case of the latter were strongly attracted to the doctrine of "single tax." They also expressed a wish for government-sponsored arbitration and conciliation procedures which would settle labor-management disputes in a peaceful manner. The demands for political reform were occasioned by the use of government in the interests of the wealthy element of the community, and were very much influenced by American and socialist ideas. The basic principle involved was that of “direct democracy”, including the initiative, referendum, and recall, and it persisted throughout the whole period in various forms. The first election to be contested by labor candidates was the provincial election of 1886. Pour candidates ran in Victoria and Nanaimo, and all were defeated. At this time the Knights of Labor was at the peak of its power. The organization soon declined, and its place was occupied in most cases by trade unions. In 1890 the Nanaimo miners' union succeeded in electing two members to the British Columbia legislature. Although these members were unable to carry through any of their own measures, their presence led to the passage of a mechanics' lien law and an arbitration and conciliation act. In 1894 the miners’ candidates were defeated but the Nationalist Party of Vancouver, a labor organization, succeeded in getting Robert Macpherson elected. Although not always strictly a labor representative, Macpherson was generally a protagonist of the cause of labor. In the 1896 federal election the Nationalists also initiated the successful candidature of Rev. George R. Maxwell, who remained in parliament until his death in 1902. In 1898 Nanaimo labor recovered part of the lost ground by electing Ralph Smith to Victoria. Smith changed to the federal field in 1900, was elected, and remained in parliament until 1911. However, he was very closely linked to the Liberal Party, and in 1902 was repudiated by the Nanaimo miners. The 1900 provincial election was the high point of labor political action in this period. Labor Candidates with reform programs appeared in Vancouver and Nanaimo. The Western Federation of Miners in the southern Interior supported non-labor candidates pledged to defend the new eight-hour law for metal-miners. All the W.F.M.-backed candidates and one Nanaimo labor man were elected. This election saw the first appearance of the term "Socialist” as the official designation of a candidate — Will MacClain. The period 1900-1906 witnessed the decline of reformist ”laborism” and the rise of socialism as a political force in the province, culminating in the capture of a Labor Party convention by members of the Socialist Party of Canada. A study of this period has a special relevance to the present political situation in British Columbia. We are now in a time of re-alignment and re-orientation of political forces, the understanding of which demands an appraisal of past political changes. The events and situations recounted and analyzed here, since they are concerned with a period of political experimentation, may afford us useful light on present changes.

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