"Stand by the Union, Mr. Arch": The Toronto Labour Establishment and the Emigration Mission of Britain's National Agricultural Labourers' Union

By Goutor, David | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

"Stand by the Union, Mr. Arch": The Toronto Labour Establishment and the Emigration Mission of Britain's National Agricultural Labourers' Union


Goutor, David, Labour/Le Travail


ABSTRACT

IN THE FALL OF 1873 Joseph Arch, the President of the England's National Agricultural Labourers' Union (NALU), embarked on a mission to scout Canada as an emigration destination. He was received with much hospitality in Canada. Large-scale migration of British farm-workers had the support of an extraordinary consensus between the NALU, Canadian political and business elites, and the Toronto labour leaders who wielded enormous influence over the labour movement in Ontario. The consensus was the result of developments in British agricultural unionism, Ontario's farming sector, Canada's immigration policy, and the Toronto labour establishment's approach to immigration. However, during the mission, tensions emerged between Arch and the Toronto labour establishment that strained the appearance of international union solidarity. These tensions revealed the treacherous nature of a relationship between labour leaders in an immigrant-receiving country, and an organization, even a union, looking to promote emigration.

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IN SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER of 1873, two visitors from Britain enjoyed eager audiences and glamorous receptions from Canada's political and business elite. The Governor General Lord Dufferin, Prime Minister Macdonald, Official Opposition leader Alexander Mackenzie, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, a host of business leaders, Dominion and provincial cabinet ministers, and senior bureaucrats made a point of meeting personally with the visitors and of presenting themselves as enthusiastic partners in their enterprise. (1) One of the visitors declared in a speech that the Governor General himself "listened as attentively to what [I] had to say as if I had been the Archbishop of Canterbury." (2) According to the other visitor, no expense was spared by their hosts: "Our hotel bills were discharged. Free passes over the railroads were given to us. Carriages were placed at our disposal ... efficient guides were deputed to facilitate our researches." (3)

The visitors were not royalty, diplomats, or prominent members of the British business class, aristocracy, or political elite. Rather, they were representatives of a union: Joseph Arch, the president of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union (NALU), and Arthur Clayden, a middle-class supporter of the NALU, and a member of its "Consultative Committee." (4)

What made the reception for Arch and Clayden even more remarkable was that in the fall of 1873, Canada's politicians and media already had plenty on their minds. The government of John A. Macdonald was--correctly--viewed to be on the verge of collapse due to the Pacific scandal. Almost every day brought either more testimony by senior officials in Macdonald's government before the Commission of Inquiry, or news regarding preparations for the showdown coming when Parliament reopened at the end of October. (5) The financial panics in the United States and Britain created deep concern about the economy. Anxious stories of business failures and rising unemployment in America filled the papers. (6) In October, the capture of one of Louis Riel's lieutenants, Ambroise Lepine, re-opened the fractious debate about the first uprising in the north-west. (7)

Moreover, Canadian unions and their leaders had not achieved the same strength and status as they had in Britain or the United States. It was just the year before that workers had mounted their first coordinated, multi-regional movement, the Nine-Hour campaign, and that unions had won some legal standing through the Trades Union Act. But even these breakthroughs came with qualifications. The momentum of the Nine-Hour movement was sapped by the Toronto printers' strike, and the activities of unions were limited by the Criminal Law Amendment Act. (8) The only labour paper in the new Dominion, the Toronto Trade Assembly's Ontario Workman, was surviving only because of under-the-table subsidies of Prime Minister Macdonald. …

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