Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict during the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890

By Hagopian, John S. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict during the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890


Hagopian, John S., Labour/Le Travail


John S. Hagopian, "Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict During the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 39-68.

Introduction

IN HIS STUDY OF GALT, historian Kenneth McLaughlin writes that the consolidation of industry in the 1920s "led to the first stirrings of industrial unionism and the beginnings of labour discontent." (1) However, the history of labour strife in Galt goes back at least as far as 1889, when a bitter strike by the town's iron moulders caused a crisis in local politics, and indeed divided the town into pro- and anti-labour factions. Among the civic issues upon which the strike had a determinative effect was that of waterworks construction. The ratepayers had voted overwhelmingly against building a municipal waterworks system in 1888, but in 1890 they voted even more overwhelmingly for it. The voters were not fickle, as it was the intervening strike, and more particularly the threats of the struck employers to leave town, which explain voter behaviour. In 1888, the voters were responding to the issue of waterworks alone. But in 1890, waterworks had become a vital plank in an upper-class agenda, upon the success of which the survival of the town was said to depend.

McLaughlin does not discuss the political context within which the Galt waterworks developed. He does not mention the moulders' strike, or the upheaval in local politics, or that waterworks had earlier been rejected by the ratepayers. Instead, he describes the waterworks as a progressive measure which was undertaken in order to reduce the incidence of disease. His account contributes to the persistent popular myth that Canadian waterworks systems were usually built for public health reasons. McLaughlin describes in detail the cholera epidemics in Galt in the 1830s, then links awareness of the germ theory to the construction of waterworks, a hospital, and a sewer system:

The frightening finality of cholera had left its mark in Galt, Dumfries, and neighbouring Waterloo. Yet it would not be until the 1880s that the theory of disease spreading by germs would be commonly accepted, persuading either the public or the scientific community of the need for sanitary reforms. When this information was known, however, the citizens of Galt were quick to take action. Despite the expensive costs of blasting through the limestone shale encompassing much of Galt's business district, sewers and a separate waterworks system were laid throughout the town in the 1890s. The Galt Hospital Trust, formed in 1888, erected a General Hospital in 1891 ... A program for improved public health had at last become recognized as a civic responsibility. (2)

This uncomplicated depiction of an immediate popular response to new public health information is problematic. First, there was no comprehensive sewer system built in Galt in the 1890s. By 1905, two small sewers serviced industrial areas, but a provincial health inspector reported "there is no general sewerage system at the present time." (3) Second, there was opposition to the hospital which was built in 1891, details of which will be discussed in this study. Third, Galt's citizens were not quick to adopt waterworks, as they voted against it in 1888. Meanwhile, waterworks had been completed in nearby municipalities such as Brantford in 1870, Guelph in 1880, Dundas in 1883, Paris in 1884, and Berlin (Kitchener) in 1888. (4) Fourth, any suggestion that cholera may have been the driving force behind waterworks is unfounded, as the last epidemic anywhere in Ontario occurred in 1866. (5) The present study of Galt's waterworks provides more evidence that the public health and social improvement movements during this "Progressive" era were mythologized, and that the major force at work was, as always, class struggle.

Others have expressed a similarly cynical view of the motives of progressives. …

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