The People’s Cold Front- The Tumultuous History of the Canadian Left Wing: One Big Union (Part 1)

Yes, it’s been a while. No, I have no excuse. 

For the introduction, click here.

Prairie Roots

Like most good things, Canadian socialism has its roots in the West. More surprisingly, it was helped to grow by an action from John A. MacDonald’s Conservative Party, of all things.

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Artist’s recreation. 

The government, presumably in between paying off railway contractors and financing Prime Minister MacDonald’s hobby of getting obscenely drunk and beating drifters to death (Citation needed), passed the Trade Union Bill in 1872. This bill eliminated previous penalties for joining a union, and allowed for striking and disruption of access to goods and services. This institutionalization of basic human decency preceded widespread unionization of labour in Canada and, with it, greater interest in socialism.

John A. Macdonald
John A. MacDonald: Genuine Commie Bastard.                    

In 1904, various provincial socialist and labour groups united under the umbrella of Canada’s first socialist party, the aptly named Socialist Party of Canada. The nascent revolutionary Marxist party never won seats in any federal election but did end up winning a handful of seats in the provincial legislatures of British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba centered mostly in working-class mining towns and also Winnipeg, I guess.

There has obviously never been a Canadian equivalent of the Russian Revolution, despite both Canada and the Soviet Union’s abundance of (insert joke about icepicks/Ukrainians/rampant alcoholism here), but the Socialist Party, along with the various scattered labour parties and trade unions (most notably the cozily-named “One Big Union”) across the country, did keep busy organising strikes and other resistance to the generally business-oriented policies of the Liberal Wilfrid Laurier government, and the World War I efforts of the Conservative Robert Borden government.


The Dropkick Murphys still did the best version of that song. Don’t @ me. 


The aftermath of World War I led to further worker discontent, especially in the West. Shockingly enough, veterans of a war started by a bunch of stodgy European heads of state involved in imperialistic dick-measuring contests, effectively wiping out a generation of people from the annals of human history, were not particularly enthralled to come home and find their old jobs either rendered moot by the closing of munitions factories, or taken by European immigrants who would work for pennies on the dollar (I assume literally. Inflation is/was a thing). Whatever jobs men and women could get tended to be exploitative and frequently outright dangerous.

Dissatisfaction abounded, and when negotiations between workers in Winnipeg, their employers, and the city council contiunously proved fruitless, the unions called for a general strike in Winnipeg on May 5, 1919 at 11 AM.

The Winnipeg General Strike was not well received by Winnipeg’s business sector. To nobody’s surprise, neither the media or the municipal and federal government were particularly complimentary either, with newspapers, the city of Winnipeg, and Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government trying to smear the uprising as being the work of immigrants, Bolsheviks, anarchists, or some nebulous combination of the three.

Flawless, non-problematic logic from the man who ran on the platform of preserving “A White Canada.”


The federal government responded to the city’s request for support in busting the strike by sending in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (The predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, other wise known as the “RCMP” or the “Mounties”) to crack some skulls. The strike was called off on June 25, but the impact of the strike was felt, serving as a prelude to the subsequent surge in support for socialism. As well as providing a direct antecedent to the province of Quebec’s national pastime, and fostering a feeling of resentment towards Conservatives from the working class, due to Robert Borden and the Canadian government’s union-busting tactics. Attaboy, Borden.

Comrade MacDonald would be proud. 


To Be Continued…



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