I’m Sophie Kinoseew, and I want to tell you about the history of some of the most marginalized workers in Canada, and their essential struggles for fairness and inclusion. Workers have always been diverse, but many unions ignored the needs of some people, like indigenous, immigrant, women, or lesbian and gay workers.
Early on, only people considered radicals grasped important ideas now generally accepted- like organizing all workers, and fighting to improve conditions for everyone. [Drums] Since “time immemorial,” First Nations peoples lived off the land and shared what they produced. They made crucial contributions to our economy that have been mainly ignored due to persistent negative stereotypes. Indigenous technology helped the first European explorers and settlers to survive.
First Nations participation in the fur trade made possible the very earliest accumulation of wealth here. Some ran cottage industries and were independent producers. But by the 1850s, more worked for wages, especially in resource extraction industries in British Columbia.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some indigenous people joined unions or supported the strikes of other workers. On the prairies, the Métis were exploited as a cheap source of agricultural labor. When the Red River Colony attempted to establish its government, the military violently crushed their leaders.
In 1876, the Indian Act consolidated previous ordinances that aimed to assimilate First Nations and destroy their cultures- -using residential schools, reserves, and other means. First Nations people gradually lost access to subsistence resources, and racism limited their success in the wage economy. A cycle of economic inequality became entrenched. Corporations often only invested in indigenous communities when promised low wage rates. When they closed operations, these communities were left to deal with contaminated soil and water.
Today, the indigenous population is growing and becoming an increasingly important part of the labor force. Some unions have understood this and begun to organize indigenous workers. Powerful individuals ensured that a sense of Britishness, and whiteness, defined the dominant Canadian identity. Workers different than British-Canadians faced unfair treatment. For French Canadian workers, class exploitation occurred together with cultural and linguistic oppression. Because Anglophones dominated Quebec’s economy, many workers embraced nationalism and fought for sovereignty.
Immigration policies in Canada favored immigrants from Britain, the US, and Northern Europe, to maintain the ‘whiteness’ of Canada. Head taxes kept out unwanted Chinese workers, and the 1910 Immigration Act made “Race” a restrictive legal category. Exceptions were made when there was a shortage of cheap labor. Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, and others all came to build new lives for themselves, and in doing so, they helped build Canada.
In the 1960s, restrictions were relaxed, and many workers of color from previously excluded countries in Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America began to immigrate here. They faced challenges still familiar to immigrants today, including discrimination at work and in all areas of life, such as finding housing. Until at least World War II, most unions treated newcomers as a threat. Craft unions drove workers they deemed unacceptable out of their occupations and included race restrictions in their constitutions.
Racialized workers have responded to discrimination in various ways. They sometimes opened small businesses, like laundries or restaurants, and formed their unions fighting for fairness, inclusion, and their rights. Women’s stories, the family economy, and ideas about gender are integral to labor history. Capitalism and wage labor rely on vast amounts of unpaid work, much of it done by women. Until at least the 1960s, the common view was that a woman’s proper role was as wife and mother, and many objected to the paid employment of women.
In 1898, the Trades and Labour Congress called for the exclusion of women from the labor force. Patriarchal norms assumed that women were ‘kept’ by male breadwinners. Yet, many women did not have husbands, and many men earned well below a family wage. It meant a large number of women were always in the workforce. The jobs available to them were restricted, paid less, and considered less skilled. For example, teaching and nursing were poorly paid and lacked the status of professions.
Labor shortages during the World Wars led to hiring women for blue-collar jobs generally reserved for men, including in munitions factories. But at war’s end, government policy pushed women back into the home and traditional “pink collar ghettos.” Women had to organize within their unions to tackle sexism in the workplace. The Alberta Federation of Labour’s annual conventions lacked any resolutions addressing women’s issues until 1974.
A year later, Grace Hartman was elected president of CUPE. She was the first woman to lead a more astronomical union in North America. Unions have made great strides for women. For example, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers was the first to win paid maternity leave in 1981.
Union contracts now help mitigate sexual harassment and have reduced the pay gap between women and men.
In colonial Canada, there was often an ambiguous attitude towards people who engaged in same-sex activity, especially in homosocial work environments like the cod fishery or the BC gold rushes. Though usually not enforced, the law did treat lesbians and gays as criminals, and by the late nineteenth century, Canadian laws were changed to same-sex police activities. Employers often regarded gay or lesbian workers as suspicious or unreliable. So most lived secret “double-lives,” and concealed their sexual identity in public.
In defiance of often-violent repression by police and straight people, working-class lesbians and gays in large cities established their own neighborhoods, where they found a measure of safety. By the 1950s, most lesbian and gay workers still preferred to remain in the closet, but this was especially true of those employed by the state. A series of national security campaigns targeted and fired suspected lesbians and gays in the civil service.
By the 1970s, same-sex workers waged a new fight for freedom from discrimination in employment, housing, and public services. Canada’s first gay rights march took place in Ottawa, and the first gay liberation newspaper was published in Toronto. Most unions were slow to support these struggles.
The first gay rights resolution was not heard in a union assembly until 1979, at the Ontario Federation of Labour- -and only after allies promised to disrupt proceedings. The first unions to demand sexual orientation protection in their collective agreements were usually those led by young feminists and socialists. Eventually, many Canadian workers and a few of their unions could claim to have joined a global movement that, since the end of the 19th century, is expanding the decriminalization of homosexuality and defending the rights of sexual and gender minorities.
Throughout history, employers and the government often played up differences among workers. A segregated labor market and employment discrimination have meant some groups of workers have been corralled into low-paying, undesirable, or dangerous work. Yet when workers stood united and overcame perceived differences, they took steps forward for fairness.
The participation of indigenous peoples, immigrants, women, sexual and gender minorities, and other workers- in the economy and in the labor movement- have made a remarkable difference to everyone’s well-being. Yet despite the significant advances, much work remains to be done. Gender and racial pay gaps persist, as do homophobia, fear, and misunderstanding.