Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration
Review By James Naylor
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 155 Autumn 2007 | p. 145-7
Understanding immigration is central to understanding Canadian working-class history and the fortunes of the Canadian labour movement. This is the case not just because immigration stocked, and restocked, the labour market but also because workers in Canada were conscious of this process and the huge impact it had on their lives and their ability to confront the challenges of the capitalist economy. Work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was especially precarious as the economy boomed and busted, and workers competed with each other in a brutal buyers’ market for their labour. Not surprisingly, employers sought to flood the labour market with cheap labour. Workers, in response, attempted to gain a measure of control by forming unions that could regulate entry into a trade; in many cases this seemed to require restricting entry into Canada or, at least, stopping employers from luring workers here on the basis of empty promises of plentiful work at good wages. Canadian workers knew that the facts were otherwise.
David Goutor skilfully explores the meanings and consequences of organized labour’s opposition to wholesale recruitment of labour abroad and to different streams of immigration. Not surprisingly, competition and demands for exclusion encouraged racism as some immigrants were deemed to be a particular peril based upon their countries of origin. In particular, Canadian workers constructed notions of very poorly paid Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian workers as being threats to the “civilized standards” of a “white man’s country.” At the same time though, organized labour exhibited considerable solidarity with other racialized groups, including African Americans and colonized peoples fighting imperialism in their own countries. Demands for exclusion were not necessarily discriminatory. Immigration from Britain was much more numerically significant than was immigration from Asia, and it was responded to quite differently. Canadian unionists worked closely with British trade unions to expose the activities of both business and charitable emigration promoters, collectively recognizing that such schemes led to exploitative conditions for all workers in Canada.
Goutor’s most significant contribution is to explore the relationship between labour’s attitudes to immigration and its ability to develop as an effective political force. Racism is generally seen by historians such as David Roediger as undermining class consciousness, but British Columbia emerges as an interesting counter-example. The province experienced both vicious anti-Asian racism and a radical labour movement. Goutor notes that the importation of Asians was seen by labour as a capitalist tactic to cheapen labour generally; fighting capitalism was necessary to solve the problem as they had framed it. Similarly, in an era when the single-tax ideas of Henry George had gained massive popularity among reformers, labour could connect the massive land grants to corporations such as the cpr, the iniquitous effects of the protective tariff, and the problem of sponsored immigration. Together they formed a compelling critique of the emergence of corporate capitalism in Canada.
Goutor has effectively placed immigration at the centre of debates within the emerging labour movement – both the craft unions and the Knights of Labor – in the late nineteenth century, noting ways in which partisan differences were refracted through this important issue. His treatment of the subsequent era is, however, not as strong. After 1902, the conservative American-based craft unions managed to monopolize the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (tlc), constraining the range of debate and isolating the issue of immigration from broader questions of social change. However, it is not really possible to reduce the labour movement to this one stream, and especially not to its relatively small leadership. The broader labour movement in the first three decades of the twentieth century was particularly diverse as more radical movements emerged, such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the One Big Union. Even the TLC was not as monolithic as Goutor’s focus on its leadership suggests; the First World War era saw a flowering of political debate and activism that sometimes carried the leaders along with them. This broader labour movement tended to define class somewhat more broadly, and so an investigation of their attitudes towards immigration would be an important part of the picture. As in the earlier period, this could open a window to both the identity and effectiveness of the broader union movement since questions about the social construction of race and the political capacity of labour are relevant to this period as well. Focusing too narrowly on the tlc and on its small band of leaders can obscure a much broader, and important, debate about how workers viewed those who would come to our shores, and how labour organizations should react. That said, David Goutor has reminded us of the importance organized labour placed upon immigration policy and of the ways in which labour imagined Canada could be built.