Stop #3 - Historical Plaque on Grosvenor Street
Macdonald and industrialization
Macdonald lived in a period of tremendous transformation in Canada, the age of industrialization. No portrait of him and his time would be complete without emphasizing this reality.
It is easy for us to romanticize the finer aspects of Victorian Canada but the reality was that life in this country was very hard in the 19th century. Many people came to the city in order to find work.
As the pressures of capitalism grew more intense, the more skilled workers wished to unionize to affirm their rights and to force employers to provide better pay and decent working conditions. In the 1870s, Toronto’s printers started a campaign against local newspaper publishers, demanding that working days be limited to nine hours.
George Brown was the founder and editor of the Toronto Globe, which later became the Globe & Mail, and a political rival of Macdonald’s. He led the other newspaper publishers in resisting these demands and pressed criminal charges to have their leaders arrested for seditious conspiracy. In April 1872, 10,000 supporters of the printers rallied in Queen’s Park to protest this abuse of power.
Macdonald was a cold political calculator and he was always happy to support people who gave George Brown a hard time. He responded positively to the demands of the workers. Macdonald passed a new Trade Unions Act to legalize unions and allow them to negotiate better working conditions. As a result, workers eventually won the right to work only 9 hours, 6 days a week. Macdonald later created a Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. Its 1889 report documented the sweeping impact of industrialization in Canada, and the commissioners strongly defended unions as a suitable form of organization for workers.
The commissioners heard horrifying testimony regarding the beating and imprisonment of children employed in factories, and urged that the practices be outlawed. The following is an excerpt from their report:
In some parts of the Dominion the employment of children of very tender years is still permitted. This injures the health, stunts the growth and prevents the proper education of such children, so that they cannot become healthy men and women or intelligent citizens. It is believed that the regular employment in mills, factories and mines of children less than 14 years of age should be strictly forbidden Further your Commissioner think that young persons should not be required to work during the night at any time, nor before 7 o’clock in the morning during the months of December, January, February and March.
To this day, that report is the most compelling portrait of the working lives of Canadians at that time. It changed the minds of many, but not everybody was convinced. Macdonald himself did nothing in his last two years to act on the commission’s report. As a result, T. Phillips Thompson, the editor of the Labor Advocate wrote the following:
Sir John A. fooled the Canadian workingman… A commission was appointed and travelled all over the country examining witnesses and investigating local conditions but the sole result was a bulky report. None of the suggestions of the commission have been put on the statue books, and the money laid out on this expensive job was worse than waster, in as much as it was made the means of giving a soft job to a few political heelers in return for their influence at elections.
T. Phillips Thompson was harsh and failed to appreciate Macdonald’s actions which, at that time, went a long way in changing the thinking about the relations between workers, employers and the government. More importantly, the findings of the Commission fuelled government action in the more progressive era of the early twentieth century.
We have seen that Macdonald was able to change his mind on a number of issues over his long career. But he was still a man of his century; he believed in a liberal philosophy where every man was out for himself, where capitalism reigned supreme and where government help to individuals would be extremely limited.Ironically, the man who did not consider himself a rebel still found a way to make radical changes that were, in many cases, decades ahead of their time.