Canada – Knights Of Labor

The greatest passing Labour wave that ever struck Canada was the Knight of Labour movement in the early eighties. This institution was founded on the secret society principle, with signs and passwords, a working formula to open and close the Assemblies, as the local bodies were called, and signs of recognition, by which brother Knights who were strangers could recognise each other. It also provided for District Assemblies, which are composed of representatives of the several local Assemblies of any given district, for the purpose of enabling the members to take concerted action on matters pertaining to their locality, and a General Assembly that met annually in the city determined upon at the previous General Convention. This organisation was eminently suited to a thinly-populated country like Canada, as it provided that where there were not enough workers of any particular trade to form a local Assembly, mixed Assemblies could be organised, composed of all classes, except lawyers, who were debarred membership in the Society. Several hundred local Assemblies were organised, and a not inconsiderable number of District Assemblies. The Knights of Labour, though originating in the United States, became so strong in Canada, that at one time they threatened to submerge the Trade Unions, and it was found necessary to give the Dominion a representative on the General Executive Board. But it proved a meteoric ‘movement, reaching its height in 1887, during which year there was a general election, and the Labour party of Toronto called a convention to nominate candidates for the Dominion, at which there were about ten thousand organised workers and labour reformers represented. Messrs. E. E. Shepherd and A. F. Jury were nominated for West and East Toronto respectively, but they were both defeated, and from that time the movement began to decline in Canada, as it already had done in the United States, and to-day there are not a dozen Assemblies in the Dominion. Many of the Trade Assemblies, that is those Assemblies that were composed entirely of one particular trade, reverted to their former form of organisation, viz., Trade Unions, while the members of the mixed Assemblies who wished to retain their connection with the Labour movement, became either Socialists or Single Taxers. In spite of the spasmodic character of the Knights of Labour movement, it was a great educational factor, and helped in no small degree to create a healthy public opinion on the Labour question, which was one of its principal missions.


Though it cannot be said that Labour representation has been a great success in Canada, so far as numbers are concerned, the same cannot be truthfully said in regard to Labour legislation. The Statutes of the Dominion and Provincial Parliaments bear ample evidence of the activity of organised labour in this useful field of operation. Previous to 1837 the labourers stood naked before the law, so far as special legislation was concerned to protect them against the ” get rich quick ” exploiter of humanity. They were living under the old statute laws of the United Kingdom, without the benefits of the various modern Acts that had been passed here for the protection of the workers in mine, factory and workshop ; but with the inauguration of a national labour movement this state of things soon began to change, and to-day few countries are ahead of Canada in this respect, though she labours under the disadvantage of having to influence nine Parliaments instead of one, on account of some of the remedial legislation required having to be obtained from Provincial Parliaments and some from the Dominion. In spite of this drawback they have succeeded in getting the following Acts passed in the direct interest of Labour :—Mechanics’ Lien Law, Workmen’s Compensation Act. When this latter Act was first passed in the Province of Ontario, The Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific Railways were exempt from its provisions for twelve months, on the ground that these companies had mutual protection societies to which the companies subscribed, and which provided relief in cases of accident, but it was provided that if at the end of that period it was found that the men in the employ of these companies wished to be afforded the protection of the Act, they would be so included in the following Session of the Legislature. At the expiration of the time mentioned the employees of the companies above referred to made it known to the Labour party of Toronto that they wished to be brought under the provisions of the Act, and a deputation composed of members of the legislative committees of the Toronto Trades and Labour Council, and District Assembly of Knights of Labour, appeared before the Railway Committee of the Ontario legislature, of which the Hon. Christopher Fraser, one of the best men and brightest intellects ever in public life in Canada, was chairman. After a long drawn out battle with the lawyers of the Railway Companies, the labour men succeeded in having the question submitted to a vote of the men working for the two companies, and it was carried by a large majority that they should be included among those coming under the protection of the Workmen’s Compensation Act.

In several of the provinces, Labour has also obtained the passage of Factory Acts, which, like the Compensation Act, have since been amended and improved through its influence. Other Acts have been passed, such as the Shops Regulation Act of 1888, an Act to prevent the law of conspiracy being applied to labour disputes, unless a deed is committed punishable under the statutes, an amendment to the Seamen’s Act, for the better protection of sailors, an Aliens Labour Law, an Act for the collection of labour statistics, an Act providing for a fair wage clause in all government contracts, Acts for the protection of employees in manufactories, and an Act relating to the protection of persons employed in the construction of railways, were passed in the Province of Quebec.

Ontario is the ” banner province ” of labour legislation in the east. In addition to the Acts already mentioned, the following measures have been obtained :—An Act to Facilitate Agreements between Masters and Workmen for the Participation in Profits, The Trades Arbitration Act, an Act to Amend the Law Relating to the Collection of Debts, an Act for the Establishment of Co-operative Societies, an Act to protect the Goods of Lodgers and Boarders against Distresses for Rent by the superior landlord, an Act respecting Wages in cases of Assignment, an Act respecting Exempting from Taxation Workmen’s Wages that do not exceed $700.00 a year, an Act respecting Mines Regulations, and an Act placing a duty of $500.00 on every Chinaman entering Canada was passed at the request of organised Labour in the Province of British Columbia. Most of the Acts have been amended several times at the instigation of the Labour party, and scores of minor Acts and Regulations have been passed. The province of British Columbia has been particularly prolific in labour legislation, and successful in obtaining representation in the local legislature.

Another field in which organised Labour has exercised a beneficial influence has been in having clauses inserted in agreements between municipal bodies and private corporations, securing a minimum wage and maximum hours of labour for employees of such companies, and in cases of street car companies, reduced through tickets for workers travelling to and from their work. In this last respect Canada stands in the very front rank of the nations of the earth, and these benefits, like many others accruing from the actions of organised Labour, have been showered upon all workers unorganised as well as organised.

Many of the municipalities have a minimum wage even for the scavengers that clean their streets and the men that dig their sewers. These various laws and regulations have saved many a life, brightened many a humble home in the hour of accident, and fed and clothed many a child that otherwise might have had to suffer great hardship through the negligence of employers or the meanness of public bodies. In pressing effectively for these provisions the working people of Canada have been most ably championed by Mr. A. F. Jury, at present the Canadian Government Agent at Exeter, a man who embodies sterling integrity of character with an unrivalled grasp of political economy and what is still more rare, of the power of applying that knowledge.