Project Abstract

By David Buchanan

Red Flags is a resource site intended to generate wider knowledge of the history of proletarian literature in Canada, and focused more specifically on the recovery and analysis of the early labour press. Development of the labour movement in Canada depended in part on newspapers that could effectively communicate core issues and attract new readers while doing so, thus contributing to the expansion of working-class organization, consciousness, and action. Such papers started well before Confederation, but the labour press picked up steam along with the labour movement and industrialization in the 1860s and 1870s. Most newspapers were published in larger urban centres such as Montreal and Toronto and served a regional readership. They increased in number as early industrial conditions and the need for communication and organization took hold, especially around the turn of the century. Early labour newspapers in English could be moderate or radical (or both). They were published in small industrial towns as well as the larger cities, across the country, and alongside periodicals in other languages (e.g. French, Finnish, Ukrainian) and imported from other countries. Some were short-lived while others lasted for decades, with some morphing from one title to another over a longer period of time (in some cases due to censorship). Collectively, they responded to the material, social, and political conditions of modernity, including shifting notions of resistance, social change, and progress, and in particular, to capitalism and industrialization in Canada and elsewhere, describing a range of positions, from labour reform (i.e. hours and wages) to systemic change (i.e. single tax, socialism). They were usually published weekly, were four to eight pages in length, and sold for one to five cents per issue (or by subscription). Such periodicals were international in several respects: by the involvement of people from the United States, Britain, and elsewhere (e.g. as editors, writers, readers); by the reporting and influence of international news, movements, and events; and by the reprinting of fiction and non-fiction from elsewhere (primarily periodicals originally published in Britain and the United States). The content was diverse, designed to educate broadly and on specific labour issues, and in some cases to entertain workers at the end of a long day or week. The inclusion of poetry, short fiction, and novels as well as news, editorials, essays, images, and other forms of communication could serve a variety of purposes. The number of such periodicals increased throughout the period, with socialist papers beginning to appear in the 1880s and becoming more prominent by 1919, particularly in relation to or as a result of the Winnipeg General Strike and the One Big Union movement. Red Flags includes an introduction to the site and subject, description of select newspapers, and additional resources to further investigation of the subject, including chronologies of Canadian labour history and the early labour press in Canada, suggestions for further reading, a list of useful web links, and a sample syllabus based largely on site resources.

NOTE: Collaboration on the development of Red Flags is welcome (see Contact Information).