By David Buchanan

The site title Red Flags will undoubtedly be understood as a reference to socialism and/or communism, and perhaps also as used to name related songs and newspapers over the years. The association is appropriate given the progressive aims of many labour papers in Canada, whether reformist or radical, although the immediate identification of site content in such terms does not tell the whole story. Red Flags also refers to an act: to “red flag” something is to take note, to mark, to draw attention to, and potentially to warn, thus creating a sense of urgency and indicating the need for action. This second sense of the term more accurately reflects the function of the labour press in Canada. The early labour press was the voice of common workers, editors, authors, and organizations responding to the social consequences of modernity. Education, organization, and agitation required greater awareness of the conditions and processes of industrial capitalism in particular. The flexible form and varied content of the newspaper enabled effective communication over time and with respect to situation, including labour conditions, government legislation, evolving readership, publishing, reading practices, and the particularity of city or region. The basic aims were to “red flag” injustice as it happened and to advocate immediate reform and/or long-term social transformation. Study of the labour press, then, should not be reduced to a static or wooden understanding of radicalism, for example as specifically Marxist (in whatever sense), and therefore as a predictably niche or bygone subject of lesser historical value to contemporary readers. The labour press was an important part of the varied social practices that shaped the production, dissemination, and reception of knowledge in modern Canada, and of the practical contributions thereby made to everyday life as experienced by most people—then and now.

Published near the mid-point of what is usually considered the heyday of proletarian literature and arts, Ruth McKenzie’s 1939 essay “Proletarian Literature in Canada” comes to the conclusion that “there is no proletarian fiction of any importance in Canada.”[1] Such a statement was likely based on a limited sample of proletarian literature understood in institutionalized terms that are now commonly abbreviated as “Can Lit.” Nearly twenty years later, Frank W. Watt’s pioneering dissertation went beyond Confederation poets and social gospel novels to describe labour periodicals after 1867 in some detail, which would seem to have provided the ground for more substantial work on the subject.[2] And yet scholarship on proletarian literature over the past half century largely emphasises literature of the 20th century, particularly the 1920s to 1950s,[3] and despite ongoing advances,[4] histories of Canadian literature often leave it out entirely.[5] There are good reasons for addressing the so-called heyday, which deserves more attention in Canada and elsewhere. But ignoring Watt’s suggestion that such literature “takes on a new interest when we become aware of the Canadian writing that led up to it from many years before” has created a significant gap in scholarly investigation and public knowledge of Canadian history, literature, and communication.[6]

The documentation and analysis of Canadian labour history is far stronger than that of proletarian literature in Canada. A brief survey of this history provides some context for further discussion of the labour press.[7] Although agitation and organization in Canada started much earlier, a working-class movement began to take shape in central Canada in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This movement included the further development of cooperation, consciousness, and action, including significant strides towards the identification of key labour issues. Important general factors included population growth, the spread of industrialization, urbanization in major cities such as Toronto and Montreal, improved literacy rates, and the introduction of compulsory education in the early 1870s in Ontario. The earlier development of a labour press in Britain and the United States was also important as many periodicals regularly crossed borders. Canadian efforts were, however, also particular to the slow and limited response of the government to pitiable living and working conditions in industrial Canada, including indefensibly poor housing, the exploitation of women and children, the persistence of low wages, and the frequency of worksite accidents. In addition, coercion by both employers and the state, including blacklists, firings, fines, jail sentences, and anti-labour legislation, made the struggle to alter such circumstances all the more difficult. But working-class responses in the 1880s were as widespread as the conditions, including strikes across the country as well as the related formation of trades and labour organizations. The most popular of the period was the Knights of Labor, an American-based organization that entered Canada in 1875 and spread in the 1880s. Beginning at Hamilton, Ontario in 1881, it reached a peak in 1886-87 with 158 Assemblies in Canada, and more than a million members throughout North America.[8]

Canada’s 1889 Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada is perhaps the best-known statement on working-class conditions of the period,[9] but a clear need for on-the-ground responses emerged. The growth of trade unionism was a response to the application of capitalism, industrialization, and related management techniques to resource extraction, manufacturing, and labour. Greater awareness of conditions and practical organization of the working class, with respect to specific cities (e.g. Toronto Trades and Labor Council), trades (e.g. metalworkers, printers), or more generally (e.g. Knights of Labor), resulted in an emphasis on practical solutions to improve the everyday life of workers. The Nine-Hour Movement spearheaded by the Toronto Typographical Union and supported by The Ontario Workman (Toronto, 1872-75) was an early example. But subsequent responses were various and changed significantly throughout the period, later emphasizing Henry George’s land tax and Nationalism, frequently calling for the overthrow of capitalism, and leading to the spread of socialist organizations that were by no means homogenous.[10]

After 1900, the Canadian economy expanded significantly, but for most workers, life remained hard and strikes were common. In response, the government attempted to limit agitation. The 1903 Report of the Royal Commission on Industrial Disputes in the Province of British Columbia proposed the incorporation of unions, but it also empowered the Federal Government to stop strikes by referring issues to binding arbitration.[11] Similarly, the 1907 Canadian Industrial Disputes Investigation Act outlawed strikes involving public utilities, mining, and railroads prior to the submission of a report by a conciliation board.[12] At the same time, other factors worked against the effectiveness of popular agitation, including the challenge of class collaboration, which hindered solidarity, the persistent intervention of private interests, and the impact of international unions on Canadian-based organization. Regardless (or because) of the many difficulties facing reformers, regional strikes were not only frequent but occurred across the country, from Cape Breton to Nanaimo. Perhaps more remarkably, lasting advances were made at federal and provincial levels of government. For example, in 1900 Dominion Fair Wage Legislation established a sub-department of Labour, a monthly Labour Gazette, a labour library, and the beginnings of a statistical service for industrial relations and conditions, and in 1914 the Ontario Workmen’s Compensation Bill was passed. Similarly, on-the-ground agitation did not remain local or regional. Just as the foundation of the Socialist Party of Canada in 1904 aimed for wider solidarity, the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 indicated the need for coordinated responses to the entrenchment of industrial conditions across the country. The events of that year, however, were in fact many and the impact remains under acknowledged. Thousands of workers took part in hundreds of strikes and lockouts across Canada in 1919. The key demands were a living wage, the eight-hour day, and the right to organize.[13] Intimidation and force were used to end the strike, but the One Big Union movement and other organizations carried on key aspects of the struggle, including collective bargaining and solidarity.[14] The original demands, the need for public agitation, the government response, and the continuing struggle for better conditions should sound familiar to Canadians today.

The incorporation of working-class literature within Canadian literary studies tends to result in a limited sense of social critique focused on middle-class social problem novels or sympathetic verse by canonical poets that does not adequately account for “literature from below” by and for the proletariat. As indicated in more detailed histories of Canadian labour and the social history of Canada,[15] collective organization from the Nine-Hour Movement to the Winnipeg General Strike depended on downmarket communication by and for working-class people. The labour press, in particular, played a key role in enabling everyday communication, without which the working-class cooperation, consciousness, and action described, for example by Steven Langdon,[16] would not have been possible. Over the past 40 years, scholarly histories of 19th-century labour have made good use of the labour press to describe Canadian labour history.[17] More directly, Ron Verzuh usefully outlines the changing politics of 19th-century labour periodicals.[18] However, the emphasis is on labour history and politics rather than an extension of the pioneering work of Watt on proletarian literature in Canada. Literary studies of historical periodicals in Canada do not tend to help matters by favouring publications deemed to be of national importance.[19] Although the definition of “national” may depend on form, circulation, territorial reach, and duration, it often seems to boil down to issues of politics and class as well as editorship and location.

Over the past 25 years, Canadian literary studies has benefited from a wide-ranging recovery project. Ground-breaking advances in the history of print communication, exemplified by the three-volume History of the Book in Canada project,[20] have changed our understanding of Canadian literature, and opened up new avenues of inquiry into printing and publishing, writing and reading. Related examples of the expansion of Canadian literary studies include Carole Gerson’s work on transnationalism and Dean Irvine’s on little magazines.[21] However, a longstanding critical emphasis on conservative authors, upmarket forms, and canonical works continues to overshadow literature by or for working-class people in Canada. The significant gaps and divides in scholarship on proletarian literature remain despite the recent work already noted on the so-called heyday of proletarian literature and arts from the 1920s to the 1950s. Proletarian literature across temporal, spatial, cultural, and national divides, most obviously between English and French Canada, is underrepresented. So, too, are periodicals from other countries (esp. Britain and America), international content reprinted in the labour press, newspapers in other languages (e.g. German, Finnish, Ukrainian), and lesser-known or unknown contributions by working-class men, women, and ethnic minorities. In short, much work remains to be done.

Part of the underlying argument of this project is that any consideration of Canadian literature as contributing to the influence of social context must take into account popular, downmarket, and radical forms of print, which is to say the reading practices of the wider population, and especially those of the working class. More particularly, rather than repeatedly returning to inspirational poetry or social problem novels, however important and interesting, descriptive, critical, and comparative histories of the early labour press in Canada, as well as other forms (e.g. pamphlets, bulletins, government documents), would contribute significantly to better understanding of the literary milieu to which authors like Lampman living and working in south-eastern Ontario (and elsewhere) were exposed or contributed to. As such, as part of a larger project on the recovery of proletarian literature in Canada from 1872-1919, this site contributes to the history of social criticism in Canada by describing a wider range of reform activity. The result should be better description of the variety of ways people responded to modern conditions, even when such descriptions do not fit neatly into linear, evolutionary, liberal, or canonical views of Canadian literature and history.

What, then, is the 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 readerships. 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), which is to say that unearthing the complexity of such literature requires close reading. 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 transnational 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.

Behind the creation of this site is the idea that important connections can still be made between Canada’s past and the present, and also that something can be gained by looking at the varied responses of Canadians to the consequences of modernity. This will require further collaborative work, which should make all relevant resources available online and open access (e.g. full text of all periodicals); include a broader spectrum of communication forms (e.g. pamphlets, bulletins, songs, dramas); investigate the social production of the labour press by varied cultural agents (e.g. authors, printers, publishers, sellers) and in relation to existing literary networks and reading practices; describe the transnational connections that underpinned such cultural production and dissemination (e.g. copyright, syndication); establish more nuanced connections between the politics of social reform and socialist transformation (e.g. within and between papers, as well as other forms); and again, make all such research publicly available. Underlying such work is also a call for the continued re-contextualization of Canadian literary studies with respect to the range of materials, interests, and practices that better describe the history of reading in Canada. In these ways, the pedagogical function of Red Flags is twofold: to generate knowledge on a particular subject, and to help shape popular understanding and scholarly representations of Canadian literary history.


[1] Ruth McKenzie, “Proletarian Literature in Canada,” Dalhousie Review 19, no. 1 (April 1939): 59.

[2] F.W. Watt, “Radicalism in English Canadian Literature Since Confederation,” PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1957, 139.

[3] For example, see Roxanne Rimstead, Remnants of Nation: Poverty Narratives by Women (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); James Doyle, Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Literary Tradition in Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002); Candida Rifkind, Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature and the Left in 1930s Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Jody Mason, Writing Unemployment: Worklessness, Mobility, and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Canadian Literatures (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

[4] For example, see Andrea Hasenbank, “Formal Protest: Reconsidering the Poetics of Canadian Pamphleteering,” in Bart Vautour et al, eds, Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, [2015]), forthcoming.

[5] For example, Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), edited by Carl F. Klinck, includes Watt’s chapter on “Literature of Protest,” which describes some labour periodicals. In contrast, W.H. New’s A History of Canadian Literature (1989; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003) offers only two pages for the period 1867–1922 under the category “Social and Literary Resistance” and there is no mention of the labour press.

[6] F.W. Watt, “The Growth of Proletarian Literature in Canada, 1872–1920,” Dalhousie Review 40, no. 2 (1960): 173. This lack of achievement is also noted in Bryan D. Palmer, “Review Essay: Rhyming Reds and Fractious Fictions: Canada’s Heritage of Literary Radicalism,” American Review of Canadian Studies 34, no. 1 (2004): 99–128.

[7] See Canadian Labour History for further details.

[8] For a more detailed account of the Knights of Labor, see Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and also, Robert F. Weir, Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

[9] Canada’s Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada (Ottawa: Senecal, 1889), at Early Canadiana Online.

[10] For example, the Socialist Labour Party (1894); Canadian Socialist League (1898); United Socialist Labor Party of British Columbia (1899); Socialist Party of British Columbia (1901); Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada (1902); Socialist Party of Manitoba (1902); Socialist Party of Ontario (1903); Socialist Party of Canada (1904); Social Democratic Party of British Columbia (1907); Social Democratic Party of Canada (1911).

[11] Department of Labour, Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Industrial Disputes in the Province of British Columbia (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1903), Internet Archive, Web, 2 September 2014.

[12] The Canadian Industrial Disputes Investigation Act, (1907), Internet Archive, Web, 2 September 2014.

[13] See Norman Penner, Winnipeg, 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (Toronto: Lewis and Samuel, 1973).

[14] See David Bercuson, Fools and Wise Men: The Rise and Fall of the One Big Union (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

[15] See, for example, Martin Robin, Radical Politics and Canadian Labour 1880-1930 (Kingston: Industrial Relations Centre, Queen’s University, 1968); David J. Bercuson and David Bright, Canadian Labour History: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp Clark Longman, 1994); Gregory S. Kealey, Workers and Canadian History (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995); Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Brief History (Toronto: Lorimer, 1996). See also Further Reading and Web Links at this site for additional resources.

[16] Steven Langdon, The Emergence of the Canadian Working Class Movement 1845-1875 (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1975).

[17] See, for example, Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Christina Burr, Spreading the Light: Work and Labour Reform in Nineteenth-Century Toronto (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Ian McKay, Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 1890-1920 (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2008); Bryan D. Palmer, Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[18] Ron Verzuh, Radical Rag: The Pioneer Labour Press in Canada (Ottawa: Steel Rail, 1988).

[19] See, for example, Robert L. McDougall, A Study of Canadian Periodical Literature of the Nineteenth Century (Toronto: N.p., 1950); Fraser Sutherland, The Monthly Epic: A History of Canadian Magazines 1789–1989 (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1989).

[20] Patricia Lockhart Fleming and Yvan Lamonde (eds), History of the Book in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

[21] Carole Gerson, “Writers without Borders: The Global Framework of Canada’s Early Literary History,” Canadian Literature 201 (Summer 2009): 15-33; Dean Irvine, Editing Modernity: Women and Little Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).