The Ontario Workman

By David Buchanan


The first issue of The Ontario Workman (Toronto, 1872-75) was published on 18 April 1872 and printed by the Toronto Co-operative Printing Company. It was edited by James S. Williams, a leader of Local 91 of the Toronto Typographical Union (TTU) and president of the Toronto Trades Assembly. The terms of subscription were two dollars per annum, one dollar for six months, or five cents per copy (issued weekly). The subtitle at the top of each issue reads: “The Equalization of the Elements of Society in the Social Scale Should be the True Aim of Civilization.” The primary initial purpose of the Workman was support of the Nine-Hour Movement in Toronto. However, the moderate political stance enabled support of a broad range of social reform issues relevant to the lives of working-class people. A mission statement on page four of the first issue describes the Workman’s emphasis on conditions (at home and elsewhere), mutual aid, labour action, male suffrage, education, and entertainment. Such communication entailed the use of various forms, including reports, articles, letters, poems, short stories, and a novel.

Further Description

Following the end of the printer’s strike in March of 1872 and the TTU’s demand for a 54-hour week or nine-hour day, the Workman made the issue central to its existence. Accordingly, the main story on the front page of the first issue describes a “great procession of workmen” composed largely of unions in Toronto, which took place the Monday prior, gives details of the situation, and includes excerpts from speeches on the day.

The Workman was a mixed-format periodical including various forms of entertainment, most of which supplemented the emphasis on labour reform. The first issue is typical of those that followed. For example, the story of Derrick Halsey, part of a regular section of short fiction called “Tales and Sketches,” begins by describing poor conditions: Derrick’s mother dies, his sister marries poorly, and he leads a “dull, plodding existence.” Tragedy strikes when his sister goes mad and dies after throwing herself down a well, but in the end, Derrick and Hetty profess their love for each other, and agree to make the best of every moment. The hopeful turn is not atypical of the fiction found in labour periodicals.

The Other Side: A Social Study Based on Fact, a novel by American writer Martin Ambrose Foran, offers an interesting example of transnational proletarian literature used to educate and entertain readers of the Workman. It was serialized from 1872-73 in The Workingman’s Advocate, an American periodical, and simultaneously in the Workman, starting in the first issue and not finishing until 1874. Unlike the story of Dick Halsey, it offers a more complex consideration of working-class conditions and labour reform, and although set in America, it was obviously considered of direct relevance to workers in Toronto. Key aspects of the novel include the representation of working-class conditions, as well as the relations between Capital and Labour; the overlap between working-class and middle-class values, such as individualism and upward mobility; the possibilities of cooperative organization; the clear line drawn between reform and more radical notions of change; and a historical continuum that places labour reform in context of modernity, particularly industrialization and urbanization.

As was common, several poems are included in the first issue. On page two, “Labor is Honor” begins: “Labor is honor–God’s spirit has spoken: / This is the song that His universe sings: / Through the vast hills of creation unbroken, / Loudly and clearly the universe rings.” On page three, “Canada” describes the end of the “red man,” the beauty and wealth of the country, and advocates loyalty to Britain. On page six, “The Glory of Labor” is another romantic tribute to labour. The themes of labour and patriotism continued throughout the life of the Workman.

Other means of communication in the Workman included letters, notices, and information about meetings and other periodicals, as well as miscellaneous sections such as “Sawdust and Chips,” a section of short jokes, stories, and dialogues; “Housewife’s Recipes,” which includes recipes for frozen custard and whipped cream; and “Grains of Gold,” which offers sayings and proverbs.

Non-fiction emphasizing behavioural norms and labour education was predominant and took various forms. Again in the first issue, besides news articles on local and international events relevant to labour reform and industry, regular sections include prescriptive pieces such as “Saturday Night,” which instructs workers to go straight home after work and to avoid alcohol, teaching the importance of self-respect, discipline, and family values, even in the face of capitalist theft, which is also described. Another such section is titled “Pluck,” which is described as the greatest of virtues, with various examples of perseverance in the face of hardship. Practical in a different sort of way, “Memorial to Employers” is a template letter requesting that employers adopt the nine-hour day. Similarly helpful articles and reports from various local and international sources on a range of issues include: “Shortening the Hours of Labor,” a reprint of an editorial from the Globe describing agitation in Newcastle for a shorter work day; “An American View of the Opening of the Dominion Parliament,” from the N. Y. World; “On Labor,” from the Westminster Review; a very favourable report on Swiss labour; another article from the Globe on Canadian employers; “Labor, the Creator of Wealth, Entitled to All it Creates,” from the National Standard by Wendell Phillips, who attacks drones, or idle capitalists, and the capitalist system of exploitation; “The Fireside,” a discussion of the home and domesticity; “Inventions Made by Workmen. — Who Owns Them?,” a report on legal proceedings concerning patents; “The Future of Labor,” again from the N. Y. Tribune, a story of a strike and the workers who created a cooperative in response; “The Workingmen’s Voice on the Normal Working Day,” from Marx’s Kapital; and “The Nine-Hour Movement in Canada,” a report on progress across the country.

The Workman was not only a strong advocate for the wage worker and better working conditions, but Christian, patriotic, and loyal to Britain. While one of the first true labour papers in Canada, it was not radical in a revolutionary sense taken up by later papers. It aimed to educate workers and worked for better conditions, but it never actually attacked the capitalist basis of industrialization and nationalism. It described difficult circumstances, as well as appropriate behaviours and characteristics to better get on in capitalist Canada, including temperance and other forms of self-discipline. It furthered knowledge and cooperation by publishing national and international news, articles, and reports, often from other periodicals, and letters from anonymous and prominent writers. The mix of agitation and entertainment was important as a means of catering to existing and creating larger circulation. With respect to later newspapers such as The Western Clarion (Vancouver, 1903-25), the mix of socialism and labour reform in the Workman is perhaps most notable. The immediate and primary aim of the Workman was labour reform, and the nine-hour day specifically. Socialism, however, as outlined by the Socialist Party of Canada in the Clarion, would not allow for any such compromise. In terms of both form and content the Workman set an example for many other newspapers that followed, including The Trades Journal (Spring Hill, 1880-91), but it was also typical of labour reform papers, especially prior to The Palladium of Labor (Hamilton, 1883-86) and The Labor Advocate (Toronto, 1890-91), in that it emphasized moderate politics while sometimes supporting it with revolutionary discourse, for instance, by reprinting excerpts from Marx.

Full Text (sample)


Source: “Early Canadian Periodicals.” Early Canadiana Online. Web.

Note: Early Canadiana Online includes 101 issues of The Ontario Workman.