Creating A New World: Urbanization, Technology And Immigration

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the life Canadians knew underwent a major shift. It was a result of three major factors that coalesced to recreate the economic patterns and way of life. At play were the forces of:

  1. Urbanization: Populations in Ontario were shifting, moving from the rural areas into towns and cities
  2. Technology: The so-called Industrial Revolution (and even Second Industrial Revolution) saw an increase in mechanization. Technology was put into play in factories as it had never before. It began to replace the old, handcrafted products and, therefore, the mode of production utilized by workers.
  3. Immigration: The influx of new cultures was to impact everyday life and the economic and social structure of societies in new and interesting ways.

All three were to influence how life was to develop and proceed in communities such as Guelph, Ontario.

Guelph, Ontario, Canada: The Revolution Arrives

Guelph was founded in 1827 as a planned community. It was meant to be an urban centre.  It became a town in 1851 and a city in 1879. During this time, the face of economic and social Guelph changed. From a place where the English, Irish and Scots were prominent, it became home to a few Blacks and some Chinese. In the 1900s Italians were added to the mix.

The city progressed over the years from providing work for a few blacksmiths to contributing to the economic base for several foundries – many of which were specialized and “jobbed” to the local factories. Among the earlier ones were:

  • Guelph or Robertson Foundry – 1847 – Guelph’s first founded by John Watt & Adam Robertson
  •  Crowe’s Iron Works
  •  Woodyatt’s
  •  Wellington Foundry
  • Guelph Union Foundry
  • Guelph Steam Foundry
  • Thomas Worswick’s Machine & Tool Factory
  • John Kay Brass Foundry

Changes in the Workplace

During the process, the pattern of working life changed. Gone were the days of apprenticing and highly skilled and specialized workers. Factory owners with increasingly mechanized workplaces hired people with less skill and put them immediately on the machines. This was the case at:

  • Bells Organ & Piano
  • McCrae’s Woollen Mills
  • Raymond’s Sewing Machines
  • Burrow Brother’s Carpets

These and other industries hired green and unskilled labour – men, women and boys, to perform dangerous jobs. They were trained but little, and then let loose – working for long hours for extraordinarily little pay. Without guilds to maintain some standard in training and with machinery that was unprotected and unforgiving, accidents were waiting to happen every time a worker showed up for work.

Organizing the Workers

The only response workers could and did give was to create and join unions. In Guelph, they were at first exceedingly rare. None, except the American organization, the Knights of Labor, addressed women’s work. Women were regarded as being merely temporary employees.

This was not the only argument raised in favour of ignoring the plight of women workers. Male workers, middle-class women’s groups and even unions promulgated another, “If men received a living wage, factories would never hire women.” This was the common wisdom of the time. It was a philosophy and approach that Guelph’s labour leaders had to change if they were to move forward.

Organizing workers was slow but it gained steam and eventually, unions were there to stay. From the city’s local unions to the arrival of the city’s first internationals, Guelph workers learned to fight for their rights – striking if necessary.

Due to the steering committees of the Guelph Trades and Labour Council, unions became part of the workplace landscape. The arrival of communist unions as well as the rebellious CIO shook things up. Yet, ultimately, the various leading factions coalesced to create the Guelph and District Labour Council.

 The Struggle Continues

Today, workers still face obstacles to enjoying a healthy and safe workplace. There are issues of wages, sexual harassment, intimidation by the company and other related problems. Every year strikes over working conditions and fair wages occur. And, every day, unfortunately, a worker does not come home. While Labouring All Our Lives, is firmly rooted in what has happened in Guelph’s past, it does provide a cautionary tale as well as hope for those who are struggling to create a secure and non-toxic future for all workers in the city and beyond.