Toronto Printers Strike

by Doug Nesbitt

Only days before the Toronto Printers’ Strike of 1872, George Brown, a “father of Confederation” and founder/editor of the Globe, wrote that “it is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case.”(1)The “tyranny of the employed” was a struggle for the nine-hour day, though the work week was still six days.(2)

The strike was the culmination of Canada’s first mass workers movement. In late 1871, many of the workers in Ontario and Québec were inspired by the nine-hour movement in England, which at the time was even supported by George Brown.(3) By January of 1872, mass meetings of mostly male workers, but their families too, were being held in virtually every urban centre in Ontario and Québec.

The Toronto printers’, represented by the Toronto Typographical Union, Canada’s oldest union were instrumental in the movement and were the first to transform words into deeds. After their demands for the nine hour day were not met, they struck on March 25, 1872.

The strike centered around George Brown’s globe, but engulfed every Toronto newspaper except the Leader which declared that “[t]he shortening of the hours of labour is one of the most commendable movements inaugurated by working men.” (4)The Leader’s owner/editor was Tory Mp James Beaty, who was keen on seeing George Brown, a leading Liberal MP, suffer from the strike. Despite offering important support to the strike, Beaty’s editorials warned against” obstinate dogmatism”, “ruffianism”, demagoguery and revolutionary ideas.(5)

The strike continued into April and helped lead to the biggest demonstration in Canadian History to that point. The Toronto Trades Assembly organized a march and rally on April 15. Two thousand workers gathered at the Trades Assembly Hall on King Street and marched down Yonge to College and then finally to Queen’s Park. Cheered along the way, the procession ballooned to then thousand by the time it reached Queen’s Park. Significant by contemporary standards, the demonstration was all the more remarkable considering Toronto’s population was just over 100,000.(6)

As working class Torontians threw their support behind the strikers, George Brown formed the “Master Printers’ Association”, a group of anti-union newspaper owners. The day after the demonstration on April 15, the Masters Printers’ Association secured the arrest of the entire 24 person strike committee.(7) Within hours for thousand Torontians gathered in Market Square to denounce George Brown and his Master Printers’ Association. Alongside labour militants, a Tory MPP and a representative of the Leader addressed the crowd. Defending the arrests, George Brown claimed that “[t]he proprietors have suffered for years from intolerable and increasing oppression and the effort they are now making is to free themselves from it and gain control of their own business.”(8)

The events of April 15 and 16 forced the federal government to play its hand. Prime Minister MacDonald, whose Tory Part had cultivate electoral support through the Leaders pro-worker stance, was faced with “a leading Liberal, George Brown, threatening to destroy the workers’ movement” and “an insurgent labour movement talking of going into politics itself.”(9) On April 18 Prime Minister John A. MacDonald introduced and passed the Trade Union Act to legalize unions.

The nine hour day was not won and in this sense, the strike was lost. But an unexpected and much larger victory was achieved; the legalization of unions. However, alongside the Trade Union Act, MacDonald passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made demonstrations and picketing illegal. And while unions were now legal, employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with them.

The Toronto Printers’ Strike was a first step in advancing the collective interest of the Canadian workers, and to this day, the rights of Canadian workers in Canada remain the monument to bitter strikes, mass demonstration and the day-to-day struggles to make ends meet.

(1) Globe, 23, March 1872
(2) Toronto Typographical Union, Minutes, 24 February 1872.
(3) Globe, 20, September, 1871
(4) Leader, 18 March 1872
(5) Ibid, 23, March 1872, 5 April 1872.
(6) Sally Zerker, The Rise and Fall of the Toronto Typographical Union, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 90.
(7) Charles Lipton, The Trade Union Movement in Canada, (Montreal: Canadian Social Publications Ltd., 1966), 30.
(8) Globe, 17 April 1872.
(9) Lipton, 32.


Overcoming Impressment


by Steve Gibbs

Great Britain, being engaged in war, claims a right to the services of all her natural-born subjects…This duty of allegiance is not only universal, or applicable of every subject, but I indefeasible, and cannot be put off. – W. Cowles (1)

To the natural-born subjects of “sea-faring” character, this duty to the state stipulated impressment into service of the Royal Navy. Service in the Royal Navy was for the majority a harsh life with few rights. One seaman, Johnathon corncob, recounts refusing an order to climb up the riggings of a sail during a gale after seeing two other men fall to their deaths following the same order. After receiving dozens of lashes, a more seasoned sailor advised Corncob that his “lenient” punishment was “a little sample” of naval discipline that was comparatively “a tickling.” (2) given this, it is neither little surprise that many likened the Royal Navy to floating Hell nor a surprise that recruitment involved coercion.

Although the British Empire venerated liberty in word, impressments demonstrated that it exalted coercion in deed. During the Napoleonic Wars, 3000 men worked as members of press gangs, Armed with sly toungues and clubs, press gangs duped subjects or lead them away in shackles to years in forced military service. Press gangs targeted those with least social power such as the poor criminals, and private seamen demanding higher wages. One man asserted that if he had known that he was destined to be impressed, he “would have instantly committed the horrid crime of self-murder.”(3)

This state repression did not go unchallenged. Many Maritimers, particularly Nova Scotians, found work as Privateers as an alternative to the Royal Navy. As state sanctioned pirates, privateers worked in relatively relaxed hierarchy, gained higher wages, and were legally, though not always in practice, exempt from impressments. Nevertheless, impressment at sea remained so feared by privateer that some British Privateers reportedly jumped from their ships to take their chances in the sea or as Spanish prisoners rather than be rescued by the British Navy.(4)

While formal petitions to curb the practice came from the privileged upper class of Nova Scotia, it was the direct action of those most affected by impressments that lead to its downfall. Thousands of person evading press gangs, carrying false American identity papers or deserting made this system of forced military service unworkable on the ground. It is estimated that 27 300 persons deserted suggesting that the Royal Navy lost as many men as it gained. In fact by some calculations, because of this resistance, the Navy lost more personnel than it impressed.(5)

(1) Author unspecified. The right and practice of Impressment as concerning Great Britain and America Considered. London. Printer for J. Murray, 50, Albemerable-street. By W.coles, Northumberland-Court, Strand, 1814. P. 3, 5.
(2) Jonathon Corncob. Adventures of corncob, loyal American refugee, Written by himself. London 1787. P. 155
(3) Kert, Margaret Faye. Research in Maritime History No.1: Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the war of 1812. 1997. P. 120
(4) Conlin, Dan. A private war in the Caribbean: Nova Scotia Privateering 193-1805. Thesis St. Mary U. 1996. P. 108
(5)Kert Margaret Faye. P.



(Update: Since this moment was written but still four decades after the eviction the City of Halifax has made a formal apology, and “according to one published report, it includes a $3-million payout and about one hectare of municipal land. There is no money for individuals or families… the federal government also announced $250,000 for the Africville Heritage Trust, which will help design a museum and a replica of the community’s church.” (1))

Used with permission from author

Nelson, Jennifer. (2000). The Space of Africville: Creating, Regulating and Remembering the Urban ‘Slum.’ Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 15 (2) pp 163-185.

Throughout the community’s approximately 120-year history, Halifax’s development, particularly in the industrial and disease- and waste-management sectors, equaled a series of encroachments on Africville land. In addition to railway lines, which required the destruction of several Africville buildings, an oil plant storage facility, a bone mill and a slaughterhouse were built. Encircling these establishments were a leather tanning plant, a tar factory, another slaughterhouse and a foundry. Shortly after the settlement of Africville, the city established Rockhead Prison on the overlooking hillside; in about twenty years, the city’s infectious diseases hospital was placed on this hill, and the open city dump located about one and a half miles away. Later construction of railway lines to different factories required further dislocation of Africville families. Destruction of many surrounding industries following the Halifax Explosion of 1917 resulted in new, similar facilities being built in their places. For decades, this waterfront region was the target of much discussion regarding expropriation for industrial expansion by the City of Halifax, a plan which became solidified in the 1947 rezoning of the city. In the early 1950s, the city dump was moved directly onto Africville land – 350 feet from the westernmost home – and two years later, the city placed an incinerator only 50 yards beyond the south border of Africville.

Throughout Africville’s existence, building permits to improve homes were increasingly difficult to obtain from the city government. Requests for water lines and sewerage which would bring sanitation and quality of life closer to the standards for the rest of the city were refused. Police and fire protection and garbage collection on par with such services received by the rest of Halifax were denied. Living conditions were ironically described by city officials as intolerable and unsanitary – in short, as justification for the inevitable dismantling of the community and eviction of its 400 residents. Discussion of this project remained common, until finally, in the 1960s, the threat became a more serious reality. By the end of the decade, despite avid resistance and organization on the part of Africville residents themselves and in concert with other community groups, Africville had been expropriated by the City of Halifax for the purposes of industrial development on the lands, as well as for the alleged benefits of “slum clearance” and “relocation” of the residents.’ (3)

Due to an informal system of handing down properties and housing within families and between in-laws over the years, many residents were unable to prove legal title to their land; thus, they had little recourse when faced with the proposition to sell or be simply evicted. Due to historical social and economic conditions, residents had literally no formal community leadership which would be seen as legitimate political representation, and little access to the legal and bureaucratic bargaining tools of the municipality. Most were forced to accept the city’s small compensation, or to settle for low prices offered for homes they had not been permitted to maintain and improve, located in what was defined as the slum by the garbage dump. (4) In a seeming mockery, when moving companies refused service, city garbage trucks which had never been employed in service of Africville were sent to carry away the residents’ belongings.

As the last Africville home was bulldozed in 1970, former residents adjusted to living, in many cases, in public housing facilities, struggling to pay rent for the first time in their lives, while a few afforded their own homes, still to suffer financial difficulties in the near future. Separated from friends, family and their former strong sense of community, many Africvilleans were to face the unsurprising insufficiency of welfare dollars and of the meager $500 compensation they had received – defined as a “moral claim” given through the benevolence of the City.

(1)CBC News. 23, February, 2010. Retrieved February 16, 2012
(2)For early historical information I have relied on: Africville Genealogical Society, eds. The Spirit of Africville (Halifax: Formac, 1992); D. H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville Relocation Report. (Halifax: Institute of Public Affairs, Dalhousie University, 1971) [hereinafter Africville Relocation Report.]; D. H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974); D.H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, 3′” ed. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999); F. Henry, Forgotten Canadians: The Blacks of Nova Scotia (Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1973). Of particular interest to a critical geographical race analysis is the manner in which the control of space and the control of bodies through control of space become tools for defining a community’s physical and
(3) For documentation of relocation, see Clairmont & Magill; Africville Genealogical Society, supra note (2).
(4) Letter of R.J. Britton, Director of Social Planning for the City of Halifax, to Halifax City Council (28 October, 1994). Housing purchase prices are listed in this letter.The amounts city council claims to have paid are seen as inaccurate by some Africville activists with whom I have spoken. There have been accusations of bribery, in which city officials are alleged to have offered residents suitcases of cash  in exchange for their eviction. See J. Robson, “Last Africville Resident” The [Halifax] Mail Star (12 January 1970) 5.