The Conservative government of Robert Borden had long targeted syndicalist organizing in Canada. His government had been rocked by the high tide of militant strike activity, especially the mass railway strike, in 1912. The outbreak of WWI ramped up their repressive measures. Borden’s hatred of the Wobblies, as a threat to capital, gained a new impetus because of the IWW’s steadfast opposition to the war. Within weeks the war’s start the Canadian parliament under Borden passed the War Measures Act. By late 1914 the IWW had been reduced to as few as 465 members in Canada. By 1915, with several branches closed, organizing was sustained largely among Finnish lumber workers in Northern Ontario.
In 1916, a government Order-In-Council restricted press freedoms. The attack on the press targeted especially the non-Anglo and non-French press popular among the base of IWW members, German Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Finnish. Out of the 253 publications banned during the war, 164 were in languages that were not English or French.
Finally on September 24, 1918, the Borden government took the next step passing Order-in-Council PC2384 which outlawed membership in the IWW and other radical organizations, focusing on German, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian speakers. The maximum sentence for IWW membership was five years to be served in one of 24 internment camps.
Despite the devastating impacts of the repressive legislation, organizing did continue. The government followed through on its promise of punishment and several Wobblies were jailed in 1918. In August that year prominent trials of Wobbly organizers Ernest Lindberg and George Thompson were widely publicized. Lindberg had been arrested under the Idlers Act for agitation at a logging camp. Thompson was arrested for possession of banned literature, including the Lumber Worker, and for letters written in German.
Following the arrests, the capitalist Vancouver World stoked the flames of reaction:
“For some time past the Dominion authorities have been alive to the situation existing in the camps, and have been desirous that the ringleaders of the movement which is responsible for draining of the logging centres, should be found... By the arrest of Lindberg and Thompson, the authorities believe they have succeeded in locating two main workers in the IWW cause, although there are others who will be carefully watched and apprehended in due course... The IWW is the short term used for the Industrial Workers of the World, an American organization with very extreme policies, Bolsheviki principles, and far reaching aims for the betterment of the conditions of the masses. Like other large organizations, it has two factions, the red flagging element generally regarded as dangerous as inciters against the observance of law and order. The organization is disowned by all but the lowest type of union labour men, as well as by Socialists.” (1)
Another IWW organizer Dick Higgins was tried under the War Measures Act in Vancouver. Only a public campaign managed to keep him from prison time. In September 1918, IWW members G. Hardy and A.E. Sloper were sentenced to prison for a year.
This was also a period of deportation of so-called foreign agitators and radicals. Deportation was not based on law but rooted in employer reports to police and blacklists. The industrial and Dominion Police, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) carried out surveillance leading to arrests and removals. Much if this specifically targeted IWW members. In the years prior to the Order in Council, the Canadian Department of Immigration pursued flimsy charges against Wobblies. Thus, as historian Barbara Roberts puts it, “while the real reason for exclusion or deportation was being an IWW member, the nominal legal cause was criminality, for example, or becoming a public charge, or illegal entry. Thus in some cases the Department satisfied the letter, while violating the spirit of the law.”
The government, under Borden, also acted to keep IWW members from entering Canada, using extra-legal means—since prior to the Order in Council outlawing the IWW, membership alone was not enough to bar entry. As Roberts states,
“Requests for action against the IWW came from the private sector, and from within the government when officials acted in response to appeals from employers and employers' groups. For instance, the Minister of Labour forwarded letters from Canadian corporations requesting suppression of the IWW and asked Immigration to co-operate. Moreover, the Minister forwarded such appeals to Prime Minister Borden and asked him to instruct the RCMP to help out.”
The persistence of employers, and their calls for government action, stoked the government’s already active panic. The government imagined an IWW menace combined with foreign influence—enraging its most potent passions, xenophobia and anti-syndicalism. According to Roberts, “The IWW were believed to be financed by enemy agents. The Dominion Police established an IWW section (a forerunner of the 1930s' Red Squads) and spy and police reports identified numbers of' 'foreigners'' who were Wobblies.”
Following the government’s moves to make the IWW illegal, organizing moved “underground.” IWW members contributed to the Wobbly-inspired One Big Union (OBU) movement. The One Big Union was founded in March of 1919 at the Western Labour Conference in Calgary. Several autonomous mining and timber industrial unions affiliated to the OBU. Materials were smuggled to the northern Ontario lumber workers and IWW delegates to the OBU in British Columbia.
The ban on the IWW in Canada was repealed on April 2, 1919, with the war over and the union reduced to a rump. However, the government clearly failed to see the rising tide of the OBU, which would culminate only months later in the Winnipeg General Strike and the smaller solidarity strikes that broke out in other cities, including Toronto.
Criminalization of Economic Disruption in Canada Today
The criminalization of syndicalism in Canada holds a warning for the present day, as politics swing rightward at federal and provincial levels. In the 2000s, there was a push by the then-chief of Toronto police, who later became a Conservative member of federal parliament, to list the direct action anti-poverty group OCAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) as a terrorist group and include it on the national terrorist list of prohibited organizations. Governments in several provinces have more recently brought forward legislation aimed at harsher criminalization of direct actions and economic disruptions. These repressive laws have been particularly directed to stop Indigenous, labor, and environmental blockades and pickets of extractives industry projects, from pipeline construction to logging.
On April 2, 2020, the United Conservative Party government quickly passed Bill 10, the Alberta Public Health (Emergency Powers) Amendment Act, 2020, which gave government ministers extraordinarily broad powers to create and enforce new laws, without consultation, debate or approval by the province’s legislative assembly. All of this could be done simply through ministerial order.
On April 16, 2020, the Manitoba Conservative government passed the Emergency Measures Amendment Act (Bill 54). The act gives the provincial cabinet extensive powers that, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, are “largely undefined,” under a state of emergency. Cabinet could make “any order” that it alone considers necessary “to prevent, reduce, or mitigate serious harm or substantial damage to persons or property or the effects of fiscal or economic disruption.” So-called economic disruption laws give governments leeway to target activities from direct actions and blockades to strikes.
Only last year, Ontario's Conservative provincial government tried to introduce new industrial legislation suspending fundamental human rights by invoking the “notwithstanding clause” to remove parts of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to break a strike by 55,000 education workers — members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Strikers faced potential fines of CA$4000 a day and $500,000 a day for the union.
That repressive move by the government was defeated by several wildcat strikes, which included solidarity wildcats from other workers. And this is a significant lesson. Direct action, particularly autonomous strike actions, still get the goods. Unfortunately, trade unions in Canada have internalized repression within their contracts with clauses banning wildcat strikes. The actions in Ontario put a focus back on this self-defeating practice and shown that in the face of repression bargaining with bosses and their governments is a dead end.
1. Quoted in Jewell, G. 1975. “The History of the IWW in Canada.” This is not in any way an endorsement of Jewell who shortly after writing his piece dropped out of the IWW only resurface several years later as a Strasserite. More on that can be found in the June 1982 issue of Black Flag archived at libcom.org.
Jewell, G. 1975. “The History of the IWW in Canada.”
Roberts, Barbara. 1988. Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada 1900 - 1935. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.