n the early 19th century, most Canadians worked as farmers, fishers, and craft workers. These activities were on a small scale; often, there was little differentiation between one's work and home life. Most people resided on farms or in small villages. This was also a time when all family members contributed directly to the family livelihood, with survival often depending on such co-operation. But in Canada this way of living changed rapidly through the last 50 years of the century. This is when Canada experienced its industrial revolution.

The building of canals and railways, huge projects for their time, and the beginnings of the factory system changed where people lived and worked. Many rural residents, especially the youth and new immigrants, found their way to the emerging factory towns and cities. The shift in the centre of production from the family to the factory was part of a broad social and economic transformation affecting Canada. It heralded the advance of industrial capitalism. This process created much sharper distinctions between employers and employees. Also, this new relationship was governed by a capitalist labour market where wage earners competed with one another for work. Expansionary times with good employment prospects might mean better wages and living conditions; on the other hand, in recessionary times, wages plummeted as workers struggling to survive competed fiercely for the few remaining jobs.

Workers created unions to protect themselves in these new impersonal labour markets. Although the first unions were small, local organizations, they attracted hostile reactions from governments and most employers. In fact, governments declared unions illegal. Union sympathizers confronted constant harassment, firings, blacklisting, and arrests. Despite this opposition, poor wages and dangerous working conditions led to an increasing number of strikes and protests. In the 1830s and 1840s, huge and violent strikes accompanied the construction of the Welland and Lachine canals, and protests in the logging camps occurred frequently. These actions were usually spontaneous outbursts of frustration that resulted in few lasting organizations.

The first signs of permanent unions date to the mid-nineteenth century. In manufacturing towns craft workers such as printers, shoemakers, moulders, tailors, coopers, and bakers established local unions. Railroad workers also actively pursued trade unionism. In the hostile atmosphere of this era, the life of these associations proved fragile and their existence was never guaranteed. Eventually, unions strengthened their situation through the creation of local assemblies, and by looking farther afield to establish links with British and American unions.

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