hile eastern miners busied themselves building the Provincial Workmen's Association, in Quebec, Ontario, and parts of the West the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, another new union, exploded onto the scene. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Knights organized about 400 assemblies (similar to union locals today), with membership numbering into the tens of thousands. Moulders, coopers, and other craft workers led the Knights' earliest organizing campaigns.

The Knights, however, did things differently from the earlier craft unions, which had restricted their membership to only the most skilled of workers. The Knights welcomed everyone into their assemblies; in fact, they officially excluded only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and saloon-keepers from membership! Consequently, thousands of workers previously excluded from the labour movement found a home in the Knights. Women now joined the union movement for the first time in our history. In another forward thinking step, the Knights permitted separate district assemblies for French and English workers in Montreal. However, this grace did not extend to Chinese and other Asian workers, especially in British Columbia.

The Knights in Canada were part of a broader movement that had emerged in the United States in the 1860s. This was not surprising because workers throughout North America faced similar problems. Fraternal ties between workers in the two countries seemed to make good sense. The Knights' assemblies in Canada, though, emerged first and foremost out of local conditions.

In small communities like Galt and St. Catharines, Ontario as well as in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and other larger centres, workers established assemblies to address local grievances in their workplaces, as well as the general health of their communities. Disturbed by the effects of an increasingly competitive labour market and poor living conditions in their towns, the Knights tried to moderate these conditions that appeared to go hand-in-hand with industrialism.

In response to such concerns and fears, the Knights called for restrictions to be placed on free-market competition. They emphasized in their speeches and literature the need to protect communities from unscrupulous manufacturers. But use of the strike to achieve these objectives was viewed as a last resort, at least by the leadership. First, the Knights argued, moral persuasion and appeals to governments for greater regulation must be tried. The Knights' emphasis on community and government regulation found further expression in their interest in municipal politics. In cities and towns across Canada, the Knights inaugurated Canada's first independent labour parties. In another innovative response to business monopolies, the Knights experimented with producer and consumer co-operatives in their search for alternatives to big business. In the end, however, this focus on local conditions left little time and energy to build a strong national organization. This partly accounts for the collapse of the Knights in the late 1880s.

Link to the Social Progress Gallery