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
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.