The Story Of Canadian Labour

By Larry Katz, Straight Goods, 9 April 2001

A multi-media Workers' Millennium Project from the Canadian Labour Congress

Recognizing the need for accessible and engaging educational information about the Canadian labour movement—its struggles, setbacks, historic moments and achievements—the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions commissioned Barna-Alper Productions to produce the bilingual Workers' Millennium Project to celebrate the millennium. Union funding was supplemented by a financial contribution from the Canada Millennium Partnership Program.

The Workers' Millennium Project reflects and recounts the story of Canadian labour in the 20th century. The end-products, a lush, interactive CD-ROM, book of photographs, and four-part documentary video series are now available for ordering.

Combining the best archival material available with dynamic storytelling, stirring music, stunning visuals and elegant writing, The Story of Canadian Labour will appeal to a diverse audience.

The production team including noted archivist and visual researcher Elspeth Domville, documentary video producer Alan Mendelsohn, labour historians Wayne Roberts and David Frank, Quebec-based consultants André Bouthillier and Hélène Pedneault, and a talented multimedia team from Filament Communications of Ottawa. Historical material was gathered from libraries, archives, news sources and unions across the country. The production team consulted widely with the academic, media and labour communities. The Executive Producers for the project were Laszlo Barna (CBC's Da Vinci's Inquest, History Television's Turning Points and the David Milgaard Story) and Larry Katz (Labour Consultant and retired National Research Director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees).

Here's a quick overview of the contents of the CD-ROM and videos.


Directed by Larry Katz and Laszlo Barna
(disk contains both the English and French versions)

Like a magnificent tapestry, one hundred years of Canadian labour stretches out before you in this multimedia CD-ROM. The Story of Canadian Labour, 1900-2000 gathers together the most comprehensive collection of information about Canadian labour ever assembled in one CD-ROM. You are provided with a rich source of stories, facts and insights to enrich your knowledge and better understand labour's role in the making of Canadian history. Photographs, videos, music, graphs, tables and interactive programming are used to help you appreciate the time, the people and the context in which events crucial in labour history took place. The strength of the CD-ROM lies in an intuitive architecture and navigation system that effectively manages a huge volume of information, making it user friendly and more meaningful.

What is in the CD-ROM?

A Timeline of Labour History explores the history of Canadian labour from the earliest days of the 1900s to the dawn of the new millennium. You can select any decade from 1900 to 2000 and pop-up photos are your link for experiencing many of the historic moments, key struggles and achievements of the century. Complemented by archival photos, video and music, each event contains a printable story written to engage you and help you experience the time explored.

Themes From Labour's Story includes information on major themes integral to the story of labour. You can choose from a selection of chronologically ordered archival photos to access text, captions, graphs and tables on the fight for democracy, building a movement, building a country, caring for a country, women in the movement, immigrants, and youth.

Canada's Union Movement is as diverse and varied as labour itself. Large or small, national or regional, the federations and labour unions of the Canadian Labour Congress are here telling their own story in their own words. This section allows you to immerse yourself in the fascinating tales of 57 unions. The union stories are complemented by archival photos, timelines, further readings, contact information and links to union WEB sites.

Interactive Activities and quizzes are employed to test the user's knowledge of Canada's labour movement.

Readings is an information stream containing brief descriptive summaries of bibliographic source material on Canadian labour under sub-headings such as general histories, lives and times, regional histories, early days, and the 20th century

A Glossary of Union Terms includes definitions of terms commonly used when describing union activities and Canadian industrial relations practices.

Internet Links connect you to historical and up-to-date information about unions on the World Wide Web.

Helpful Navigational Tools such as a help button and an index listing and linking you to items on the disk are always only a click away as you navigate the CD-ROM

The CD-ROM, which is PC only, has already won 1st Prize in the multimedia category at Ottawa's Advertising and Design Awards.


(Video ½ inch, Colour, English and French versions available)

Episode 1
Brave Beginnings, 1900 to 1929

Directed by Margaret Slaght
(running time, 26:45)

The late 1800s was a time of harsh living and working conditions. It was life on the edge of a precipice. Every family member often works 10 hours a day, six days a week in the factory. The women are paid half as much as the men, children far less than that. There is no unemployment insurance, no pensions, no health and safety protection, and no minimum wage. This episode reveals how labour unions emerged in Canada as workers began to organize for greater protection in the workplace. From the creation of benevolent societies and craft unions, the institution of the 1872 Trade Union Act under John A. MacDonald,, and the establishment of national and regional labour organizations, Brave Beginnings charts the first successes of unions. This episode also depicts the challenges: the 1880s revolt by the Knights of Labour, coal miners strikes in Cape Breton and Vancouver Island, and the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. Brave Beginnings examines how the concept of solidarity grew between groups of workers across the country when there was still no legal right to collective bargaining. It also documents the beginnings of labour's political influence at the ballot box. By the late 1920s, workers had made some gains. The Long March for social justice had begun, but there were many miles yet to go.

Episode 2
Hard Times & High Hopes, 1929-1945

Directed by David New
(running time, 28:05

In 1929, the stock market came crashing down and the Great Depression began. The Canadian labour movement battled for survival as workers faced unemployment and starvation. Desperate workers strike back. Picket lines turn to bloody battlefields. Despite such headlines, the period of time between 1929-1945 marked a transformation for the labour movement as the struggle for legitimacy, recognition and basic labour rights gained a strong presence in Canadian society through organizations such as the Worker's Unity League. Considered radical by the government, the Worker's Unity League was a great support to unorganized workers. With stories like that of the famous Estevan, Saskatchewan coal miners' strike, Hard Times & High Hopes relives how desperation turns to organization. In one story we revisit the famous On to Ottawa Trek when a group of young unemployed B.C. relief camp workers decided to jump a freight train and travel to Ottawa to confront the prime minister face to face. This episode explores the introduction of the assembly line and the rise of industrial unionism. Hard Times & High Hopes also follows the changes in unions brought on by the Second World War as women enter the official labour force in unprecedented numbers, worker's expectations rise and union recognition and security come to be established as basic democratic principles. Dramatic events such as the 1949 Asbestos strike in Quebec show the political culture in Canada is changing. In 1956 craft and industrial unions join together to form the Canadian Labour Congress. Workers have lived through two decades of struggle and progress. Women and public sector workers are about to take up the fight.

Episode 3
The New Militancy, 1965-1984

Directed by Colin King
(running time, 28:12)

By the 1960s, labour's future looked bright. Workers now have pensions and fringe benefits. The work week has shrunk from 48 to 40 hours. Incomes have doubled for many. The beginnings of the welfare state can be glimpsed. Labour has helped form the New Democratic Party. The 1960s opens an era of changing values and expectations and turmoil. Worker militancy increases dramatically, particularly among young workers. This is illustrated through a number of stories, including the 1965 postal strike and the strike of 15,000 steelworkers in Hamilton. The turmoil of the 1960s leaves a legacy-the young militants of the 1960s become the union leaders of tomorrow. Women, who have been left behind in low paying jobs without union protection,. begin to play a central role in the labour movement. The 1969 Royal Commission on the Status of Women focuses national attention on the hurdles women face and helps give rise to the equal pay movement. As the economy expands in the 1960s, governments hire more workers for new and expanding social services and programs, thus creating a vast pool of potential union members. By the 1970s, these public sector workers are strong, vocal unionists. Public sector workers lead the historic Quebec Common Front strike in 1972 which wins its basic demands and inspires workers across the country. In a number of precedent setting organizing drives, women prove they can be tough adversaries. The new militancy also leads to new issues such as the fight for safe and healthy workplaces. New groups of workers such as teachers join the labour movement, leaving behind old attitudes that professionals are above unions. By the mid-seventies, the economy stagnates and inflation soars. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduces wage and price controls and labour is outraged . Labour argues that prices will not be controlled. In the fall of 1976, more than a million workers walk off the job to protest controls. This is the country's first national general strike. The economy continues to shed jobs and employers begin to demand concessions. Canadian workers take a strong stand against concessions. Free trade becomes the mantra of big business. The labour movement is facing a huge challenge, trying to protect what it took decades to accomplish.

Episode 4
Holding The Line, 1984-the New Millennium Directed by Anne Alton
(running time, 29:16)

In the last part of the century, labour is under siege and it fights back. Workers are fighting to keep their jobs in Canada. They are fighting wage concessions, globalization, chronic unemployment and fighting to keep social programs that have taken years of sacrifice and struggle to create. This episode examines the international political context of the period and the threats to trade unions posed by the governments of Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. In Canada issues such as Free Trade deeply affect the operation of unions as they take a hardline on saying 'no' to concessions. Holding The Line shows the changing face of labour, now reflective of a broad spectrum of workers, each with specific goals and challenges in a rapidly changing economy: blue and white collar, miners, steel and auto workers, meat packers, hospital workers and social workers, librarians, teachers, nurses and professionals. There are still common goals for the labour movement as real wages begin to decline and job security is threatened, the welfare state is cut and privatized, and society is increasingly more polarized. The labour movement forms coalitions with community partners. It reaches out to new and potential members-young workers, workers of colour and service sector workers. While the Canadian labour movement looks towards the future, it also looks back over the century at its successes and setbacks when standing up for equality, democracy, and social and economic justice.

For more information on The Workers' Millennium Project, the CD-ROM, the video series or the book, please check the Canadian Labour Congress web site at:

The CD-ROM and videos can be ordered from Marlin Motion Pictures Limited (tel: 905-890-1500 or fax 905-890-6550—orders can be faxed within Canada toll-free at 1-800-203-8786, or e-mailed to

The book, Working/Travailler can be ordered from Key Porter Books at 1-800-387-0141 (Ontario and Quebec) or 1-800-387-0172 (elsewhere in Canada).