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The Civic Railway and the Canadian Labour Movement

Street Cars lined upWhile the Port Arthur Civic Railway was an incredible feat for the growing northern community, the introduction of the municipal railway also came at an important time in Canadian labour history. The consolidation of Canadian capitalism in the early 20th century accelerated the growth of the working class. From the countryside, and from Britain and Europe, hundreds of thousands of people moved to Canada’s booming cities and tramped through Canada’s industrial frontiers. Most workers remained poor, their lives dominated by a struggle for the economic security of food, clothing and shelter. Not surprisingly, most strikes of this time concerned wages, but workers also went on strike to protest working conditions, unpopular supervisors and new rules, and to defend workers who were being fired. Skilled workers were particularly alarmed that new machinery and new ideas of management were depriving them of some traditional forms of workplace authority.

In the Thunder Bay region, unrest among workers was growing after 1900. By the turn of the 20th century, CPR posters proclaimed the “Golden” Northwest “A Home for All People.” So the people came – from war-ravaged, poverty stricken Greece and southern Italy, from feudal oppression in the Ukraine, from racial or religious persecution in Russia, volcanic upheavals in Iceland, and the hopeless squalor of Asia, from the ghettos of Austria and Germany, the slums of London and Edinburgh, from Croatia and Scandinavia, Finland and the East Indies they came, in search of a new life in a new world. With minor variations the immigrants had a single objective: to find work which would provide their families with decent food, shelter and a small measure of hope. Railroads, contractors, lumber and mining companies supplied work – the most menial, back-breaking lowest paid jobs. The newcomers’ hunger for hope and pride was disregarded.

The Greek and Italian immigrant workers spearheaded the first concerted labor movement in 1906, and had major influence in the labour disputes in the years that followed. The Finns have been justifiably praised for their contributions to the labour movement in Thunder Bay, while minority groups from all immigrant communities participated in, or were affected by, the labour disputes that took place in the Thunder Bay region prior to 1913.

Labour strikes at the Lakehead began in August 1906 and continued until 1913 with various instances of workers banding together to fight for wage increases, job security and non-discriminatory hiring practices. For the conductors and motormen of the civic railway in Port Arthur and Fort William, their strike in 1913 marks the last major outburst of labour violence in Thunder Bay prior to the First World War.

Motormen and Conductors of Street Railway

On Saturday, May 10, 1913, in Fort William, eighty-five conductors and motormen, comprising nearly the entire staff manning the Port Arthur and Fort William streetcars, launched a strike. Everything went smoothly in the beginning but the public did not not sympathize with the strikers the way they did with freight and coal workers in the years prior. The strikers’ union, The Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America (Division 521), issued an ultimatum containing a long list of demands: reinstatement of two employees dismissed in 1912, a nine-and-a-half hour working day, no “special runs”, all front vestibules to be curtained off and darkened at night, new rules to govern the disciplining of employees, the installation of heaters in vestibules before November 1st, references to be provided for any employee who voluntarily departs after six months of service etc. Street Railway officials, however, treated the strike lightly and announced to the public that men would replace the motormen and conductors within a week and the line would soon be back in full service.

Photo of streetcar turned overThe next day labour leaders, at an open-air meeting in Carrick Park, warned strikers to avoid violence before beginning a thousand person march to protest. Street Car No.32 was bound for Port Arthur at 7:00 p.m. when, at the corner of Simpson and McTavish Streets, stones and broken railway ties blocked the track causing the car to be derailed. A mob rushed forward, driving spikes into the grooves in the rails forcing the driver and conductor to run for their lives. Strike sympathizers pelted the street car with rocks until every window was broken. Two more cars arrived at the corner, but were blocked by the derailed car No. 32. Rocks and bricks were thrown through their windows as well, causing men, women and children drop to their knees in the aisles in cover.

Segeant George Taylor, with two constables, responded to calls for assistance. At McTavish and Simpson, Taylor arrested one man, Peter Renta, for allegedly participating in a riot, and as Renta was hauled off to the McTavish Street police station, hundreds of people followed. Twenty minutes after Renta was incarcerated, “little knots of men who had been engaged in earnest discussion, suddenly massed…” The infuriated crowd called for Peter Renta’s release before hurling railway ties, rocks and even tree trunks, at the police and the station. Chief Dodds arrived with inspector Charles Watkins and they drew their revolvers;  the crowd dispersed for a moment, but returned and the police opened fire. An innocent observer and Italian immigrant, Joseph Stefarico, was killed by a police bullet that hit his head, while another man named John Wulk was seriously wounded. The police called the fire chief but he went to the wrong address before a second call pinpoints the location of the riot. A fire truck was used to clear a path through the crowd of three thousand. The police and their prisoner Peter Renta piled into the vehicle and were on route to the central Police Station before the rioters could react. Peter Renta was charged with having taken part in a riot. On May 13, Port Arthur City Council formally issued a statement in support of the Joint Street Railway Board, calling the employee’s demands unfair and illogical. Council declared that the railway belongs to the citizens and should be controlled by them not the employees.

Labour Day Parade 1913

Labour disputes continued in the region among immigrant communities before and after the First and Second World War. The efforts of those at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, including the civic railway workers, are particularly important. Every ethnic minority was represented in the struggle for freedom from oppressive working conditions, for equality, for a measure of dignity. Greeks and Italians were in the forefront of those early battles.  They defied the Anglo-Saxon Establishment, joined unions, served as union officers and as labour spokesmen, and defended with their lives the basic principles upon which the twentieth century labour movement was founded.  Scores of Greeks, Chinese, Italians, Finns and Ukrainians would leave Port Arthur and Fort William to settle elsewhere. The majority stayed, however, and fought for their rights, and earned the respect of their fellow citizens. They were pioneers who harvested forests, carved roads out of solid rock, fed with coal and cargo the insatiable ships, raised buildings, laid track, opened restaurants and made the land come alive with the skills, culture and traditions of a host of nations. As much as the Marks and McKellars helped build Thunder Bay with ventures like the civic railway, immigrant workers as conductors and motormen, by the sweat of their brow, sometimes the shedding of their blood, fought and earned a place upon the north shore of Lake Superior for themselves, their children and for the waves of future immigrants.

For more information on the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America please visit the Amalgamated Transit Union's website to view the A 100 Year History of the Amalgamated Transit Union

1913 Street Railway Strike Documents & Newspaper articles