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Manitoba History: Review: Donald Avery, “Dangerous Foreigners:” European Immigrant Workers and Labour Radicalism in Canada, 1896-1932

by T. D. Regehr
University of Saskatchewan

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This is a concise and meticulously researched account of the contribution of immigrant workers in Canada’s economic development. It outlines the circumstances and conditions of their work and the appeal of labour radicalism in the scattered railway construction, lumbering and mining camps. Avery clearly demonstrates that many immigrant workers were not simply agriculturalists gone astray; they were brought into the country by the government and the large companies to do the dirty and unpleasant work most Canadians and North European immigrants refused to do.

Readers of A. Ross McCormack’s Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries will find much of the material in Dangerous Foreigners familiar, but will appreciate the carefully documented treatment of this important aspect of labour radicalism in Western Canada.

Despite the extensive documentation, however, the book seems incomplete. On the key questions of growing radicalization and increased class consciousness more precise statistical information is needed. The tables provide extensive statistical information about immigration, but similar information is needed about the numbers of immigrants in the various railway construction, mining and lumbering camps, and of those the number who actually joined various radical labour organizations. Instead we read of “many,” of “large numbers,” and of “important participation.” Similarly, general statements about wage rates, unemployment levels. and the use of strikebreakers appear throughout the book. Where specific numbers are given the broader statistical background is often lacking.

A single example must suffice here. On page 103, without further statistical information, Avery alleges, “when the C.P.R. dumped large numbers of new immigrants in the lumber camps of northern Saskatchewan it not only depressed local wages but also displaced an earlier wave of immigrant workers who were attempting to open up the land of the region ... The C.P.R.’s strategy also meant that there was an ample supply of poor foreign workers in the country who could be used as strike breakers.” Such a statement inevitably raises questions. How many were the large numbers? What were the local wage levels before and after the C.P.R. action? How many workers were displaced? What is an ample supply? How many workers were used as strike breakers? What was the ethnic background of the displaced workers of the strike breakers?

Quantitative history has its limitations. It may not provide the answers the historian seeks, but it can be a very useful tool. In this case the necessary statistical information to document in specific form the general statements mad may not be available. If so, the conclusions drawn by Avery need to be stated in a more cautious and guarded manner. What Avery says is certainly true of some immigrant workers but we still lack conclusive evidence to show that it was true of all, or even of a significant majority, of immigrant worker.

A second difficulty arises from Avery’s effective use of radical literature to demonstrate the radicalization and increased class consciousness of the immigrant worker. Thus, radical newspapers loudly proclaimed that the labor disruptions of 1912 in the railway construction camp reduced the ethnic antagonisms of the workers and led them to take united class action. The evidence for this is, at best, dubious and incomplete. There is, in fact, considerable evidence in sources other than the radical literature of the day, which suggests that the collapse of that strike and of the I.W.W. was in part due to continuing, indeed of intensified ethnic antagonisms between various groups of immigrant workers, some of whom were on strike while others we willing to work as strike breakers.

Dangerous Foreigners is an important book about immigration and labour radicalism in Canada. The case argued by Professor Avery is persuasive. His work invites more detailed work in other relevant sources, notably those of the employers, and in the quantifications of some of Avery’s general assertions. An index more in keeping with the high scholarly standard of the book should have been prepared.

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