an early history of workers' safety in Manitoba


by Doug Smith


In 1881 Manitoba was a province without factories; there were 97 workshops in the Winnipeg-Selkirk area, and they employed 967 workers. Most Manitobans lived on the land - as farmers, hunters, or trappers. In the province's towns and villages one could find blacksmiths, carriage makers, harness makers, almost all of them self-employed. Their work was difficult and could be dangerous, but they set their own pace and the major source of horse power was a horse. All that was about to change.

Within a few decades thousands of people would move to Manitoba. Many of them would be employed in newly constructed factories, where they worked with unfamiliar technology under the supervision of a new sort of boss - the foreman. Thanks to new technologies, these workers were able to produce far more goods than the workers of 1880, and they were able to purchase products that came from around the world.

Free enterprise was being unleashed on Manitoba, inaugurating an era of ceaseless change. Living standards would rise and aboriginal peoples would be moved off their traditional lands. In the process, the workplace would become a very dangerous place. In 1906 the Winnipeg Voice, the newspaper of the local labour movement editorialized:

The past week has been more than usually prolific of accidents, resulting in the maiming or killing of wage earners, while at their work. Fallings, crushing, cutting, strainings and breakings, the victims have followed one another into the hospitals in close procession in the cities and towns of the west. This fearful tribute which labor pays to capital is almost completely overlooked in the reckoning between them. We are producing spoils, culls, and derelicts at a rapid gait in the west, but the supply of labour is always sufficient to easily fill up the vacancies and all goes on as before.

Why is work more dangerous:
—it is more powerful
—workers have less control over what they are doing
—there is greater interdependence
—there may be something unhealthy about the very nature of the job that is being created.

Hundreds of workers would die before government got serious about protecting workers from on-the-job hazards and providing a minimal level of support for injured workers and the families of those workers who were killed on the job.

The best place to start an examination of the struggle for protection and compensation is by looking at the dangers of the new workplace that came to Manitoba when the New West began.


The industrial revolution came to Manitoba on the railway. They were the province's first large-scale employers: in 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway's gigantic marshalling yards in central Winnipeg employed 2,000 men - or 1,990 more than any Winnipeg business had employed five years earlier. They provided a way for Winnipeg's new factories to distribute their produce across Western Canada. They exported the prairie farmers' wheat, providing them with the income they needed to purchase Winnipeg's manufactured goods.

But you can't have a railway without track. And there were few jobs more dangerous than laying track. It was hammer, pick and spade work through rough country. Dynamite was used to cut through the Canadian shield, and very little training was given to the men who used this explosive. In 1909 one CPR employee was killed and another left deaf and blind when a charge of dynamite they were trying to thaw on a stove exploded. The survivors sued the railway, and as the case wound its way through the legal system one judge acerbically commented that the CPR foreman "did not pretend to know how to handle [dynamite] or thaw it, nor did he know how to warn men of the dangers in the use of it. ... He directed the plaintiff to go out there and get it and thaw it and use it without any instruction and without appliances."

The Hudson's Bay Railway in Northern Manitoba was also built at a tremendous cost. During the second decade of this century there were up to 2,000 men at a time blasting that rail line from The Pas to Hudson's Bay. The camp conditions were primitive and health care non-existent. When Petro Semencwik, a construction worker on the railway, took ill with dysentery at a rail line work camp he and his brother had to walk 32 miles to The Pas in search of medical treatment. But he died an hour outside of town. His brother said that despite the fact that all the rail workers had a dollar a month deducted from their wages for medical treatment, there had not been a doctor in their camp for three months. Most of the men who died were simply buried by the side of the road - the Mounted Police detachment at The Pas, counted 50 such graves in a single mile-long stretch of track. When the federal government considered banning this practice the Voice noted that these poor workers were "the murdered slaves of a ruthless system and treated with no more respect than dead dogs."

Once the trains were running, work was still dangerous. There was very little mandatory reporting of industrial accidents during this period, but according to the Federal government's Labour Gazette at least 11 engineers, 11 firemen, seven conductors and three dining car employees died on the job in Manitoba between 1903 and 1914. The most dangerous job on the train belonged to the brakeman. From 1903-1914 at least 28 brakemen died in Manitoba. The brakeman's job was to scramble from car to car on the moving train, setting the brakes. The walkways on these trains often lacked railings. Many a brakeman met the same fate as Leo Makarsky, a brakeman who was less than 21 years of age in the fall of 1902 when he was thrown from a train near Molson, Manitoba, and died of the resulting injuries.

Brakemen were also obliged to go between the cars on moving trains and uncouple them. A CPR brakeman named Scott was engaged in this maneuver in 1909 when the coupling levers failed to operate. In the matter of fact words of the Court of Appeal recorder:

He then reached in between the tender and the caboose and endeavoured to pull the pin at the end of the coupling next to the caboose. In doing so he stumbled, his clothing was caught and he was dragged under the wheels of the tender and suffered the loss of an arm.

But life in the yards was even more dangerous than on the open road. From 1903-1914 a minimum of 96 additional rail employees, other than those listed above, died in Manitoba. A quarter of these men were yardmen and switchmen. Despite the fact that Winnipeg's rail yards were constructed on vast tracts of tax free prime land, they were often poorly designed with little room left between the tracks. In winter this was especially menacing. On December 12, 1908, a switchman in the CPR's Winnipeg yards was permanently disabled when, as he relayed signals from a foreman to an engineer, he was struck by an overhang from a train running on the track behind him.

The ground the yardmen walked on was treacherous. At the points in the track where rails crossed one another there were "frogs" - grooved pieces of iron waiting to snag a man's foot. On October 18, 1887, CPR switchman Nelson Rajotte was coupling cars at the railway's Main Street crossing in Winnipeg when his foot became caught tight in a frog, before he could free himself he was run over by a train. Twenty years later a brakeman in Morden met a similar fate. There were dozens of similar accidents in the intervening years.


Winnipeg was boom town, as early as 1886 there were 783 building trades workers in Winnipeg, and by 1911 they numbered 10,025. The building industry was highly competitive and limited by the season. Work was often done in a rush as contractors tried to beat the arrival of winter and squeeze a profit out their workers. From 1903 to 1914 over 50 Manitoba construction workers died on the job - a figure which would be much higher if the labourers who died in trenching accidents were included. Most of them died in falls when scaffolding gave way.


Once the final nail had been driven in and the factory whistle had blown its first call, Winnipeg's first generation of "factory hands" had to come to terms with a brand new world of work, filled with new hazards.

Like the railways, the early factories were steam driven. There were far more steam boilers than there were competent steam engineers. This could have deadly implications. In 1902 a boiler exploded in a Portage La Prairie pump factory killing two men. The coroner's jury concluded the boiler was defective, did not have a safety valve, and was being run without proper inspection. The energy created in these boilers was distributed around the factory on a system of cranks and shafts. The Great West Laundry Company, for example, "carried on a laundry business by means of a steam engine, shafting and other machinery maintained by it." In the process it "erected and was maintaining a rapidly revolving shaft at a distance of about 16 inches above the floor and two or three feet from the side wall of the room where a number of female employees were working. The shaft was "entirely uncovered and unprotected." In 1900 Gudrun Johansson stepped over the shaft and was caught by her skirts. She was "thrown with violence to the floor and so wounded and injured that she died on the same day."

The new factories were often multi-storey affairs that needed to move large loads from one floor to another. Freight elevators were often open, and had few safety features - in 1917 four Manitoba workers died in freight elevator accidents. Two years earlier Henry Owen, a 16-year-old messenger boy working for the Saults and Pollard printing company was shoved up against an elevator door as he was engaged in some playful wrestling with another employee. The door flew open and Owen fell to his death.

And when the raw materials and the power came together and workers had to make use of the new high-powered tools, a synergy was created that dwarfed the destructive potential of the old hand-powered workshop. The new saws, planers and cutting machines could be purchased with or without handguards - and they were always cheaper without. To speed up production foremen would often remove the guard - this is what happened at the Nelson woodworks in Winnipeg. In 1907 a workman named Fornell was working on a jointer whose protective guard had been removed by his supervisors. His hands became caught in the jointer's revolving knives, leaving him permanently disfigured. The Labour Gazette is full of reports of Manitoba workers, including dozens of farmers and farm hands, who were mangled or killed by the machinery they worked upon.


The new technology was perilous, but there were also dangers in the very way that work was now being organized. Between 1901 and 1911 the amount of money invested in manufacturing rose from $4,673,214 to $25,820,430. Employers wanted to make sure they got full value for their investment, which meant they did not want their machinery resting idle. The 12 hour day and the six day week were not uncommon in Manitoba during this period.

An article in a 1902 edition of the Voice worried about a "state of the art" cement plant that was to be constructed in Winnipeg. It pointed out that "manufacturers claim that this rotary process cannot be discontinued over the Lord's Day. If this claim were justified it would certainly be necessary to allow the cement plants to run continuously." If the cement company's investment was to be protected, the new labour saving technology would lengthen both the work day (and night) and the work week. The Voice noted that the decision over what was necessary should not be made by cement companies. As early as 1882 some Winnipeg building contractors decided to trade night for day, forcing their men to "work at night by electric light to take advantage of the present fine weather". The previous year the Winnipeg Daily Times reported that "a gang of men are employed night and day, no time being lost" to finish the Dundee Block on Main Street.

The day when the skilled craftsman set his own pace was also waning. There weren't any high speed assembly lines in Winnipeg, but the worker was already becoming little more than a hand, who worked at a speed dictated by the foreman on the basis of profitability. A man named Weppler operated a four-bit drill in the Canadian Northern Railway shops in Fort Rouge. In 1912 his foreman ordered him to drill several pieces of metal at once, and not to shut the drill when taking the pieces of metal out. Weppler objected at first, but was told that this was the way the job had to be done because stopping and starting the drill "lost him too much time." On April 1, 1912, his "sleeve caught in the rapidly revolving drill and his right arm was rendered useless."

The very air people breathed could be poisonous. In the fall of 1912 the Voice reported on the "Shameful treatment of a workingman". For six months Gustave Finkanstein had been grinding white lead for the Canada Paint Company. "He was kept doing this job without mask 10 hours a day and 6 days a week, receiving the princely income for this hazardous occupation which under such circumstances constitutes his death warrant of $11 a week." He collapsed and was taken to St. Boniface Hospital where he was treated for lead poisoning. In 1914 the Voice reported that four of the six employees at the Bird Archer Chemical Company were in hospital suffering from mercury poisoning, while a fifth worker was also exhibiting signs of the disease. And in the fall of 1915 Winnipeg Telegram typographer Sam Saunders was so stricken by lead poisoning that he could not work for several weeks.


The struggle to make workplaces safe and to provide injured workers with decent levels of compensation was led by workers through their trade unions. These unions came to Manitoba on the same railways that brought the industrial revolution here. Some of Manitoba's earliest unions were for the trainmen - there were separate unions for engineers, firemen and conductors for example, along with unions for the machinists, blacksmiths and other skilled craftsworkers employed in the rail shops. A boom town had plenty of carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and painters; and so there were plenty of construction unions in Manitoba. Skilled workers such as printers also established themselves in Winnipeg. By the turn of the century the women in many of Winnipeg garment factories and candy factories had organized.

Unions met with considerable employer opposition; it was quite legal to fire a worker for joining a union, and employers were under no legal obligation to negotiate with a union, let alone reach an agreement with one. Given these obstacles, and the boom and bust nature of the early Manitoba economy, unions experienced several false starts. Even after becoming established the Manitoba union movement has experienced extreme fluctuations in its economic and political influence.

From their very beginning in Canada, trade unions addressed the economic needs of sick and injured workers. In 1848 the Toronto Printers union established a fund to provide injured or ill workers with 10 shillings a week, while the union would contribute two pounds ten shillings towards a member's funeral expenses. By 1890 the Winnipeg carpenters union was providing its members with up to $100 in disability benefits, and sick benefits of $3 a week.

Unions made sure their members did not die unnoticed - the Voice often reported on deaths and funerals. The funeral of a Winnipeg engineer who died in a collision near Medicine Hat was front page news in 1899. His casket was followed to the Brookside cemetery by a procession of railwaymen all of whom were grouped by their trade. At funerals of members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, it was customary to place a floral broken brakewheel on the casket. At the funeral of a structural iron worker, the union presented a floral tribute in the "form of a bridge, the towers of which were projected above the horizontal span and from which was suspended a silk streamer on which was inscribed in gold lettering the words, 'Edward Crossed the Span.'"

Unions also viewed tuberculosis as an occupational disease. The typographical union and the pressmen's union both established homes for tubercular workers, while other unions bargained for working conditions which they hoped would reduce the occurrence of the disease. In Winnipeg the labour movement supported the campaign to have a TB sanatorium built in Ninette, since it believed TB to be "the worker's plague."

These early unions also believed in the autonomy and dignity of the individual labourer. They argued that skilled workers should be able to control the pace of their work and opposed the management innovations that broke jobs down into small easily-mastered components. This made the work dangerously repetitive and meant that workers no longer had a full understanding of the work they were doing - or its potential hazards. A headline in the Voice described this new school of "scientific management as a "Scheme evolved by a Manufacturer to Drive Workmen at Top Speed Without Regard to Physical Endurance." Many lengthy strikes were fought in the early years of this century over one of the most basic health and safety issues, the length of the working day. In 1905 printers across North America struck in an effort to win the eight hour day. The battle lasted for over a year, with inconclusive results; at a time when workers were divided by skill and ethnicity, the issue of the length of the working day could provide them all with a common goal.

But the key struggles were for a decent workers' compensation system and for factory laws with teeth. The Knights of Labor, an early labour organization in Manitoba succeeded in getting a Shops Act adopted, but it was never enforced. In 1895 the key political demands of the one year old Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council were:
—the eight hour day;
—abolition of overtime and piece work and child labour under 14;
—equal pay for equal work.

Four years later, realizing that legislation without enforcement was useless, they added the creation of a department of labour to the list. Unionists were also coming to the conclusion that they needed their own representatives in parliament. In 1900 Voice publisher Arthur Puttee became the first labour MP when he won a by-election in North Winnipeg. In Ottawa he lobbied for improved working conditions for rail workers. In 1903 the Socialist Party candidate for city council William Small was demanding that the Provincial Factories Act and the early closing by-law be enforced.

For the first fifteen years of the 20th century Manitoba was governed by Rodmond Roblin and the Conservative Party. Roblin was both shrewd and corrupt. He built a formidable political machine based on patronage, bribery, the exploitation of ethnic division and economic growth. Manitoba was largely an agricultural province during this period, and Roblin did not have to pay too much attention to the labour vote. When he did, it was to pass laws and regulations he did not bother enforcing.

A province-wide reform movement grew up in response to the Roblin government. It included religious leaders, middle class reformers, women's rights activists, and unions. The key planks in the reform platform were votes for women, referendums, prohibition and labor law reform. This coalition came to power in 1915 when Roblin was forced to resign after it was revealed that his party had been taking kickbacks from the contractor employed to build the legislative building. It was not until that election that the labour movement consolidated the advances it had made towards cleaning up the workplace.



In the early 1880s Manitoba had no legislation governing safety in the workplace. Indeed the law expressed two almost contradictory viewpoints about the entire relationship between employers and employees. Under the common law tradition, it was argued that workers and employers met in the market place as equals; therefore, by agreeing to go work for a railway, a worker was accepting all the risks associated with railway work. All talk of equality ended once a worker crossed the factory threshold. In 1894 Manitoba adopted a Master and Servant Act, that made it clear just who was the master and who the servant. Under it any "clerk, journeyman, apprentice, servant or labourer" who refused to obey the commands of his master, or who "deserts or abandons the service or job", was subject to a fine of $20 or a month in jail.

If a Manitoba worker suffered an on-the-job injury in the late 19th century, it was up to the worker to take his or her employer to court where they could sue for negligence. The simple cost of initiating such a court action undoubtedly discouraged many workers from even beginning to undertake this process. Once in court, the employer had three different lines of defence to chose from. These were:
—contributory negligence. If an employer could demonstrate that through his or her negligence, the injured worker had contributed to the accident, then the case would be thrown out of court.
—the negligence of a fellow worker. If a co-worker had contributed to or caused the accident, the case would be stopped.
—the voluntary assumption of risk. This defence argued that workers were aware of the dangers of the jobs they took, and therefore had agreed to assume the risks that came along with them.

The Canadian Pacific Railway provides a number of examples of how these defences were employed. The family of Nelson Rajotte, a switchman who died when he was hit by a train while his foot was caught in a CPR track junction in Winnipeg, sued the railway in 1888. When a jury found the railway guilty of negligence, the corporation appealed. It won a new trial, based on the argument that Rajotte assumed the risk of getting his foot caught in a frog when he agreed to work as a switchman. Appeal court judge Taylor wrote:

The danger was an open and palpable one. The deceased had quite as good an opportunity of seeing and knowing the danger as the defendants. And where both parties have equal means of knowledge, it has been said the master is under no obligation to provide for the safety of the servant to a greater extent that the servant is bound to provide for his own safety.

When in 1908 a CPR brakeman named Street had one arm and part of a foot cut off after his foot became caught in a frog in the railway's Morden yards, he sued for negligence. His lawyer pointed out that, in violation of the Railway Act, the CPR had failed to pack the frog. A jury decided the case in Street's favour and awarded him $10,000. The CPR appealed and the Court of Appeal ruled that the jury had not given sufficient consideration to the railway's argument that the brakeman, in going about his normal duties, had contributed to the accident.

The idea that the relative danger of work was reflected in the wages that people were offered was deeply ingrained. When the Manitoba government overhauled its workers' compensation system, a Manitoba farmer wrote the government to protest the need for compulsory insurance. He argued, "In operating a threshing machine if a man is running an engine or separator he is paid for the risk he is taking at the rate of from six to ten dollars per day, that wage should be protection enough, a pitcher [of hay] receives from three to three fifty per day and runs practically no risk."

Aside from the civil courts there was at least one attempt in Manitoba to use the criminal law against an employer. Following the death of Gudrun Johansson, the Crown brought manslaughter charges against Great West Laundry, claiming the company had maintained "machinery in a condition dangerous to life, resulting in the death of one of its employees." The charges, however, were dropped following an appeal court ruling that "a corporation cannot be indicted for such a crime as manslaughter." While corporations were beyond the reach of the criminal law, workers were not. In June 1905 an engineer and a messenger died when a passenger train collided with a freight train near Kalmar Station, Manitoba. The accident was apparently caused by a mistake in the delivery of a message; as a result the train dispatcher at Fort William and the operator of Rennie were charged with criminal neglect. During their 1902 negotiations with the railway, CNR track men were anxious to win a certain measure of protection from company reprisals following accidents. They proposed a clause that would have held section men blameless if accidents took place because lack of workers and supplies had made it impossible for them to perform their duties. Five years later the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was protesting the fact that it "had to spend large sums of money in defending its members who have been put on trial, and in some instances conviction and imprisonment have followed." The BLE said engineers were being made the scapegoats for the "failures in equipment or management or undermanning and overworking of the roads." The problem lay in the Railway Act which authorized criminal prosecutions of rail employees who negligently violated a railway rule and caused an accident. When a CPR engineer and a co-worker were acquitted of manslaughter charges in 1908, a crowd of railway employees met them outside the Regina courthouse and carried them on their shoulders to the city's main hotel. The following year the Voice noted with "relief the acquittal of Engineer S.W. McKinnon on the charge of manslaughter". The jury had found that there was "not one tittle of evidence .. but that he was attending to his duty at the moment the accident occurred in the same careful manner as that which throughout a nearly forty years' service had given him a reputation on this very point.

The carnage that accompanied the industrial revolution meant that the common view that the market place should govern workplace health and safety could not last. It was becoming clear that the public believed employers had to be held responsible for what went on in their workplaces. Jury decisions provide some evidence of popular dissatisfaction with the common law defences, since the Court of Appeal was often setting aside decisions and reducing awards in cases where juries had ignored the common law defences and sided with the injured worker.

In 1894 the Manitoba legislature adopted the Workmen's Compensation for Injury Act. Modelled on the British Employers' Liability Act of 1880 it restricted the use employers could make of the three common law defences if they were sued by an injured worker. Employers were now responsible for the negligence of their employees and were liable for injuries caused by defects in the "ways, works, machinery, or plant connected with, or used in the employer's business." The law still had a number of limitations, perhaps the most significant being that the onus still fell on the injured worker, or the worker's survivors, to hire a lawyer and to pursue the case in the civil courts. The injured worker also had to prove negligence - if the accident occurred as a part of the "normal' run of affairs, there was no compensation. Workers were not eligible for compensation if they were aware of any defects or negligence and failed to report them to management in a reasonable period of time. The government was not taking any responsibility for seeing that all injured workers were properly compensated. The compensation awarded under this act could not exceed three years' income. Under the old system victories may have been harder to win, but there was no cap on the size of awards that could be made.

Workers who succeeded under the WCIA often found that they could not collect compensation until the Court of Appeal reviewed their case. When a 1905 jury awarded $1,500 to a man who lost four fingers and a thumb to a Manitoba Lumber Company circular saw the Voice commented "So far we are not aware of any intention to appeal the case to the full court but judging from the history of previous cases this course is likely to be taken."

The railways made a point of appealing decisions that ran against them. There are at least eleven cases of the railways appealing decisions made against them prior to 1916. Even when the Courts ruled in favour of the injured workers, they often significantly reduced the size of the award. After a jury awarded Anderson, the man who had been left blind and deaf after a CPR dynamite accident, $7,000, the appeal court substituted an award of $1,200. In 1909 one alarmed appeal court judge said:

The tendency of juries to give damages to plaintiffs in such cases is so great that I can not but think that they are frequently influenced to do so by sympathy irrespective of the evidence or the weight of evidence. The practical result of trying such cases by jury is to make employers insurers of their employees' safety, a liability which the law of master and servant does not impose.

Appeal court judges were also likely to define negligence in a more limited manner than a jury would. When the family of a Grand Trunk Pacific Railway employee, who was crushed to death between two cars, sued for negligence, a jury ruled in their favour. However, the court of appeal ruled that since the defect which led to the accident was not visible to "customary inspection", there was no negligence and the case against the railway was dismissed.

Although women were not explicitly excluded from coverage under the WCIA, many working women soon found that they were not able to claim compensation because their work was not "manual" enough. This rule was laid down in 1910 when a Hudson's Bay store clerk named Hewitt claimed for injuries she sustained after a fall on a badly oiled floor. Appeal court judge Metcalfe concluded that Hewitt's work was not sufficiently manual to make her a "workman" under the Act. "If the mere use of the hands in matter incidental to a man's employment is to constitute him a manual labourer, it would extend the Act to every shop assistant in every shop, great or small which cannot have been the intention of the Legislature." Since the retail trade was one of the job ghettoes that women were consigned to, this ruling effectively barred them from receiving compensation under the WCIA.

In 1904 the Voice said the "working class is paying a fearful tax in blood to the rush, scamper and boom spirit that has been imparted." Conditions would only change when the province had "a modern compensation law. ... We say such a law would induce employers to be less negligent and would greatly reduce the number of accidents." Starting in 1907 the labour movement mounted an intense campaign for a reformed compensation system which would provide assured benefits to those workers who were injured on the job. The Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council proposed a bill which would pay no more than fifty per cent of a disabled worker's income and a lump sum payment of no more than three year's income in the case of death. The Council's lawyer, E.J. Murray, said that while the compensation would be less than under the present act, a large number of workmen sustaining injuries would succeed in obtaining compensation by reason of more simple legal process." In early 1908 the act was introduced as a private member's bill. The CPR, the GTPR, the Manufacturers Association and the Builder's Exchange all opposed it. Thomas Deacon, the general manager of the Manitoba Iron Works, told the law amendments committee it "was promoted by the little bunch of agitators which was responsible for all the strikes in Winnipeg for some years past. Legislation of this kind would wipe out every industrial plant in Winnipeg." John McKenzie of the Vulcan Iron Works said the bill "would give rise to bogus claims and the extending of the time for recovery from accidents." In defending the bill Murray said that there were "so many defences that could be set up in actions of the kind in question that only 12% of the claimants benefited from the former legislation." Give the level of opposition the bill received from the business community, the government let the proposal die on the order paper.

The following year a bill drafted by the Labor Council was once again presented to the legislature. The council made its case in these terms:

Under the present act now in force, a workman injured in the services of his employer, must prove the employer guilty of negligence before he can receive any compensation for injury received, and in the unequal struggle between capital and labor which is being carried on at the present time the case if decided against the employer in the lower court is carried higher and higher until the workman, unable to bear the enormous expense will lose what should be his by right.

The Council pointed out that the bill it was proposing provided only modest benefits, and none at all if the accident arose from willful misconduct on the employee's part. At the premier's request this bill was withdrawn from the legislature. In doing so Roblin promised to appoint a Royal Commission into the issue.

Later that year Roblin appointed Justice Corbet Locke to head a Royal Commission into Workmen's Compensation. His two fellow commissioners were Arthur Puttee and Thomas Deacon, the general manager of the Manitoba Iron Works - there is no record of how these two men, who must have heartily detested each other, got on. The Commission held hearings in the fall of 1909.

Because the Manitoba Factories Act had never been properly enforced the Commission had to send questionnaires to 250 employers in order to get a sense of the province's accident rate. Only 59 businesses responded. They indicated that there had been 124 accidents, and "in not one of the 124 cases could compensation be recovered under the law as it is in Manitoba today."

Those business representatives who appeared before the commission did not so much oppose the introduction of an enlarged workers' compensation system as much as they worried that Manitoba might lose a competitive edge if it introduced such a system prior to its adoption in Eastern Canada. One industrialist, E.F. Hutchings, said that a workers' compensation system would drive businessmen out of the province. He said he had bought land in Edmonton five years earlier, but was determined not to build a factory on it until the Alberta government repealed its workers' compensation laws. According to Hutchings "men working at dangerous employment got the large wages to recompense them for the risk." Other businessmen were also concerned that if a compensation system were put in place workers should not also be allowed to sue their employers at common law. Finally, they opposed the idea of forcing employers to carry insurance. In its presentations the labour movement argued for a state run compulsory insurance system.

The Locke report recommended that the government pass a Workmen's Compensation Act which would apply to all employers with five or more workmen. Compensation would be paid by the employer and the workman would be obliged to give up his or her right to sue under common law when applying for compensation under the act. The Commission was to pave the way for the introduction of the no-fault principle in workers' compensation. No longer would workers have to go to court to prove that their employer was negligent or that a co-worker was not responsible for the accident. The workplace was seen as a dangerous place and causation was not a black and white matter.

While the Commission was a major step forward, the report had a number of significant limitations particularly when it came to the area of compensation. In cases of injury, workers would not receive any compensation until they had been off work for two weeks. And while workers no longer had to prove that their employer was at fault, the underlying principle of the compensation rate was that each injured worker bore at least half the responsibility for his or her misfortune, since injured workers were to be compensated at half their regular rate of pay. In the case of those workers who died on the job, the maximum award was $1,500. In return for surety of compensation workers were being asked to accept very small awards. This law would free employers from the large awards that juries, allegedly influenced by sympathy, were awarding. The Commission took no position on the idea of a state-run system, nor did it recommend that employers be forced to take out liability insurance. This meant that while workers were now assured of compensation, there was no assurance that their employer would have the financial resources to pay them. Finally, the commission recommended that casual workers be exempted from the legislation.

These principles were incorporated into the Workmen's Compensation Act adopted by the Legislature in 1910. Following its passage Puttee wrote in that it was a tribute to the "persistence and good judgement of the Trades Council and the men and committees who have handled the campaign on its behalf." He tempered his praise for his own handiwork by noting that "it is exceedingly to be regretted that the legislature insisted on exempting farm laborers and domestics from the operation of the act. There would seem to be no better reason for this exemption than that these classes do not amount to a voting force in the province." In concluding Puttee noted that if insurance companies could not offer lower rates than were offered in other provinces "it will soon be time to look for government insurance."

Despite the introduction of this system some workers preferred to take their chances at common law, where the potential awards were much larger. In 1914 James Cramb sued the Foundation Company after he fell 35 feet from a bridge he was working on. A jury concluded the company did not have suitable scaffolding in place and awarded Cramb $15,000. That same year a railway fireman who had lost a leg was awarded $11,000 by a court, But the risks were greater as well. A workman who sued the Canada Cement Company for negligence after his right arm was caught up in a revolving shaft lost his case when a judge ruled that he was guilty of contributory negligence which had brought on the accident. In a 1914 case the court of appeal set aside a $3,500 award to the widow of a railway engineer, concluding the railway had not been negligent. When another judge struck down a jury decision against a railway he "expressed regret that the plaintiff had not taken advantage of the Workmen's Compensation Act, under which he might have recovered a certain compensation, rather than stake everything on the chance of recovering a larger sum in an action of negligence against the employers."

By 1913 employers were starting to become alarmed by the size of the awards some workers were winning when they pursued their case at common law. In 1913 employers complained to the labour movement that in cases where the workers sued the employer's liability was of "an uncertain quality, against which he finds himself practically unable to insure himself." For this reason employers were looking with favour on a system which would take away the right to sue completely. For its part, the labour movement was prepared to make such a deal only in return for an improvement in benefits and the establishment of a government-run insurance commission. Such a major restructuring would not take place for another three years however.

Another weakness in the legislation, from labour's point of view, was the fact that it had no provision for industrial disease. The government had argued that 'we had not got in our territory industries which caused such diseases." The Voice suggested that the experiences of Fred Cise, who was employed at an Elmwood chemical plant, proved that this was not a valid assumption. After working at the plant for six months Cise was laid low by mercury poisoning and was "altogether unfit to work and will be for three months to come." Three other workers had been treated for the same problem. The Voice editorialized, "Lack of employment is such a factor now that men will hang on to a job known to be dangerous without a murmur, or even take a dangerous job with its chances. It is in the public interest to ascertain just what the chances are."

A number of small improvements were made by the Roblin government. In 1913 the act was amended to allow workers to start collecting compensation one week, rather than two weeks, after an accident. Dependents living anywhere in the British Empire were allowed to receive benefits - in the past benefits had been restricted to dependents who lived in Manitoba. And workers were not allowed to launch claims under the act within a year, rather than six months, of the accident which led to their loss of income.



The first piece of significant legislation governing Manitoba workplaces was the Act to Regulate the closing of Shops and Hours of Labour therein for Children and Young Persons, usually known as the Shops Act. As the full title of this act makes clear, it dealt primarily with the length of the working day of children. Adopted in 1888 it was a response to an early closing campaign mounted by the Knights of Labor. The Knights were an American-based union organization that came to Manitoba in the early 1880s. Unlike craft unions they sought to organize all workers, regardless of skill, gender or ethnicity. By the late 1880s they had organized four different Assemblies in Winnipeg and were starting to have an impact on local politics. They organized an Early Closing Association to get the Shops Act passed and press to see that it was enforced.

Under the Shops Act, a shop was defined as "any building or portion of a building, booth, stall, or place where goods are exposed or offered for sale by retail". Shops were not allowed to employ boys under 14 or girls under 16 for more than 74 hours a week - unless the young person was engaged in driving a delivery wagon. The maximum fine for violating this law was $20. There was also a $20 fine for employers who failed to provide the required number of chairs for female employees.

The act was more of a moral victory than a tremendous step forward for working people. Shortly after it was passed the Knights of Labor fell victim to a continent-wide recession and there was little effort to have it enforced. A decade after the passage of the Shop's Act the Voice reprinted the provision which allowed young people to be employed for up to 74 hours a week. The paper then commented that "any body of men that could calmly sit down and permit such a cold-blooded, heathenish law to defile the statutes of Manitoba are more fit for slave-drivers than they are for positions of public trust." The Shops Act remained one of the least enforced pieces of legislation adopted by the Manitoba legislature. Indeed, in 1911 the Labour Council began lobbying the government to pass a Shops Act, only to be told there already was one. The Voice wryly noted "This was probably as good an instance as could be produced of the futility of a law if no provision is made to make it effective." Virtually all the political platforms produced by the labour movement during this period called for the proper enforcement of this act. One of the main problems with the Act was the legislature had left it up to the various provincial municipalities to enforce the act, and most of them simply chose to ignore it. As late as 1913 W.H. Reeve of the WTLC presented a brief to the premier "in favor of the enforcement of the Shops Act and its amalgamation with the Factories Act. ... The serious condition existing in some stores made it imperative that something should be done in the interests of the women and girls employed there." This recommendation was never picked up on by the Roblin government.


Following the fatal explosion of a boiler on the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway in 1899 "a deputation of labor men" met with Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway to demand an investigation of the accident. They pointed out that the engineer was rumoured to have reported that the engine was defective before the explosion, but his concerns had been ignored. They said the accident underlined the company's "niggardly policy in not making repairs" and that "there was no proper system for inspection."

Upon investigation the Winnipeg Labor Council discovered "there was practically no provincial machinery for the proper inspection of boilers or of examining engineers." The local water commissioner did have examining powers under the Dominion Steamboat Inspection Act, but he admitted there was "no provision for holding examinations." The railways, which were beyond the jurisdiction of the provincial government, were allowed to employ their own inspectors.

The WTLC called for a Dominion Boiler Inspection Act that would require a quarterly inspection of boilers and automatic investigations after each accident. The Council recommended that if a company be found negligent, it be forced to pay any deceased worker's next of kin $10,000. In 1906 the Winnipeg executive of the Trades and Labor Congress asked the Manitoba government to license stationary engineers.

It was not until 1910 that a Steam Engineers' Act was passed. It established a board to examine provincial steam engineers (except those unlicensed engineers who had been operating boilers for more than two years). There were three classes of engineers and only first class engineers could operate high pressure boilers. Excluded from the act were traction or threshing engines used for farm services only, to heating boilers carrying under 75 pounds pressure, and locomotive or steamboat boilers.


When a railway worker was fatally crushed as he was coupling a car in 1899, the Voice said that undoubtedly an opposition Member of Parliament would soon be asking when the law requiring self-coupling devices on rail cars would be enforced. The Voice's editor said he could already hear the Minister of Railway's "stereotyped answer":

Regrettable as the fact is that deaths are constantly occurring on our railways from men having to go in between cars in order to couple them with the old pin and link coupling, yet I would ask that the honourable gentleman who has asked that question remember that the supply of brakemen is a matter of supply and demand and the death of an occasional one must not be allowed to be considered as sufficient ground for any action on the part of the government in interfering with the convenience of the different railway companies in the very strenuous efforts that are being made by them to replace as far as possible the pin and link coupler with those working automatically.

This cynicism appears justified. In the spring of 1902 Ralph Smith, a labour MP from British Columbia, introduced a bill to make automatic couplers mandatory on all rolling stock and to make proper ladders and handrails mandatory on all new rail cars in Canada.

The government's casual response to rail accidents was a sore point for the labour movement. In 1901 the WTLC again found itself asking why no inquest had been called into a rail accident in which two men died. According to the Voice , Council members felt "it was outrageous that an attempt should be made to cover up this lamentable disaster with as little fuss as possible."

When legislative protection was provided it was often ineffective. Nelson Rajotte's case provides a bitter example of this. Rajotte died when his foot was caught in a CPR rail frog in Winnipeg. In its defence the railway pointed out that even though it was not required by law to do so at the time of the accident, it had packed the frog. Unfortunately for Rajotte, the wooden packing had worn down to a point where it allowed him to become fatally trapped. It was also raised as a point in the CPR's favour that even in its worn down state the packing met the standards set out in the Railway Act amendments requiring the packing of frogs. In short, the new regulation provided little real protection to yardmen and brakemen - a fact that was underscored in years to come as hundreds of them continued to be mutilated or killed in frog-related accidents.

The railways were also successful in blocking effective investigation into the deaths of their workers. A coroner's jury called to inquire into the deaths of two CPR section men who died east of Winnipeg, was unable to reach a verdict on the death because of a lack of evidence. The jury finding concluded "the officials of the said C.P.R. have purposely burked the scope of this inquiry by keeping away the section foreman and his crew who had important evidence to give bearing on the death of these men. The frequency of fatalities of this kind demand that the railway commissioners of the Dominion put in effect such regulations compelling railway companies to give greater protection to those engaged in track service. It is the opinion of the members of this jury that if someone had to pay for the killing of men in this class of service, less of them would be killed."

A 1907 coroner's jury also condemned the CPR for continuing to use a particularly dangerous type of frog, which had led to the death of Emerson brakeman, William Fyvie. The jury said the frog "is of a very dangerous construction, and that the C.P. railway is very culpable in having such a frog in the yards". In 1908 the WTLC was pressing, without success, to have the Factory Act extended to the CPR shops.

The railways also sought to protect themselves from prosecution by developing elaborate codes of conduct. Employees could be fined for not carrying their rule books at all times. The Voice noted that corporations often "impose rules which if taken seriously by the employee would cause his discharge, and as life, even on a miserably low standard is sweet and jobs are few, the rules are ignored until they are produced as evidence that a man has been negligent in the observance of them and thereby met with an accident." The editorial was spurred by the decision of a coroner's jury which concluded that the CPR had contributed to a fatal accident by permitting work to be regularly done in a manner which violated its own safety rules.

The railways also had considerable control over the way accidents were to be investigated. When Harry Gaines, a 22-year-old carpenter, was crushed to death in an elevator accident at the Grand Trunk Pacific shops, the local coroner, who was also in the employ of the railway, decided there was no need for an inquest. Gaines' widow protested and eventually prevailed. The coroner's jury concluded that his death was accidental. They also concluded that "the elevator should be operated by only one man in the shop. The company is at fault for not having restrictions placed upon the use of the elevator by employees of the company.


The labour movement was also concerned about the safety of Winnipeg street cars, which were open on the outside. The labour council asked the province to adopt regulations which would require there to be centre aisles, and an entrance and exit from only one side of the care. "The danger to the public was great as well as to the conductors who had to climb along the outside [of the cars] to collect fares." Six months later one passenger died when he fell attempting to board an open car, while one conductor died and another was hospitalized in accidents attributable to the design of the cars. The Voice said "what is wanted is cars properly constructed and with all safety appliances. It should not take a number of fatal accidents to stir the responsible parties into activity." In June 1907 the Voice reported that there had been 47 accidents which resulted in "death or injury to citizens" since the beginning of the year. In 1911 the WTLC was still asking the province for legislation requiring street cars to be equipped with fenders, brakes and wheelguard; and the abolition of running boards on open cars.


One of the labour movement's early political victories came in 1900 following the acquittal of the North West Laundry Company on manslaughter charges. Capitalizing on outraged public opinion, unions pressured the Conservative government of Hugh John Macdonald (who was soon to resign as premier) to pass the province's first Factories Act. The bulk of the act dealt with the employment of women and children. No one under the age of 16 was to be employed in a factory, and women and young girls could not be employed in a factory for more than 48 hours a week - unless an exemption were granted, in which case the work week could reach 60 hours a week. In response to the Johansson case, the law stated that it was illegal to:

keep a factory so that the safety of any person employed therein is endangered or so that the health of any person employed there is likely to be permanently injured.

People found guilty of violating this provision were liable to a maximum fine of $500 or a jail sentence of 12 months. Provision was also made for proper ventilation, sanitation, and fire exits. In addition there were restrictions on the cleaning and maintenance of machinery while it was in motion.

This is one law whose enforcement did not contribute to the overcrowding of the jails. In April 1902, the WTLC concluded that "the act is treated with utter contempt by those to whom it applies. Instances were cited: Of boys 12 years of age being employed, and of young girls working 53 and 54 hours per week in binderies and printeries." It was felt the act needed a full-time inspector who was "conversant with the needs of workers", and it recommended Council member Henry Albert for the job. The degree of employer resistance to Factories Acts can be deduced from a memorandum that the Canadian Manufacturers Association sent to its members in 1905. It pointed out that while they would soon be receiving a request for information of factory conditions from the Ontario Bureau of Labor, "you are not obliged to give this information." The memorandum was being sent because "the Ontario Bureau is under the management of an organized labor official."

By the spring of 1902 the labour movement's frustration with the government's lack of enforcement of the Factory Act reached a peak. A delegation of trade unionists met with Premier Roblin, attorney general Colin Campbell and senior cabinet minister Robert Rogers. According to an account written by unionist George Dales, Campbell explained:

we 'quite forgot' to make an appropriation covering the expense of 'administration'. This was said with one of Colin's bland evangelical smiles. He also added that "he was sorry."

Roblin also said he was sorry and added that he knew nothing of the subject, while Rogers "seemed bored with the whole business."

We were hardly out of the room before we could hear in our imaginations the chuckle that would following on having bluffed those pestilent "labor agitators" so neatly. At this session an appropriation was made, but utterly inadequate for the effective administration of the act. An inspector was appointed, but refused an office in the legislative building, and practically told to provide his own printing and stationery.

This pressure sparked a measure of government action - and some employer reaction. Firms employing large numbers of women, particularly bakeries, laundries, soap factories and garment factories were told they would have to reduce their work day. The Paulin-Chambers Bakery responded by announcing they would be cutting the pay of female workers in proportion to the reduction in the hours. The women joined the Bakers' Union - and for their efforts were fired. At the same time the owners of the North West Laundry (where Gudrun Johannson died), the Royal Crown Soap Company, and a number of garment factories initiated a petition to have the law suspended. It argued that long hours at low pay could not be avoided if Winnipeg industries were to remain competitive with Eastern Canadian industries. Though they succeeded in having many of their employees sign the petition, the Voice charged that in some cases women were threatened with dismissal if they failed to sign it.

The employer campaign succeeded. In early 1904 significant amendments were introduced to the legislature. Many workplaces which had been covered by the Act were excluded; children were now defined as males under the age of 14 and females under 15, rather than persons under 16; the number of hours that women and younger girls could be employed in any week was extended from 48 to 54; and where exemptions were applied for in advance, women and young girls could be required for work 72-and-a-half hours in a week. Over fifty representatives of the business community turned out at the Manitoba legislature to back the amendments. An outraged George Dales described the scene in these vivid terms;

It was indeed a mixed and motley assemblage of profit-grinders and wage-skinners that gathered under the roof of the legislature last Friday. Of all creeds and callings, but like a string of Bologna sausage one skin covered them all and filled were they by one dog "Profit" alias Cerberus. Pink-tea exquisites from the transpontine south ward, jostled with tough sports, Anglicans mingled with Methodists, and Presbyterians with Baptists, fifty or sixty strong, including almost the whole hierarchy of the Y.M.C.A.

The measure was rushed through the legislature in less than two weeks. In addition to the need to remain competitive with Eastern Canada, those business people who spoke in favour of the changes said that "14 years was not too early for children. Most in that room had started before that." Another man said that the amendment was intended to meet the needs of the "children of the poorer people ... and they wanted the money."

Employers made quick use of their new freedoms. In the spring of 1904, female bindery workers were being offered "three or four hours a week longer for the same wages. ... Longer days, plenty of cheap daylight, more profit." By the end of the year the Voice reported "the longer work day has very generally been put into effect and further many complaints have been made to us that the extension of the overtime period is being worked to the limit. Some establishments have been running overtime for weeks, five nights a week, and dismissal has followed a girl's refusal to come back for a single evening."

Another indication of how thoroughly the Factories Act had been gutted comes from the 1916 Bureau of Labour Annual Report, which presented a history of the enforcement of the Act. Bureau secretary Ed McGrath, who had been on the job for two years, wrote "the first report we find was made in 1901 and consisted of nine lines only reporting three hundred and thirty-five inspections. No further report appears until 1906." Even though there was a statutory obligation to report accidents to the Factories Inspector, only 41 accidents were reported prior to 1914. Only 243 safety orders were given during the same period.

In February 1907 the labour council complained that factory inspector Daniel Smith was paid only $600 a year and carried on a career as a private architect. The government promised to appoint W.H. Reeve, a former carpenter to the position, but never got around to completing the paperwork on the appointment. Several years later the Voice, in an article that recounted the numerous broken promises that had been made about the Factory Act, concluded that "political influence exerted itself on behalf of the present occupant [Dan Smith] of the post and the appointment of Mr. Reeve was withdrawn."

In the summer of 1908 an outraged Voice ran a headline reading "A Factory Act Which is Good to Read, but Otherwise Good for Nothing." The outrage was sparked by the death of Percy Santler, the secretary of the Elmwood branch of the Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners Union. He died when a large piece of timber became stuck in a circular saw he was working at the Brown and Rutherford plant in Winnipeg and was hurled against his chest. He was the second man to die of such an injury in two years in that factory. "The Manitoba Factory act stipulates that all machinery shall be guarded, but this provision has not been interpreted to require the guarding of these circular saws." A year later the Labour Council still was reporting that "the inspector has not devoted his whole time to the work." When the inspector, Daniel Smith, reported in 1910 that he had made 1,073 inspections in the previous year the WTLC commented that they must have been made "from the outside."

A reading of Factory Inspector Smith's annual reports reveals a very different view of Winnipeg working conditions. In 1906 Smith wrote that he was "pleased to be able to report that there has been no accidents in this city, where the cause could be attributed to defective protection of machinery." In his report for 1909 he said "there has been no fatal accident during the past year, and only two serious ones; in one place a man was scalded by steam, but this can hardly be classed as an accident under The Factory Act, as the man himself was responsible and acted against his instructions by tampering with steam valves, which was no part of his duties. The second case was of a man cutting his hand with a saw." While the 13 railway workers and the five construction workers who died that year fell outside his jurisdiction, one wonders why did Smith did not mention the Fort Alexander sawmill worker or the Grandview millwright who died in factory accidents. He went on to make the argument that the bulk of industrial accidents were the fault of the workers involved.

Many men, working with machinery, become careless and, to save trouble and a little extra work, take chances, and this is responsible for most of the accidents, some of which prove fatal. Nothing can be done to remedy this kind of accident, only to warn the men to use every precaution.

Smith died in July 1913 and not replaced until late 1913. Of the new factory inspector, John Carroll, the Voice could only report that "inquiry among the labor and employers' organizations fails to locate anybody who knows who the new appointee is," which led them to speculate that he was appointed for his political allegiances rather than his knowledge. In his first report to government Carroll noted that upon taking over the job he was unable to find a list of provincial factories, and therefore had to work one out for himself. He also noted that in Smith's final months on the job he had investigated two fatal accidents and attached "no blame to the owners of the shops in either case, nor do the reports show that they could have happened through unprotected machinery." Carroll also felt that Manitoba had a low percentage of accidents, and concluded "the protective measures must be fairly good or the number of accidents would have been greater." He did add the caveat that many employers were not aware of the necessity of reporting accidents to the Factory Inspector. (It was this lack of statistical information that had forced the Royal Commission on Workmen's Compensation to undertake its own survey of Manitoba workplaces.) Carroll managed to fulfill his job as the province's sole factory inspector while simultaneously contracting out his services as an elevator and boiler inspector to private insurance companies, much to the displeasure of the Labour Council.

The lack of enforcement could have fatal consequences. In January 1914 a foreman at the White Star Manufacturing company entered the spice grinding room to discover the body of 22-year-old Joseph Kemper wrapped around a spinning power shaft '"beating against the walls and ceiling." The coroner's jury found that "the factory has not been properly inspected for years."

The establishment of a provincial labour department, or a least a labour bureau within an existing department, had been on the labour movement's legislative agenda since 1895. In 1911 the Labour Council was asking for such a bureau that would oversee the Factories Act and the Shops Act. This call was repeated in early 1914 when the Council argued that a labour bureau and a female factory inspector were both needed. Roblin waited until an election campaign was in progress before creating such a bureau. In the summer of 1914 he announced to a meeting at the Transcona rail shops that a bureau of labour was being created and that Ted McGrath, the leader of the local Machinists union, and the man the Labour Council had recommended for the job of factory inspector, would be the bureau secretary. At the same meeting he announced that Ida Bauslaugh would be female factory inspector. It was not until after the election of the Norris government in 1915 that the Bureau started to perform some of the tasks the labour movement had imagined for it.


The 1902 construction season was punctuated with a number of fatal accidents involving construction workers. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners passed a resolution calling for an investigation "into the causes of the accidents and that inquest be held when they result fatally." A week after a leading member of the Bricklayers Union died when a derrick gave way, dropping a large piece of stone on his head. The Voice said "It is idle and mere shuffling to say that accidents will happen anyway; employer and contractors have, up to date, carried no responsibility, and the strictest inquiry should be made as to quality and condition of tackle and plant, or any evidence of contributory negligence".

In 1904 the Voice said the "working class is paying a fearful tax in blood to the rush, scamper and boom spirit that has been imparted." Conditions, particularly in the building trades would only change when the province had "a modern compensation law. ... We say such a law would induce employers to be less negligent and would greatly reduce the number of accidents." The bricklayers were incensed by the Building Exchange's opposition to the 1907 Workman's Compensation Act since five of their members had been injured in the previous building season, one of them fatally.

In 1908 the labour council was again lobbying for a scaffolding inspection act. A building trade unionist told the cabinet that twice in the previous three weeks he had been endangered by defective scaffolding while he was forty feet from the ground.

Construction trade workers played a prominent role in winning worker's compensation. At the opening session of the 1909 Royal Commission, C.J. Harding, the organizer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters said that in the construction of buildings that were less that 30 feet high "no proper attention was given to scaffold building. .... Flimsy structure and poor material were good enough." The Amalgamated Carpenters business agent said nine of his union members had been involved in serious accidents in the previous year. "Flimsy scaffolding and unprotected elevator and stair shafts being the causes. He considered that rope and poles gave safety in scaffolding that was not got from insecure nailing of defective pieces of board and scantling." The Bricklayers' business agent, H. Edwards, said that in his trade accidents started to happen as soon as a building got "scaffold high". One of the city's largest building contractors, Thomas Kelly (who would later go to prison for his part in the legislative building scandal), interrupted the union members to say they were trying to take the industry back 50 years, to which one worker responded "Going back to safety."

Kelly enjoyed considerably more control in determining the direction the construction business was moving in, particularly since he was making kickback payments on government projects to the Conservative Party for much of this period. In 1911, the unions were still begging for "legislation governing erection of scaffolds and floors, and endeavour to prevent the loss of life and physical injury that occurs in the erection of buildings, especially the modern steel structure." It was not until the spring of 1912 that the legislature adopted a Building Trades Inspection Act. The floors of all scaffolding were to be at least four feet wide and there was to be a three to four foot railing or guard on the outside of the scaffolding. There were finally regulations governing how scaffolding was to be suspended and a prohibition on hoisting timbers on a single sling. Open elevator shafts and holes in buildings under construction were to be blocked and protected. Special platforms protecting workers on steel framed buildings were also called for.

After legislation comes, or as happened in Manitoba so often, fails to come, enforcement. In May 1912 the Plasters' Union was wondering when an inspector would be appointed. They suggested it should be "a practical man, ... one who understands the practice as well as the theory." The government dodged the whole issue by leaving the inspector's appointment up to each municipality. The government had the option of appointing its own inspector, but declined to until the events of the summer of 1912 made the need for such an inspector crystal clear.

On July 29, 1912, John Leighton, a bricklayer's assistant fell down an elevator shaft at construction site of the Hotel Fort Garry. He died three days later. Labour leaders who visited the accident site pointed out that the elevator shaft was unprotected on several sides. The coroner's jury agreed that the contractors "were negligent in not having the said elevator shaft protected in accordance with the act providing for the protection of men employed on buildings under construction." The government finally relented, appointing W.H. Reeve as the scaffolding inspector.

In a marked break from provincial tradition Reeve mounted a crackdown on labour law violators. The first prosecution was against a home builder who had carpenters working 20 feet off the ground with only six inch planks to support them. Reeve won the prosecution, and the contractor, whose only defense was that he thought the "act was a joke" was fined $10. For the following year the pages of the Voice were dotted with brief court reports of scaffolding prosecutions. Reeve would first issue warnings, but took the position that "when a contractor knew the law it was his business to comply". While the fines never ranged above $50 it would appear that Reeve launched more prosecutions in one year than had been undertaken in the dozen years that the Factories Act had been on the books. At the same time Reeve remained an active member of the WTLC and was a member of the committee which lobbied the Premier in early 1913. In reporting on his first full year in the job Reeve said "28 employers were prosecuted for neglecting (after being notified) to provide proper protection." The fines amounted to $980 - or about two thirds of the maximum that a single worker could collect under the Workers' Compensation Act for a year. At the end of 1915 Reeve was able to report that there had been only one fatal construction accident in the previous year.


Not all of the protective legislation adopted during this period can be seen as a measure of social advance. Some reflect the degree to which racist and patriarchal values had permeated Manitoba society. For instance, the labour movement celebrated the legislature's 1913 decision to prohibit Oriental people from employing "white women". The Winnipeg Labor Council's lawyer argued before the law amendments committee that such a bill was needed "to prevent the possibility of immoral conditions being established such as had existed in some places as a consequence of the association of white girls with Orientals."


Sir Rodmond Roblin's government barely won re-election in the summer of 1914, and once the legislature resumed sitting Roblin discovered a thorn in his side in the form of newly-elected MLA Fred Dixon. A regular columnist in the Voice, Dixon ran as an independent candidate with the support of the Trades and Labour Council. He was soon pressing the government over its laxity in enforcing the Factories Act and the Fair Wages Act. The latter set the wage rates on government building projects. Dixon revealed that the government was underpaying the construction workers on the legislative building. As Dixon pulled hard on this string, the Roblin government began to unravel, as revelations of kickbacks and bribes followed one on the other. Roblin was forced to resign, a Royal Commission was appointed and an election day set. In August the Liberals under Tobias Norris won a sweeping victory, capturing 42 of 49 ridings. Two of the other seats were held by labour politicians - Dixon, and former Labor Council President Richard Rigg. These two would push the Norris government to implement its reform agenda. One of the first matters to be dealt with was the revamping of the Bureau of Labour.


The Bureau's first secretary Ted McGrath, was one of its earlier critics. In his first annual report after the defeat of the Roblin government, he wrote:

It soon became obvious that the [Bureau of Labor] Act was of little practical use in its then existing form and the Trades & Labor Council petitioned the present Government on January 3rd, 1916, to amend the Act, which was done and the amendment was assented to on March 10th, 1916, and provided for the re-organization of this Department along practical lines.

The reorganized Bureau, which was part of the Public Works Department, enforced:
—the Manitoba Factories Act
—the Shops Regulation Act
—the Bake Shops Act
—The Building Trades Protection Act
—The Steam Boiler Act (which incorporated the Steam Boiler Inspection act and the Stationary Engineers Act)
—The Passenger and Freight Elevator Act
—The Fair Wage Act

There were ten employees in the bureau, including a chief inspector, five inspectors, (three of whom were in engaged in boiler inspection) and a female inspectress.

The Norris government also enacted a number of important amendments to the Factories Act. The Act's scope was broadened to include all workshops employing more than three people and all Chinese laundries. Many of the changes made in 1904 were reversed. Dixon and Rigg unsuccessfully pressed the government to raise the age at which young people could be employed in a factory. It was once more illegal to operate a factory on Sunday without the government's permission. On Dixon's urging the number of hours that women and young girls could be compelled to work was reduced from 72 hours to 60.

McGrath believed that 638 firms employing 14,147 men and 2,955 women fell under the Factories Act in Winnipeg. In the Bureau's first full year of operation it conducted 951 inspections and gave out 1,287 safety orders and 136 health and sanitation orders. The largest employers by industrial group were:
—metal working (where 75 firms employed 6,723 men and 59 women;157 safety orders and 3 health and sanitation orders were dispensed)
—garment manufacture (where 32 firms employed 293 men and 1080 women; 64 safety and 7 health and sanitation orders were given out)
—warehouses ( where 82 firms employed 875 men and 180 women and 258 safety orders were given out)
—printing, lithographing and bookbinding (where 46 firms employed 850 men and 230 women and 116 safety and 37 health and sanitation orders were given out)
—abattoirs and packing houses (where eight firms employed 778 men and 82 women and 7 safety orders and 4 health and sanitation orders were given out).
—Wood working (where 31 firms employed 537 men and 37 females and 82 safety and 3 health and sanitation orders were given out).

The Shops Act was also toughened up during this session of the legislature and put under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Labour. The age at which children could be employed in shops was raised to 14 - Dixon and Rigg had argued for a limit of 15 years or age. McGrath said the Bureau had found that there were numerous violations of the act, because of lack of enforcement:

Quite a number of cases were found of children under the legal age employed without the permit of the Bureau of Labor as required by the Act. This feature alone, will in our opinion, amply justify the expense involved in a thorough inspection and enforcement of the Act.

There were approximately 3,000 shops covered by the act, only 534 were inspected that year; 44 safety and 27 health and sanitation orders were issued.

The Bureau also initiated three prosecutions, two for infractions of The Factories Act and one under the Shops Regulation Act. Convictions were secured in each case. Despite this McGrath indicated that the Bureau was going to depend on persuasion rather than prosecution:

The Department has tried to pursue a policy of education and persuasion amongst all employers rather than to see how many prosecutions could be effected. However, in some cases, we failed to impress the necessity of compliance with the law, in which cases no option was offered, and doubtless, these prosecutions will be beneficial in supplanting the idea that the orders of the Bureau are not to be taken seriously.

The 1917 annual report recorded 539 accidents, including six fatalities. McGrath noted, "This shows over 75% increase in the number of accidents reported since 1916, which increase is the result of a better observance of the law with regard to reporting rather than to an actual increase in the number of accidents."

The Norris government also responded to the growing number of elevator accidents (there had been three fatal and four serious elevator accidents in the previous year) by passing a passenger and freight elevator act. During that year the Bureau inspected 446 elevators. In addition the Steam Boiler Act was amended to require boilers that operated at less than 30 pounds of pressure to have a licensed engineer on duty.

While Dixon and Rigg proposed numerous amendments to the government bills which were not accepted, they recognized that in its first six months in office Norris had done more for labour than Roblin had in 15 years. When Rigg appeared before the Labour Council to report on what had been accomplished he said, "never before had there been the opportunity of reporting to council such a volume of legislation as herein contained".

The Norris government's reforms to workers' compensation were more controversial. In 1913 Ontario Chief Justice Sir William Meredith released his recommendations on a compensation system for that province. The key elements of his recommendations were:
ï no fault coverage. Benefits would be provided automatically, no matter who was to blame. At the same time workers would have no right to sue.
—collective liability. Employers as a group would be responsible for paying the benefits to workers.
—guaranteed benefits. Workers would be guaranteed their benefits, even if the employer went bankrupt. The benefits could not exceed 55 per cent of their previous annual income.
—independent administration. Compensation would be administered by an independent board with representatives from labour and management.
—exclusive jurisdiction. Decisions of the compensation board could not be appealed to the courts.

The report was supported by the labour movement, while the business community was more ambivalent. Some business leaders worried it would make Ontario uncompetitive, while others wanted to make sure that it involved a state insurance system, so that employers did not have to buy liability insurance from private companies. The Ontario government enacted a bill that reflected the main thrust of Meredith's report and the pressure was soon on the Manitoba government to do likewise.

Roblin refused to do so, but during the 1915 election Liberal candidate J.W. Wilton promised to introduce a new compensation act. The compensation debate marked one of the first splits in the reform coalition which had brought Norris to power. The two labour MLAs, Dixon and Rigg, proposed that a state run insurance system be established, as had been done in Ontario. The business community split on whether there should be a state-administered system. As a result the Norris government chose not to bring in a government measure. Instead Wilton moved the Workmen's Compensation Act as a private member's bill. And instead of a government run system he proposed one where employers would be required to purchase private insurance. In the Voice's eyes this was tantamount to the "government insuring the workmen and reinsuring with the private companies." Rigg claimed the bill looked like "something the cat brought in." The Voice made it clear that the most significant element of the act was the fact that labourers were giving up their right to sue in exchange for a guaranteed compensation, and the labour movement questioned the cheap price of this compromise. As in Ontario injured workers would only receive 55 per cent of their annual income.

Wilton had omitted the list of occupational diseases included in the Ontario act since such diseases "do not prevail in this province." Rigg said this was the most significant omission in the act and pointed to the recent hospitalization of four chemical plant workers with mercury poisoning. As a result the Ontario list of occupational diseases was appended to the Manitoba act. Rigg also said the compensation rate of 55 per cent of the worker's wages were too low. "Under the present Act the worker had to contribute 45 per cent for his accident, not to speak of his suffering and his blasted career. The workers took the stand that 100 per cent should be charged to industry."

The act, which was passed in March 1916, completely excluded farm labourers, and domestic and menial servants. It broke other workers up into two categories. People who worked in manufacturing, milling, lumbering, mining, quarrying, fishing, transportation, navigation, construction, building, warehousing, operation of public utilities, and all related occupations were dealt with in part one the act. Workers not dealt with in the first part, including those in the mercantile business, hotel keeping, restaurant keeping, gardening, hand laundries, barber shops, photography, hospital work, dentistry, and undertaking professions, were dealt with in Part Two.

The workers in Part Two of the act were not under the jurisdiction of the newly created compensation board. Workers injured in those industries would have to take their employer to court. However, the employer's defenses of common employment and assumed risk were removed, and while contributory negligence was a ground for reducing the award, it was not a bar to recovery.

The Compensation of those workers injured under the first part of the Act was administered by a newly created Workman's Compensation Board. Compensation would be paid irrespective of negligence. It could only be denied in cases where:
—the disability lasts less than six consecutive working days;
—the accident was attributable solely to the worker's serious and willful misconduct, and does not result in death or serious disablement.

The worker would not be allowed to sue at common law and no employer could force a worker to agree to forego the benefits of the act.

The scale of payment could hardly be described as overly generous:
—widows with no children received $20 a month ;
—widows with children received $20 plus $5 for each child under sixteen to a maximum of $40 a month;
—in the case of orphans the payment was $10 for each child under sixteen to a maximum of $40;
—Other dependents are entitled to a reasonable compensation but not exceeding $20 a month to parents and $30 a month in the whole.
—In the case of total disability the compensation was 55 per cent of earnings with a $2,000 cap.
—There was a partial disability, the compensation was set at 55 per cent of the lost income.
All disputes over payment and eligibility, or any other matter arising from the workings of the system were to be settled by the board rather than the courts. The employers were liable to pay the compensation, both to the worker and the workers of contractors. To do this the employer was required to take out insurance against liability from an insurance company approved by the board.

This last point was, as noted above, the most contentious deviation from the Ontario system. And it did not last long. Many employers objected to it because they felt the insurance companies were charging too much for their premiums, while the labour movement preferred a state run insurance system for reasons of ideology and efficiency. Experience bore out the labour case. Within two years employers were complaining about the increase in insurance rates, and a new panel of experts recommended the adoption of a state insurance system. In 1920 the system was altered to create a system where firms were grouped into categories and charged differing premiums based on their accident rate. The premiums were paid to the Workers Compensation Board which in turn paid the injured workers. At the same time the rate of payment was increased to 66.66 per cent of the employee's income. In supporting the measure, Dixon reminded the government that it was doing what he had advocated four years earlier, but "it had then been said such things were impossible."


As this brief history makes clear, during the first 50 years of this province's history workers paid a terrible price as they were integrated into the global market economy. They organized themselves into unions and political parties and began to slowly win a number of important victories. The most important were contracts that reduced the work week, regulations governing the safety of the workplace, bureaucracies that enforced those laws, and a system to compensate those workers who were injured.

Important as these accomplishments were they did not eliminate workplace dangers to working people's health or safety. The drive to reduce the work week stalled at the 40 hour week, nearly fifty years ago. It quickly became accepted that one of the major causes of occupational accidents was worker carelessness, and the focus of the Bureau of Labour and later the Department of Labour, appears to have been to inform workers about potential dangers. There is no indication that the department ever considered the way boring and routinized work patterns could contribute to the carelessness they sought to stamp out. As late as 1950 the Department of Labour Annual report was able to note:

The guarding of machinery is more and more being accepted as something that should be built into the machine when it is manufactured; and great strides have been made in that direction. There is however much yet to be done.

There were many years when there were no prosecutions under the Factory Act, and the number rarely rose above one or two. Despite this, the overworked inspectors issued hundreds of improvement orders each year.

And as the province continued to industrialize, the government did not keep pace. In 1951 there were only five factory inspectors for the entire province, and four of them did not have cars assigned to them. For their part the inspectors felt things were improving. In 1952, the head of the safety division wrote:

It is a strange fact but true, that the average employer in the past has been willing and often anxious to provide safety, comfort and healthy conditions for his workers but in very many cases would wait until the factory inspector would call the need to his attention before he would take any action. There is a gradual but definite change taking place in this attitude. Today we are frequently called in to give advice and guidance in these matters. Also it is noted that even when employers are asked to remedy certain conditions, the antagonism of former days and the resistance to such measures is fast disappearing.

While these words were meant to sound encouraging, they bear a remarkable resemblance to John Carroll's first report as Factory Act inspector when he reported that "The manufacturers display a readiness to make improvements to lessen or prevent accidents and to make their premises more sanitary," while "many violate the Act through not knowing its requirements."

The number of occupational deaths did not rise as the workforce expanded. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of this early occupational safety and health movement. However, it came to be accepted that there was an unavoidable level of workplace carnage to which we had to accommodate ourselves; that employers were to be educated not prosecuted; that inspectors were a frill - and often times a nuisance; and that there should be no challenge to the way work was organized. Starting in the late 1960s a new occupational health movement arose in North America. It would challenge many of these precepts and work through unions, community organizations and political parties to win a new set of reforms.



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