Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This study of canal and railway labourers on Canada's public works provides a detailed analysis of an important segment of the developing industrial working class during the years of transition to industrial capitalism. By examining changes in the industry, the composition of the workforce, and the labourers' behaviour and perceptions of that behaviour, it traces both the process of class formation and the growth of class tensions. Beginning with an analysis of the public contract system, it defines the nature of the relationship between contractors and governments and traces the impact of the technological revolution and the growth of a body of indigenous contractors within the industry. Despite important advances within the industry, work on construction sites changed little, continuing to depend primarily on the energies of unskilled labourers who enjoyed little material reward for their back-breaking and dangerous labour. The forty-year period, however, witnessed a significant change in the composition of the workforce. Migrants from within Canada displaced Irish immigrants as the major source of unskilled labour, and the workforce on construction sites became increasingly ethnically heterogeneous. This change in the composition of the workforce effected a modification of the stereotype of the unruly, drunken, and violent public works labourer.;Labourer's perceptions of themselves also changed during these years. In the early years of construction strong factional, ethnic, and sectarian bonds generated violent conflict amongst the diverse groups brought together in the workplace. At the same time such bonds were a powerful source of unity during the frequent strikes waged by the Irish labourers who dominated the workforce. Over the period the basis of identification shifted from ethnicity to class. The easing of tensions between ethnic groups and the unity of the various ethnic groups during frequent strikes demonstrated an increasing ability to unite in pursuit of common class interests. Although the labourers remained outside formal union structures, they sustained an aggressive struggle with employers and acquired the experience of militance and solidarity on which the working class movement of future decades could build.



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