"Ignorance of the language, low standards of living, incompetency, drunkenness and other evils are ... producing conditions as bad as are to be found in the slums of the great cities. " - James Shaver Woodsworth
At the turn of the 20th century, Canadian men and women demanded social, political and economic change as the country underwent the greatest transformation in its history.
Poverty and exploitation
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A Demand for Change
In the cities, business was booming but social injustice accompanied rising industrialization. There were few protections for the poor. Child labour was tolerated and adults earned low wages and endured exploitation in the workplace. In 1900, the average pay was 13 cents an hour. A pound of butter cost 20 cents.
Canadian cities exploded in growth. Between 1891 and 1911, Montreal�s population more than doubled to 528,000. Other cities followed suit. But cities were ill prepared for the flood of new residents. Sanitation, housing, public health and education were grossly inadequate. In 1904, Toronto had almost no vacant houses and many dwellings were crowded with numerous families.
Many workers lived in slum-like conditions in the over-crowded cities. There was scant medical help available and alcoholism flourished as men turned to the bottle to escape their dismal existence.
The gap between the rich and the poor became immense and about 100 people controlled two-thirds of Canada�s economy. Most of the wealthy lived in the Square Mile, an elite section of Montreal. Their lives were dominated by elaborate costume balls and visiting royalty while just down the road their workers struggled to survive.
Call for change
As conditions deteriorated for the working-class, the calls for change came from two main fronts; trade unions and Christian groups.
Since the late 1800s, some church leaders sought to combine religious teaching with social justice. The emerging "social gospel" mobilized Christian-based groups to help the poor and destitute.
In Winnipeg, a Methodist minister named James Shaver Woodsworth believed it was his duty to improve the lives of immigrants and not just preach to them. Woodsworth became the best known of the social reform-minded ministers in Canada.
The powerful Women�s Christian Temperance Union pushed for better working conditions for women and the ban of alcohol in society. Women realized they needed to gain political influence to achieve their ends; They wanted the right to vote.
Nellie McClung emerged as a key leader of the women�s rights movement. She used her wit and eloquence to battle deeply embedded views on a woman�s place in society. She was instrumental in earning women the right to vote in Manitoba, the first province to grant the franchise.
Rise of Unions
Trade unions also became an important tool for change during the early 1900s. National unions began to gain strength in Canada as workers increasingly turned to them for help in the workplace.
But the struggle to unionize workers was long and hard. The decade saw many bitter strikes as workers fought against the powerful owners.