3 Labour History’s Present An Account of Labour/Le Travail Under Bryan D. Palmer
It is September 1908. In West Virginia, Lewis Hine of the National Child Labor Committee sets up his equipment to photograph Vance, a fifteen-year-old boy employed as a “trapper.” Vance spent ten hours each day opening and closing a ventilation door to allow coal cars to pass through. Vance, in Hine’s image, is unsmiling and faces a mine-shaft wall (see figure 3.1). “On account of the intense darkness in the mine,” Hine would later write, “the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until [the] plate was developed.”1
If we imagine the photograph Hine thought he was taking—without the “hieroglyphics”—the viewer would surely have been intended to dwell on the pathos of Vance’s working life. This would have suited Hine’s purpose, since he and other moral reformers aimed to shift public opinion against exploitation of children’s labour. Inadvertently, however, Hine made record of Vance beyond his working conditions. The chalk-written “hieroglyphics” offer a hint of how much more there was to Vance’s story than pathos. On the lower right of the door Vance had been practicing his signature. Were the door a canvas, this is where the artist would sign their work, asserting authorship and creative individuality. Like them, thanks to the illumination of Hine’s magnesium flash, Vance left his marks for us to read. That the obligations of his job weighed heavily upon him and constrained his freedom is evident in the note to “SHUT THIS DOOR THAT MEANS YOU.” But flying around this commandment are whimsical birds that remind us that he was not entirely constrained.2
Insofar as Hine’s photograph of Vance reveals the interplay of structure and agency in a worker’s life, it is an apt metaphor for the aims of labour and working-class history. That Hine did not anticipate this revelation and that it only appeared ex post facto also aligns with the aspiration that our research might make legible what was once obscure in the dimness of the past’s present, coupled, in some cases at least, with the hope that what we read among the hieroglyphs will complicate any simple narrative of pathos about yesterday, today, or, indeed, tomorrow.
It is October 2015. I am speaking as part of a panel about labour history in Canada. My talk is on labour history’s present moment, and a pessimistic narrative looms gloomy-faced in the foreground, like Vance on his coal-mine bench. “Why are fewer historians labeling their work as labour and working-class history?” Christo Aivalis, Gregory S. Kealey, Jeremy Milloy, and Julia Smith asked in a piece published the month before my talk. “Given the fundamental role of work, workers, and class relations to society,” they write, “our understanding of many pressing social issues—why they have emerged, how people have attempted to address them, and what we can do to fix them—requires an understanding of the history of working people and the structures and issues that influence their lives.” More specifically, “understanding these ailments and imagining possible remedies requires a solid historical analysis of class relations and capitalism.”3
If there are indeed fewer historians studying class relations at this juncture, there are multiple ironies in this fact. For one, the lessons of labour history, applied to the contemporary academy, make visible the underlying economic logic that has left so many bright, radical history doctorates working precariously or pursuing careers in areas less irritating to neoliberal hegemony than labour history. More broadly, we live in an era in which global capital is particularly rapacious. Obscene inequality and a trajectory toward environmental disaster do not require an advanced academic degree to observe, merely a pulse. The history of capitalism, it is true, has garnered attention in recent years, but what of those dispossessed by it, the movements that have offered resistance to it, the glimpses of counter-hegemonic possibility that the history of the working class affords?
Perhaps, however, there is more to the story of labour history’s present than an apparent pathos. In hopes of seeing some unexpected hieroglyphs on the door, I turn to the Bryan D. Palmer–edited pages of the twenty-first century issues of Labour/Le Travail.
Labour/Le Travail is a journal that has aspired since 1976 to illuminate the history of the Canadian working class in the full richness and diversity of its experience. Collectively, its contributors have sought, in a variety of ways and contexts, to rescue workers akin to Vance—to borrow a well-worn but not-yet-worn-out phrase—from the enormous condescension of posterity.4
If we use Hine’s photograph as a metaphor for Labour/Le Travail, the work of its editors might be considered akin to the chalk drawings on the door insofar as their contribution is invisible to the unaided eye. Editors make scholarly journals, but they do not make them under circumstances of their own choosing. The finished products, understandably and appropriately, foreground the work of authors. Just as Vance was ordered to “SHUT THIS DOOR,” editors are structurally constrained by the submissions they receive, the advice of peer reviewers, and many logistical considerations. And yet, if the pages of Labour/Le Travail in recent decades give some indication of the current state and direction of the field of labour history in Canada, they also record, however obscurely, one way in which the editor of the journal for most of these years, Bryan D. Palmer, has left his mark upon the field.5
It is not any one thing that sets Labour/Le Travail apart from other scholarly journals in Canada, and it is not just the most obvious thing: its focus on working-class history. The articles and review essays encompass many disciplines ranging from quantitative economics to cultural studies with many vantages in between. The book review section is substantial and considers a wide range of titles. There are also reproduced primary documents, poems, paintings, and sections given over to provocations and debates. Authors include established academics but also activists, independent scholars, and students at the outset of their research careers. It is, in short, a difficult journal to summarize.
To mark the turn of the millennium, Labour/Le Travail devoted its Fall 2000 issue to a series of retrospective essays surveying the evolution of working-class history in Canada. Desmond Morton’s “Some Millennial Reflections on the State of Canadian Labour History” featured a statistical analysis of the first forty-four issues of Labour/Le Travail.6 Morton sorted articles by theme, geographic focus, time period, and language of publication. In 2015, I repeated Morton’s analysis for the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century.7 Revisiting my findings briefly here allows me to reiterate their most significant point: the story about labour history the pages of Labour/Le Travail tell in the twenty-first century is fundamentally a story of continuity with the journal’s mission and tradition.
Making comparisons with Morton’s findings meant adopting to some degree his categories of analysis. Of these, “language of publication” works reasonably well for comparative purposes. A bilingual journal from the outset, Labour/Le Travail has never managed to publish articles in French at a rate proportional to the francophone population of Canada. Morton found only 7.2 percent of articles had been published in French. To some degree, this underrepresentation continued in my sample, in which 12.9 percent of articles were in French. Another way of looking at those numbers is that there was a significant increase in the journal’s francophone content in this period. This reading seems closer to the truth. French Canadian workers feature prominently in several articles published in English, in some cases by French Canadian scholars.8 The journal signalled its ongoing commitment to making intellectual connections entre les deux solitudes with a special issue on Québec history, volume 70.
Numbers, too, say nothing of the quality and the historiographic significance of the articles in question. Peter Bischoff’s study of the Knights of Labor in Québec was heralded by Palmer as destined to “remain the classic statement” on the subject (a judgment Palmer is eminently qualified to make).9 In subsequent issues, the journal has continued to publish important work by French Canadian scholars about French Canadian workers: Robert Tremblay’s “La grève générale des charpentiers-menuisiers de Montréal, 1833–1834,” published in volume 81, was the winner of the 2019 Best Article Prize of the Canadian Committee on Labour History.10
Morton’s category “location” was also easy enough to duplicate and to compare to later issues (figure 3.2). The number of articles focused on Ontario and British Columbia have increased significantly in recent years, with relatively less attention paid to the Atlantic region and the Prairies. Yet, as the population distribution statistics displayed on the same chart indicate, the increasingly Ontario-centric focus of Labour/Le Travail articles is not disproportionate to Ontario’s share of the Canadian population. The same might be said for British Columbia. If Morton’s category was “western Canada,” rather than separating British Columbia from the Prairie provinces, we would see an almost identical percentage of articles on the region between the early and later Labour/Le Travail samples.
Morton’s categories, however, are only one way of thinking about the way geographic space is organized in Canada. “Ontario” as a category, to pluck a few examples from my sample, groups together articles about miners in Elliot Lake, children in Toronto, and nineteenth-century African Canadian workers in London.11 While a few Labour/Le Travail articles focus particularly on provincial legislation,12 the geographic frame of reference for most of the articles is local and these locations are quite disparate. Some are focused particularly on workplaces, others on working-class spaces or neighbourhoods. Some are in metropoles, others on the resource frontier, still others in rural or small urban settings. If I were to make a summary geographic judgment of the Palmer-edited volumes (vols. 51–74), I would conclude that the Canadian content includes studies ranging from Newfoundland to Victoria with many stops in between: from the border with the United States (and crossing it) to the near north. Like Hank Snow, Labour/Le Travail’s not really been everywhere, man, but it is giving it a pretty good shot.
Period was a category where I could not follow Morton’s procedure. Morton’s work divides the nineteenth century into fifty-year halves, then groups the first twenty years of the twentieth century (1900–20), followed by three decade-long periods (1920–30, 1930–40, and 1940–50), and then two more spans of twenty years. These periods—with their varied lengths and decadal neatness—do not map in a very sophisticated way onto Canadian economic and working-class history. Yet a better periodization would still contain subjective judgments: what year should divide the pre-industrial and industrial era (and surely this varies regionally)? Does 1919 belong with World War I or the interwar period? Does World War II link forward to the postwar settlement or backward to the Depression? Does the neoliberal era in Canada begin in, say, 1973 or perhaps 1988, and has it an internal division to divide it from the present moment? What does one do with articles that cross between one period and another?
To solve the last problem, I took the midpoint of each article’s date range (thus, if an article covered 1919–39, I plotted it at 1929). Then I tried to see if clusters of midpoints would allow periodization to emerge from, rather than being imposed upon, the data. To some degree this worked. Figure 3.3 shows the periods that emerged when I divided them according to the most obvious gaps between midpoint years (the gaps between categories are larger where the number of articles is fewer—such as the eighteen years between 1837 and 1855 as opposed to the three years between 1946 and 1949). Accepting a certain amount of quibbling, one could name these categories: pre-industrial, industrial revolution, second industrial revolution, interwar, Cold War, and neoliberal. The relative focus of Labour/Le Travail articles on the interwar and Cold War eras is evident from the distribution, but the coverage across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is also impressive.
Compared to Morton’s findings, if we abandon any attempt at precise periodization and divide the data by centuries, we see that the distribution is almost identical (figure 3.4). This may be connected to editor Palmer’s career-long insistence upon rescuing nineteenth-century workers from posterity’s condescension. Less speculatively, this distribution shows that Labour/Le Travail contributors have not marched according to some progressive logic forward in time to “new” periods, but continue to revisit earlier eras and revise previous interpretations.
There is a problem, however, with sorting articles by the midpoint of their date ranges. This procedure gives no sense of the duration considered. By their midpoint dates, both Robert Storey’s “From Invisibility to Equality? Women Workers and the Gendering of Workers’ Compensation in Ontario, 1900–2005,” and John Willis’s “Cette manche au syndicat—La grève chez Dupuis Frères en 1952” get attached to the same year, when they are obviously different kinds of studies. As these two examples suggest, Labour/Le Travail articles sometimes have tight focus, aiming to place a particular historical event in context, and sometimes survey a theme or pattern longitudinally. Figure 3.5 shows a reasonably balanced distribution between studies of short, medium, and longer duration.
Thus far, we have seen that articles in Labour/Le Travail in the twenty-first century are as varied linguistically, geographically, and chronologically as those in Morton’s twentieth-century sample. If his analysis of the “themes” of the articles he surveyed were accepted, one would have to conclude that more recent issues are much more thematically diverse. Morton surveyed 222 articles in 44 volumes and identified only 7 principal themes.13 As I worked my way through 85 articles, my jotted list of thematic keywords numbered more than 100. Morton’s 7 categories—including such capacious ones as “working lives” and “industrial relations”—certainly persist in many articles in recent issues, but such broad categorization understates the scholarly diversity of earlier issues and is completely inadequate for sorting the proliferation of themes I observed.
If we move, then, from the quantitative to the impressionistic, I think twenty-first-century Labour/Le Travail articles are both continuous with and more diverse than earlier issues in terms of topic, theme, method, and theoretical orientation. In volume 61, Jim Barrett and Diane Koenker made a comparison between their 1986 and 2006 syllabus for a co-taught labour history seminar. Their reflection could be aptly applied to Labour/Le Travail over roughly the same period: “If the content and topics we cover . . . have changed over these two decades, so too has our incorporation of ‘theory’: class, of course, but also gender, race (including ‘whiteness’), post-colonialism, and aspects of language and discourse. Yet the centrality of class remains the organizing principle . . . We believe that class—however multiple, however manipulated, but always material—still offers a powerful way to interrogate the constitution of identities and collective behaviours.”14 As Palmer put it in the editorial introduction to volume 50, sustaining Labour/Le Travail requires a “willingness to venture into new territory at the same time as older ground is tilled again in different and imaginative ways.”15 The enactment of this editorial commitment to both new and old questions is suggested by the Palmer-edited theme issues: in addition to the one on Québec already mentioned are issues on masculinities (vol. 42), race and ethnicity (vol. 47), the Communist Party (vol. 49) and Indigenous labour (vol. 61).
Gender, alongside class, was and remains a key category of analysis in Labour/Le Travail. One way Morton did not count articles was by the gender of their authors. I have done so for my sample (in an admittedly limited binary way relying on the pronouns used in the contributors’ section). Male authors of articles outnumber female authors by a ratio of roughly five to three. I then looked at the articles divided along these lines to see if an obvious pattern, the difference gender made, was visible thematically. Certainly female-identified authors have written important articles considering aspects of identity: gender, race, ethnicity, religion.16 Yet there are also examples of articles by women on more traditional labour history subjects, albeit most often with an intersectional or socialist feminist lens.17 This perspective and these themes are not exclusive to the female-authored articles, but their prevalence among them is notable. Even though they are in the minority, many of the female-authored articles are highly significant and, in some cases, pathbreaking.18 Labour/Le Travail has remained an important venue for the publication of feminist scholarship. It is worth advertising this fact in hopes that it encourages materialist historians of gender to see their work as contributing fundamentally to the journal’s mandate to understand the history of the Canadian working class. As Lisa Pasolli and Julia Smith point out in a recent essay, “Feminist historians must remain committed to researching and teaching women’s messy and intersectional labouring lives in the past, not just for the sake of better history but for a better analysis of women’s working lives in the present.”19
In volume 50, Verity Burgmann wrote that from the outset Labour/Le Travail “understood that the new labour history could never be another specialism like economic history because its subject matter could not be isolated; that it was an all embracing kind of history writing informed by a model of how the different aspects of society were connected, which refused to separate the social and cultural from the material aspects of being, or the political ideas and consciousness of the working class from its living and material environment.” In this sense, Labour/Le Travail was “born Thompsonian.”20
Labour/Le Travail has remained Thompsonian in several significant ways. Perhaps foremost is the way that Labour/Le Travail articles show the interplay of structure and agency in exploring the lives of working-class people. As Joan Sangster, one of Labour/Le Travail’s current editors, explains, “experience” is a “junction concept” between social being and social consciousness.21 In volume 53, Sangster’s study of the 1966 Tilco Plastics strike in Peterborough exemplifies how a historian can achieve the kind of both/and analysis that reveals the dynamics of structure and agency. History “from below” is perhaps the wrong metaphor; it is history with multiple angles of vision, history without blinders.22
To highlight another exemplary article in this regard, Sean Purdy’s exploration of the Regent Park public housing project in Toronto shows the relationship between public policy, economic restructuring, the discursive constructions of urban “outcast” spaces, and the way residents responded to stigmatization and material deprivation.23 Dealing with many themes—among them, race, ethnicity, gender, family type, education, and community organization—Purdy’s article draws from different kinds of sources: demographic data appears alongside tenant-authored poetry in a way that, in context, seems entirely congruous.
At sixty-four pages, Purdy’s article is the longest in my sample, but it had competition. On average, the Labour/Le Travail articles I considered were just under thirty-four pages long. In word count, by my estimate, the average Labour/Le Travail article is roughly double the length of the maximum that other scholarly journals, such as the Canadian Historical Review, will accept for a submission to be sent for peer review (some journals are even more miserly). Should these studies be shorter? It is possible that Nancy Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, for example, could have made their point about the boisterous aspects of the culture of Hamilton’s interwar boathouse neighbourhood without describing the rules of the “unusual, but hilarious” sport of donkey baseball. But, who would wish they did?24 Concision can be a virtue, but Labour/Le Travail affords authors the opportunity to develop arguments with complexity and to present evidence richly.25 Bucking the trends in academic publishing, Labour/Le Travail provides adequate space for range and depth—and in the best cases, both.
The hazard of counting articles in Labour/Le Travail was revealed to me in the spring 2019 issue (vol. 83). Here, Fred Burrill claims that over Labour/Le Travail’s forty-one-year history, “only 2.5 percent of the total amount of research articles, notes, and critical review essays . . . pertain in some way to Indigenous issues or settler colonialism.”26 Burrill’s larger point that labour historians in Canada have not, as yet, adequately integrated and addressed the history of colonialism and Indigenous dispossession is a fair one. It is also true that more work in this vein might have been published in Labour/Le Travail. Yet, in calling for scholars to develop a “settler order framework” account of Canadian history, Burrill advises them to “engage more fully with and develop the ideas laid out in Bryan D. Palmer’s important 1996 [Labour/Le Travail] article ‘Nineteenth-Century Canada and Australia: The Paradoxes of Class Formation.’”27 If we look at the issues of Labour/Le Travail since the publication of that essay, a period corresponding roughly with Palmer’s term as editor, the picture appears rather different than Burrill’s “2.5 percent” claim would suggest. Burrill’s footnote listing exceptions to his general rule lists thirteen publications from this period. Even were this list complete, and my survey of volumes 51 through 74 has several candidates for addition, this represents more than 10 percent of the journal’s articles in its most recent decades.28 These include the significant research published in the special issue on Indigenous labour—2008’s volume 61—that was explicitly focused on the interrelationship of colonialism and capitalism in the history of Indigenous peoples.
Burrill is entirely correct that historians of the working class need to continue to explore the material and ideological legacy of colonialism and white supremacy in Canada. Yet, when Burrill cites examples of the kinds of work he admires, he references more Labour/Le Travail articles than those published in any other scholarly journal. Being best of a bad lot, perhaps, is not the same as being good—but Burrill’s “2.5 percent” is misleading, even if the argument it supports is valid. The pages of Labour/Le Travail have been open to “settler order” studies and many more such studies ought to be pursued.
Turn the page in Labour/Le Travail’s spring 2019 issue from Burrill’s call for a “settler order framework” and find Bryan D. Palmer’s call for better histories of Canadian Communism.29 Palmer wants a both/and history of Communism—one that keeps the structuring reality of Stalinism in view without ignoring or dismissing the contributions of Communists to social and union struggles. This essay cannot, by any means, stand in for Palmer’s historical oeuvre as a whole, but let us deploy it nevertheless to compare Palmer in two scholarly roles: Palmer-as-author versus Palmer-as-editor.
There are, foremost, consistencies. Palmer-as-author in “How Can We Write Better Histories of Communism” looks beyond the national and puts Canadian historiography in dialogue with its international counterparts. This kind of range is characteristic of Palmer’s scholarship, but it is also characteristic of Labour/Le Travail. The journal was never parochially Canadian, but the tradition of keeping international perspectives in view was clearly continued and expanded during Palmer’s term as editor. The regular section From Other Shores explicitly testifies to the journal’s commitment to publishing work relevant to the study of Canadian labour history not bound by Canada’s borders.30
Second, Palmer’s recent essay engages directly and provocatively in a scholarly debate. This is not unusual for Palmer-as-author; yet, vigorous debate has been important to Palmer-as-editor, too. From his introductory editor’s note in 1997’s volume 40, Palmer signalled his intention to ensure the pages of Labour/Le Travail provided a forum for this kind of exchange. It was the “variety of approaches, emphases, and frameworks, not to mention the diversities and differences” that made the “analytic community of those approaching working-class studies potentially both explosive and exciting.”31 Dialogue between those of differing political commitments, Palmer maintained, had driven the development of the field in the past, and Palmer anticipated it would continue to do so. “It bears saying,” Palmer wrote in volume 50, that “many studies published [in Labour/Le Travail] were once quite controversial, even to the point of eliciting considerable negative comment,” but by 2002 the same studies were “staples” of the field, reminding scholars that “today’s controversy can quite often become tomorrow’s convention.”32 The Labour/Le Travail section Controversies predates Palmer’s time as editor, but it is safe to say that the risk-taking, provocative tradition of Labour/Le Travail did not diminish under his leadership.
Palmer’s essay on Communist historiography reads the articles he engages with closely and critiques them most sharply for not reading other historians’ work (Palmer’s in particular) closely enough. Rigour is a characteristic of both Palmer-as-author and Palmer-as-editor. How many arguments in Labour/Le Travail were tightened, how many points buttressed by additional evidence as a result of Palmer’s editorial intervention? I can testify that during my own experience as a Labour/Le Travail contributor, my work was considerably and significantly improved thanks to Palmer’s assistance. That this was not unusual is indicated by the number of times that Palmer has been thanked in the acknowledgement paragraph at the end of a Labour/Le Travail article, often with specific mention of how his expertise—which is extraordinarily wide-ranging in this field—improved an author’s evidence and presentation. Palmer’s abilities as a writer—documented abundantly on a shelf at your nearest academic library—transferred to his editorial role and unquestionably bear some responsibility for the fact that much of the scholarly writing in Labour/Le Travail is not just competent and lucid but lively and engaging.
Those whose work has been recently critiqued in Palmer’s latest contribution to Labour/Le Travail might be more willing to cede to Palmer-as-author the adjectives “fair” and “forthright” than, perhaps, “generous.” But there could hardly be a more apt word for Palmer-as-editor. To understate the case considerably, Palmer did not need to edit Labour/Le Travail for eighteen years to pad his curriculum vitae. It was an act of scholarly generosity, to be sure, but also a signal of conviction and commitment. In what turned out to be a slightly premature valedictory editor’s note in 2014, Palmer explained how he and the journal’s founding editor, Gregory S. Kealey, shared “a sense of LLT as something more than yet another academic publication. We regarded it . . . as having a modest movement character” that “resonated with a particular politics attuned to issues of democracy, equality, and social justice.”33
One almost feels nostalgic reading, today, 1997’s Palmer writing in his introductory editor’s note about living in a time of “shockingly narrow ideological conformity, through which the presence of class as an analytic category and workers as an historical and political presence are often written out of the past and disregarded in contemporary life.” Our contemporary moment has greater ideological polarization but feels no less “shockingly narrow.”34 Taking scholarly risks to move debates in new directions seems even more essential. What Palmer-as-editor wrote in 2002 seems no less true today: “it would be a slap in the face of our past and no service to our present and future, if debate was curtailed. Diversity registers itself in bodies, skin colours, and identities, but in thought and ideas as well.”35 Palmer and Burrill’s pieces in the spring 2019 issue of Labour/Le Travail, by scholars at opposite ends of their academic careers, show that the journal remains committed to pushing arguments and analyses beyond comfortable and platitudinous consensus. Both pieces impel us to write better history, to consider new questions, and to revisit old ones more imaginatively. Both contend that this kind of scholarly work matters. Getting it right matters. Now as much as ever.
It is October 2018. I am at another conference considering the state of labour history. “Re-Working Class: Setting A New Agenda for Canadian Labour and Working-Class History” is sponsored by the Canadian Committee on Labour History (CCLH). I am presenting on working-class delegations to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and playing the part of Labour/Le Travail-inspired historian with more conviction than I did in 2015.
Representatives of Palmer’s generation with significant and longstanding connections to Labour/Le Travail are here, including current co-editor Joan Sangster, review editor Jim Naylor, and former assistant and review editor Alvin Finkel. Several academics who were doctoral students supervised by the early Labour/Le Travail group, including myself, with defence dates from three different decades, are presenting new research. And, most encouragingly, there is a cohort of current graduate students, activists, and representatives of organized labour.
The conference is not large, but it is lively. Sessions are like an issue of Labour/Le Travail: a combination of new directions and re-engagement with old questions (including, for example, how we might write better histories of Communism). There are frank discussions about the challenges facing both the labour movement and labour history. The former is the more far-reaching problem, but the difficulties for both stem from a similar neoliberal root. Meaningful and secure full-time employment is an endangered category, both in the academy and beyond. Likewise, the academy parallels the broader economy in the growth of inequality between haves and have nots. Too many of the best minds of the newest generation of labour historians are grinding out a living in precarious adjunct positions. Those still in graduate school look with despair upon the prospect of landing a secure academic job. These problems are real and they are daunting.
It is perhaps worth recalling that there have been few “easy” times for the production of counter-hegemonic history. Past and Present, the journal most closely associated with British Marxist historians, was not launched in the days of broad-based anti-fascism during which those historians were radicalized, but rather in 1952 in the climate of Cold War anti-Communism. Likewise, in 1957, The New Reasoner, forerunner of the New Left Review, emerged when Khrushchev’s revelations and Soviet tanks in Hungary drove the final nails in the coffin of whatever hopes had been invested in the Soviet Union since 1917. Labour/Le Travail was inspired by the radicalism of 1968, sure, but it was born in the era of stagflation amidst a battle in Canada over wage and price controls: a historical moment in which both the Keynesian state and the labour movement, at loggerheads with each other, were both soon to be in rearguard positions against an ascendant neoliberal hegemony.
The Palmer generation did not have their influence over the field of Canadian history handed to them—they seized it. The transformation of our understanding of the past that they effected was achieved through struggle, discipline, commitment, and sense of purpose. Presidents of the Canadian Historical Association Joan Sangster and Craig Heron and award-winning holders of prestigious research chairs Bryan D. Palmer and Ian McKay—and this list could be extended—did not glide easily from doctoral defence to tenure-track job. The place in Canadian historiography they ultimately achieved seems natural only in retrospect and would have appeared an unlikely prospect looking forward from 1976. When scholars of that generation captured positions of relative privilege and security, they used the resources available to them to create opportunities for students and peers. Labour/Le Travail was a part of this. For all the differences between contributors in the early years, their shared enemy was a complacent orthodoxy. This was not an enemy to be defeated by one voice alone, but by a chorus: a discordant one with a penchant for rough music, but a chorus nonetheless.
There are differences aplenty and of many different kinds at the 2018 CCLH conference in Saskatoon, but there is also comradery and considerable common ground. “Differences need to be championed,” Palmer once wrote, “not through a reification of difference, but in the building of programs and perspectives that fly in every way against the impulses and structures of our current varied but connected subordinations.”36 Here in Saskatoon, at a conference with a “modest movement character,” some building of the kind Palmer was referring to is getting under way.
Ready or not, the flash of the present is upon us. Unlike Vance, we have not been toiling in darkness. The illuminating pages of Labour/Le Travail and the cumulative works of historians, including Palmer, are our inheritance and our guide. If a next era in the writing of Canadian labour history is to be made, those of us who continue to see the significance of class as a category of analysis need to be present at its making. Unless and until “democracy, equality, and social justice” are achieved, our work lies ahead of us.
- 1. See the Library of Congress record, “Vance, a Trapper Boy, 15 years old,” at https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a21704/. Photographs in the National Child Labor Committee Collection were generally accompanied by cards containing captions. Although the authorship of the captions remains uncertain, it appears that most were either written by or drew on information provided by Hine himself. For further information both about the captions and about Hine’s documentary efforts, see “National Child Labor Committee Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed 16 October 2020, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/nclc/background.html.
- 2. Could these birds be Vance’s renderings of canaries in the coal mine, and, if so, could the absence of cages have metaphorical significance? With the available visual evidence, only speculation is possible.
- 3. Christo Aivalis, Gregory S. Kealey, Jeremy Milloy, and Julia Smith, “Back to Work: Revitalizing Labour and Working-Class History in Canada,” Active History.ca, 21 September 2015, http://activehistory.ca/2015/09/back-to-work-revitalizing-labour-and-working-class-history-in-canada/.
- 4. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963), 12.
- 5. Bryan D. Palmer took over as the editor of Labour/Le Travail in 1998, replacing Gregory S. Kealey, who had edited the journal since its inception. Palmer was editor until 2014 and then returned with Kealey to edit volumes 77 through 79 in 2016 and 2017. For an insightful and more comprehensive history of the journal, see Joan Sangster, “Creating a Forum for Working-Class Histories: Labour/Le Travail,” Scholarly and Research Communication 9, no. 1 (2018): 1–10.
- 6. See Appendix A in Desmond Morton, “Some Millennial Reflections on the State of Canadian Labour History,” Labour/Le Travail 46 (Fall 2000): 11–36. The essays in volume 46 were also published in book form: Bryan D. Palmer, ed., Labouring the Canadian Millennium: Writings on Work and Workers, History and Historiography (St. John’s, NL: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 2000). Two years later, to mark the publication of the journal’s fiftieth issue, two more retrospective essays appeared: see Verity Burgmann, “Labour/Le Travail and Canadian Working-Class History: A View from Afar,” and David Roediger, “Top Seven Reasons to Celebrate and Ask More from Labour/Le Travail,” Labour/Le Travail 50 (Fall 2002): 73–88 and 89–99. See also Bryan D. Palmer’s introduction to the issue, “Labour/Le Travail at 50,” 9–19 (in English and then French).
- 7. Drawing on the two dozen issues published between the retrospective essays in volume 50 and the end of Palmer’s first tenure as editor in 2014, I assembled eighty-five articles to categorize and compare to Morton’s sample.
- 8. See, for example, Michèle Martin, “Modulating Popular Culture: Cultural Critics on Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs,” Labour/Le Travail 52 (Fall 2003): 109–35; Sean Tucker and Brian Thorn, “Railing Against the Company Union: The State, Union Substitution, and the Montréal Tramways Strike of 1943,” Labour/Le Travail 58 (Fall 2006): 41–70; James Pritchard, “The Long, Angry Summer of ’43: Labour Relations in Quebec’s Shipbuilding Industry,” Labour/Le Travail 65 (Spring 2010): 47–73; Jessica van Horssen, “‘À faire un peu de poussière:’ Environmental Health and the Asbestos Strike of 1949,” Labour/Le Travail 70 (Fall 2012): 101–32.
- 9. Peter C. Bischoff, “‘Un chaînon incontournable au Québec’: les Chevaliers du Travail, 1882–1902,” Labour/Le Travail 70 (Fall 2012): 13–59. Palmer’s quotation is found in the editor’s introduction to that issue, on page 9.
- 10. Robert Tremblay, “La grève générale des charpentiers-menuisiers de Montréal, 1833–1834: Réévaluation d’un acte fondateur autour du concept de légitimité,” Labour/Le Travail 81 (Spring 2018): 9–52.
- 11. Laurel Sefton MacDowell, “The Elliot Lake Uranium Miners’ Battle to Gain Occupational Health and Safety Improvements, 1950–1980,” Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012): 91–118; Bryan Hogeveen, “‘The Evils with Which We Are Called to Grapple’: Élite Reformers, Eugenicists, Environmental Psychologists, and the Construction of Toronto’s Working-Class Boy Problem, 1860–1930,” Labour/Le Travail 55 (Spring 2005): 37–68; and Tracey Adams, “Making a Living: African Canadian Workers in London, Ontario, 1861–1901,” Labour/Le Travail 67 (Spring 2011): 9–43.
- 12. See, for example, Robert Storey, “From Invisibility to Equality? Women Workers and the Gendering of Workers’ Compensation in Ontario, 1900–2005,” Labour/Le Travail 64 (Fall 2009): 75–106.
- 13. These were industrial relations; working lives; politics; gender; unions; strikes; and ethnic issues.
- 14. Jim Barrett and Diane P. Koenker, “The Saga of History 492: The Transformation of Working-Class History in One Classroom,” Labour/Le Travail 61 (Spring 2008): 181–213.
- 15. Bryan D. Palmer, “Editor’s Introduction: Labour/Le Travail at 50,” Labour/Le Travail 50 (Fall 2002), 12.
- 16. Examples include Katrina Srigley, “‘In Case You Hadn’t Noticed!’: Race, Ethnicity, and Women’s Wage-Earning in a Depression-Era City,” Labour/Le Travail 55 (Spring 2005): 69–105; Carmela Patrias, “Race, Employment Discrimination, and State Complicity in Wartime Canada, 1939–1945,” Labour/Le Travail 59 (Spring 2007): 9–42; Melissa Turkstra, “Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th-Century Ontario,” Labour/Le Travail 57 (Spring 2006): 93–130; Rhonda L. Hinther, “Raised in the Spirit of the Class Struggle: Children, Youth, and the Interwar Ukrainian Left in Canada,” Labour/Le Travail 60 (Fall 2007): 43–76; Brenda Macdougall, “‘The Comforts of Married Life’: Metis Family Life, Labour, and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Labour/Le Travail 61 (Spring 2008): 9–39; Aya Fujiwara, “Japanese-Canadian Internally Displaced Persons: Labour Relations and Ethno-Religious Identity in Southern Alberta, 1942–1953,” Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012): 63–89; Christabelle Sethna, Beth Palmer, Katrina Ackerman, and Nancy Janovicek, “Choice, Interrupted: Travel and Inequality of Access to Abortion Services since the 1960s,” Labour/Le Travail 71 (Spring 2013): 29–48.
- 17. For example, Joan Sangster, “‘We No Longer Respect the Law’: The Tilco Strike, Labour Injunctions, and the State,” Labour/Le Travail 53 (Spring 2004): 47–88; Lucie Bettez, “Cent jours dans la vie des Campivallensiennes. La grève de 1946 à Salaberry-de-Valleyfield,” Labour/Le Travail 62 (Fall 2008): 9–50; MacDowell, “The Elliot Lake Uranium Miners’ Battle”; van Horssen, “‘À faire un peu de poussière’”; Julia Smith, “An ‘Entirely Different’ Kind of Union: The Service, Office, and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC), 1972–1986,” Labour/Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 23–65; Heather Jensen, “A History of Legal Exclusion: Labour Relations Laws and British Columbia’s Agricultural Workers, 1937–1975,” Labour/Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 67–95.
- 18. In terms of new areas of inquiry, see Katrin MacPhee, “Canadian Working-Class Environmentalism, 1965–1985,” Labour/Le Travail 74 (Fall 2014): 123–49; and Emily van der Meulen, “When Sex is Work: Organizing for Labour Rights and Protections,” Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012): 147–67.
- 19. Lisa Pasolli and Julia Smith, “Challenging Work: Feminist Scholarship on Women, Gender, and Work in Canadian History,” in Reading Canadian Women’s and Gender History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 288.
- 20. Burgmann, “Labour/Le Travail,” 74.
- 21. Joan Sangster, Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2011), 357.
- 22. Sangster, “‘We No Longer Respect the Law.’”
- 23. Sean Purdy, “‘Ripped Off’ by the System: Housing Policy, Poverty, and Territorial Stigmatization in Regent Park Housing Project, 1951–1991,” Labour/Le Travail 52 (Fall 2003): 45–108.
- 24. Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, “The War on the Squatters, 1920–1940: Hamilton’s Boathouse Community and the Re-Creation of Recreation on Burlington Bay,” Labour/Le Travail 51 (Spring 2003): 21. Donkey baseball in some places involved playing baseball while riding donkeys. In Hamilton, Bouchier and Cruikshank recount, a more challenging variant was played in which the roles were reversed and players ran the bases while carrying a young donkey on their backs.
- 25. That Labour/Le Travail wants readers to have access to sources—to present the archives of working-class people unmediated—is indicated by the recurrent “Note and Document” section.
- 26. Fred Burrill, “The Settler Order Framework: Rethinking Canadian Working-Class History,” Labour/Le Travail 83 (Spring 2019): 177.
- 27. Bryan D. Palmer, “Nineteenth-Century Canada and Australia: The Paradoxes of Class Formation,” in “Australia and Canada: Labour Compared,” special joint issue, Labour/Le Travail 38 and Labour History 71 (Fall 1996), as cited in Burrill, “The Settler Order Framework,” 194.
- 28. In terms of explicit discussion of Indigenous issues and people, the thirteen titles listed in Burrill’s n. 18, p. 178 are the most significant publications on the theme, but there are nevertheless related and relevant discussions to be found in other Labour/Le Travail articles, including Christina Burr, “Some Adventures of the Boys: Enniskillen Township’s ‘Foreign Drillers,’ Imperialism, and Colonial Discourse, 1873–1923,” Labour/Le Travail 51 (Spring 2003): 47–80; John-Henry Harter, “Environmental Justice for Whom? Class, New Social Movements, and the Environment: A Case Study of Greenpeace Canada, 1971–2000,” Labour/Le Travail 54 (Fall 2004): 83–119; Patrias, “Race, Employment”; Brendan Sweeney, “Sixty Years on the Margin: The Evolution of Ontario’s Tree Planting Industry and Labour Force: 1945–2007,” Labour/Le Travail 63 (Spring 2009): 47–78; and Jessica Dunkin, “The Labours of Leisure: Work and Workers at the Annual Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880–1910,” Labour/Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 127–50. On the ideology of colonialism and the social construction of whiteness, Kurt Korneski has made a significant contribution in “Race, Gender, Class, and Colonial Nationalism: Railway Development in Newfoundland, 1881–1898,” Labour/Le Travail 62 (Fall 2008): 79–107. Finally, the theoretical position—demonstrating how dispossession is fundamental to capitalism—of Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux’s “‘Cracking the Stone’: The Long History of Capitalist Crisis and Toronto’s Dispossessed, 1830–1930” (Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012): 9–62) resonates compatibly with Glen Coulthard’s insight that “the historical experience of dispossession . . . has been the dominant background structure shaping the character of the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state,” as quoted approvingly in Burrill, “The Settler Order Framework,” 191.
- 29. Bryan D. Palmer, “How Can We Write Better Histories of Communism?” Labour/Le Travail 83 (Spring 2019): 199–232.
- 30. This section first appeared in the journal’s second issue in 1977.
- 31. Bryan D. Palmer, “Editor’s Note,” Labour/Le Travail 40 (Fall 1997): 10.
- 32. Ibid.
- 33. Bryan D. Palmer, “Editor’s Note,” Labour/Le Travail 74 (Fall 2014): 11; emphasis original.
- 34. Palmer, “Editor’s Note,” (1997): 10.
- 35. Palmer, “Editor’s Introduction: Labour/Le Travail at 50,” 13.
- 36. Bryan D. Palmer, Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression [From Medieval to Modern] (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 4.