Trade Union Songs | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Trade Union Songs

Although rich in occupational songs, Canada has not produced many trade union songs.

Although rich in occupational songs, Canada has not produced many trade union songs. A sealers' strike in St. John's in 1902 inspired two ballads that were printed in Newfoundland booklets. A strike by Canadian Northern Railway workers along the Fraser River in 1912 led Joe Hill, the Industrial Workers of the World songwriter, to write "Where the Fraser River Flows" to the tune of "Where the River Shannon Flows." Several songs came out of strikes 1912-13 in the Nanaimo coalfields, the best known being "Bowser's Seventy-Twa," a satirical description of the militia sent in by Attorney-General Bowser. In Cape Breton during a strike in 1910, the Glace Bay miners sang "Arise Ye Nova Scotia Slaves" and attacked the "yahie miners" whom they accused of taking their jobs. (See also Cape Breton Strikes 1920s.)

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was not celebrated in song, though it is the basis of the musical The Conquest of Winnipeg by Stuart Broomer. A lesser-known strike, in 1931, of miners in the Bienfait-Estevan coal camps of southeastern Saskatchewan inspired Cecil Boone to write "The Estevan Massacre" to the tune of "Kevin Barry." In the On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935, the unemployed marchers' theme song was "Hold the Fort." Calgary singer James Keelaghan has written two songs concerning these events. "Boom to Bust" is based on the march and "Small Rebellion" concerns a clash between the miners and police in the Saskatchewan strike. Many picket lines have resounded to "Solidarity Forever" and "We Shall Not Be Moved."

In Ontario, M.T. Montgomery wrote "United Steelworkers Are We" to the melody used in 'Squid-jiggin' Ground'. In Buchans, Newfoundland, steelworkers composed songs to familiar tunes during strikes in 1971 and 1973. These were issued in 1976 in a booklet and record titled Hell or High Water (Breakwater B-1001). Similar songs undoubtedly have been composed during other industrial disputes, but these usually have not survived beyond the struggle that inspired them.

Texts of various trade union songs appear in "Labor and industrial protest songs in Canada" in the Journal of American Folklore (vol. 82, Jan-Mar 1969), and in David Frank's "The industrial folk song in Cape Breton" (Canadian Folklore canadien, vol. 8, 1986). The Travellers sing some union songs on the LP A Century of Song. Chansons de lutte et turlute (1982) is a collection of 43 Quebec labour songs compiled by Yves Alix for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux and the Syndicat de la Musique du Québec (SMQ).