Canso: A historic fishing village’s struggle for workers’ rights

“When you have no union, you stand alone. And when you’re goin’ in for fish prices or bait prices, trying to get your bait price cut down a little bit and fish prices raised-goin’ in there speakin’ alone, they’re just laughin’ in your face.”

-Edison Lumsden,
President of the Canso Local
United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union

On the most easterly tip of mainland Nova Scotia is the small community of Canso, perhaps the oldest fishing village in Atlantic Canada. Canso was generally a quiet town until March 30th 1970 when the fishermen of three neighbouring communities Petit de Grat, Mulgrave and Canso went on strike against Acadia Fisheries.

The strike covered a broad range of wage and working conditions:

The clipping reads: One Injured in street fight Canso- Street fighting broke out between United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union members and Acadia Fisheries Ltd. workers here last night. Reports indicate that the brawl began when union members quarrelled with plant watchman George Schrader. Local president Edison Lumsden was knocked unconscicous, report eyewitnesses. Two or three other union members were beaten. One of them, Roland Bond, was taken to St. Martha’s Hospital, Antigonish, for head injury treatment.

There were no minimum price agreements, Fishermen had no say in the price of fish or the length of the trip

When fish were weighed in the plant none of the fishermen were present

Fishermen were given no official statement of the weight of the catch, prices paid for all of the fish and the expenses of the trip,

The price of the fish could drop at any time that a boat was being unloaded,

Acadia believed that the hourly wages demanded by the union would bankrupt the firm,

There were no agreements on sanitary conditions and safety regulations,

With  no job security, fishermen could easily find themselves blacklisted by Acadia, which had been  using this threat for years,

The nature of the United Allied Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UAFAWU)  became a further issue as the UFAWU was not affliated with the Canadian Labour Congress.(1)

It was not until May 11th that the strike caught media attention when personnel from Acadia Fisheries attempted to transport fish through the picket lines. Five men were arrested for maintaining the picket line. Ten days later on May 21st, Judge Nathan Green was appointed as a one man federal-provincial inquiry into the strike. Judge Green made an interim recommendation that everything go back to the situation before the strike.

The interim recommendation led to more picketing, violence, demonstrations and men being charged for contempt. Many were sentenced by Judge Gordon Cowan for 20 to 30 days each, while on trial Judge Cowan postponed the trials of sixteen fishermen until October 27th 1970.

When the strike ended on October 31st the fishermen finally gained the right to decide their terms and conditions of employment. However, the UFAWU’s application for certification was dismissed; this meant that despite a vote by fishermen in favour of having the UFAWU represent them, the Labour Board denied the union the right to represent the fishermen. The UFAWU would not become the union for the men who had fought so hard for this representation. However, if not for all the backing of communities this strike would never of gained the rights to set even the most basic of the terms and conditions of employment for the fishermen.

Brendan Dixon

Further Reading and Works Cited:

1)      Lorna Darrah and Rosalind Belland. “The Canso Fishermen’s Strike 1970-1971” Chapter 3 of “Strikes: Industrial Relations in Nova Scotia 1957-1987” edited by C.H.J. Gilson

2)      Silver Donald Cameron. “The Education of Everett Richardson: The Nova Scotia Fishermen’s Strike”

3)      http://www.whitmanwharf.com/localhistory.htm  This site gives a brief background history on the small town of Canso.

All pictures on this page are from a scrapbook put together by Laura and Clayton Haines who were present during the strike at Canso.

5 Responses to Canso: A historic fishing village’s struggle for workers’ rights

  1. Pingback: A Fish Box and a Folk Festival | ActiveHistory.ca

  2. teresa gillis says:

    Just visit Canso if yo still don’t thing this is happening to your small town. We are allowing government, who of course are owned by big business, to win the propaganda war on unions and the middle class. Low wages and poor working conditions, a good economy they do not make! Why do corporations pay zero taxes if they do not control the government. That’s the real problem, not us little cogs in the wheel who are just trying to contribute to the economy.

  3. kenny johnston says:

    remember those days well

  4. magnificent issues altogether, you simply won a new reader.
    What might you recommend about your put up that you just made a few days ago?
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  5. seamouse says:

    This is a great post! It is such a fascinating story and needs to be told more widely.

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