The Owen Sound CPR Strike in 1908 immobilized harbour activities in that important Georgian Bay port, the CPR's eastern Great Lakes terminus.
During the late 1890s and the first years of this century Owen Sound’s harbour was the scene of many minor labour disputes over working conditions and pay between dock workers and the CPR. However, in May 1908 a bitter confrontation occurred. When 170 dock workers once again struck the CPR. The company decided to respond with a show of strength.
The company recruited 100 workers in Toronto and brought them to the Georgian Bay port to unload the ships which were laying idle in the harbour due to the Owen Sound CPR strike. Their train was met at the station by a mob of strikers and their supporters. It seems the CPR had neglected to tell the new workers that they would be working as strikebreakers. This news and the size of threatening crowd helped to convince them to join the strikers’ cause rather than take up employment with the CPR.
Undeterred by this turn of events, the CPR hired another 200 workers in Toronto and brought them to Owen Sound. Once again, the train was met by a large crowd of strikers and once again the latest round of “imported” labour chose not to work, but instead join the strikers.
With the weekend approaching the CPR was getting desperate. More ships were arriving in the harbour and there was no one to unload them. With the harbour jammed with vessels waiting to be unloaded, on Saturday morning the company made the strikers an offer of settlement. Perhaps feeling a sense of strength, the workers turned down the CPR’s overture to return to work.
The harbour remained silent the rest of the weekend. But Monday morning the peaceful calm was broken. On the weekend the company had hired seventy more strikebreakers and brought them to town early in the morning hoping to break the Owen Sound CPR strike. Unaware of what was going on the strikers had not met the early train and company was able to get them working.
Meanwhile, the strikers were meeting at the town hall when it was learned of the events taking place in the harbour. The strikers and their supporters rushed to confront the situation. Pandemonium broke lose! The fifty CPR constables on hand to protect the strikebreakers were badly outnumbered. They panicked and fired shots into the crowd. The response was immediate. Strikers attacked with anything they could get their hands on! Some hurled chunks of coal, while others resorted to their fists.
Although a Toronto newspaper reported that twenty-one had been killed and more than one hundred injured in the Owen Sound CPR strike. But, in reality there were only a few minor injuries reported. Two strikers and one CPR constable suffered gunshot wounds and a few more sustained bruises from the pieces of coal which were thrown.
Fortunately, the riot did not last long. Owen Sound’s mayor, Matthew Kennedy boarded one of the vessels at the dock and from its deck he read the Riot Act. Kennedy then ordered both sides back to bargaining table and a few hours later, at 1:30 in the afternoon a settlement was reached. The same day, the workers returned to their jobs and began unloading the ships. The Owen Sound CPR strike had come to an end.
If it not been for the swift action of Mayor Matthew Kennedy, there might have been more injuries and perhaps fatalities.
The information used in this article came from many sources. First and foremost was, “Owen Sound and the CPR Great Lakes Fleet: The Rise of a Port, 1840-1912" by Keith Fleming, Ontario Historical Society and the newspapers of the day.
A version of the article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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