With his recent monograph Labour at the Lakehead, Michel Beaulieu challenges scholars and interested parties alike to reconsider the role played by the centre in Canadian labour history. But unlike in many existent works in the field, it is a physical centre rather than a political one that is of importance to Beaulieu’s study. Focusing on the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William – collectively known as the Lakehead and located close to the geographic centre of the country – this monograph examines the interplay between local experiences and movements of the left, suggesting that for many, ethnicity rather than class was the salient factor which defined their political identities.
Beaulieu has good reason to stress the Lakehead’s location. While undoubtedly some immigrants moved to the area to avail themselves of jobs in traditional primary industries (notably logging), many others found work with one of the railways, steamship companies, or dockyard operators who sought to exploit the cities’ location at the western terminus of the Great Lakes transportation corridor. Each year ships carrying millions of tonnes of coal and manufactured goods arrived from American ports, returning to the United States laden with wheat and other commodities shipped to the Lakehead by rail from the prairie west. This resulted in a diversified economy unlike any other in Northern Ontario, facilitating not only the transportation of goods between markets, but also the exchange of experiences, ideas, and ideologies along north-south as well as east-west corridors.
By situating his study in this way, Beaulieu challenges Canadian historians to re-think one of the most accepted narratives in our field. Referring to Port Arthur and Fort William as “storm centres in Canadian working-class history,” the author holds that because radicals of both western and eastern traditions were active in the area, the resultant political [End Page 241] culture could be considered as “simultaneously western and eastern.” (5) In making this argument, Beaulieu seeks to complicate existing theories and understandings of western exceptionalism and its relationship to the left in Canada.
This important study’s reach, however, goes well beyond the geographical arguments outlined in the preceding paragraphs. By undertaking such an intensely local study, Beaulieu is able to examine how the programs of the One Big Union, the International Workers of the World, and in particular the Communist Party of Canada interacted with the workers who were their principal constituents. And it is in relation to the latter that this reviewer believes Labour at the Lakehead is particularly revealing.
Beaulieu extensively employs documents from the Communist International in tandem with his deep knowledge of the communities in question to challenge the way(s) scholars perceive the Communist Party of Canada during the Second and Third Period. Specifically, Labour at the Lakehead takes issue with the argument that “immigrants, through their unwillingness to assimilate into the Canadian mainstream, prevented the Communist Party of Canada from flourishing.” (10) This study demonstrates, at least in regards to Port Arthur and Fort William, that the opposite was true. Indeed, it was through groups like the Communist-affiliated Finnish Organization of Canada (foc) that local radicals were able to raise funds for the party, help their acquaintances organize into unions, and build a complex and meaningful local radical culture. It was through organizations such as the foc that men, women, and children were able to pursue their post-capitalist ambitions. This study makes clear that it was in spite of the actions of the Communist Party of Canada – not because of them – that radicalism flourished at the Lakehead.
Where Labour at the Lakehead does fall short is in what Beaulieu explicitly chooses to leave out of this study. (11) While any scholar worth their salt recognizes that there are necessarily things that lie outside the scope of a standard monograph, the author’s choice to focus primarily on institutions such as unions and political parties has prevented an important social and cultural aspect from playing a meaningful role in the narrative he creates. Ironically, by stressing the importance...