War brings out the worst in people and part of the propaganda of government in war time is to play on fear; fear of the “other”, fear of the “unknown”. During the First World War it was radical groups and publications, many whose membership came from Eastern Europe, that were targeted.
Within weeks of the start of the war in August 1914, Canada past the War Measures Act. In 1916, the press censorship was introduced by an Order-In-Council. In total of the 253 publications banned during the war, 164 were in a language other than French or English. But it was the 1917 Russian Revolution, and its withdrawal from the war, that cause the Canadian government to crack down harder on any social dissent.
By Order-in-Council PC2384, the federal government outlawed political and labour groups, focusing on German, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish speakers. It banned freedom of association, assembly, and speech for many Canadians.
One of the labour groups banned was the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or as they were known “Wobblies”. This industrial union organization had been founded in 1905 in Chicago and quickly spread across North America. By 1906, the first Canadian chapters had been formed in B.C.
The IWW espoused the idea that workers should all be in one union as opposed to the tradition of Trades. They organized all workers including women and workers of colour. It organized unskilled laborers, the poor, and recent immigrants, all who were often on the margins of society. They believed in “revolutionary syndicalism” where once organized, workers would initiate a general strike and replace capitalism with a society run by workers. The Wobblies also opposed the First World War and the price paid by working people so therefore became an enemy of Prime Minister Robert Borden and the Canadian government.
On September 24, 1918, Borden’s government made membership in the Industrial Workers of the World and thirteen other (primarily ethnic radical political organizations) illegal. The maximum sentence for membership in the IWW, or affiliation with the banned organizations, was five years to be served in one of 24 internment camps.
The ideas of the Wobblies were harder to stop, however. When western Canadian workers formed an organization called the One Big Union (OBU) in 1919, its ideas were closely aligned with those of the IWW. Today every time “Solidarity Forever” is sung on a picket line or at a union convention the IWW spirit lives on because that was their song!