Post Conference Review #2: Ottawa Labor History Walking Tour

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Editor’s note: This post continues the series of conference city reviews published by The Public Historian in the Public History Commons

Ottawa Labor History Walking Tour, April 17, 2013. NCPH Annual Meeting, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Creators: Workers History Museum in partnership with Graduate Students from Carleton University. Tour Leaders: Tascha Morrison, Liam Kennedy, and Tom Bigelow.

Special tours allowed participants in the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History to explore the historical landscape of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. One, a walking tour of Ottawa’s labor history, promised to reveal “the city beneath the nation’s capital.” The tour originated in a 2009 working partnership between the Worker’s History Museum and Graduate Students from Carleton University. Museum-University partnerships have become more common as the number of public history programs has grown, and educators create opportunities to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities. The tour provided an opportunity for history educators and museum professionals to see their work from the angle of the audience. Is student-produced work valuable, successful, and sustainable?

The Worker’s History Museum, formally incorporated in 2010, is an all-volunteer organization. The digital museum is operated by a board of directors that depends on creative partnerships with heritage groups, government agencies, labor organizations, and institutions of higher learning to maintain an active agenda. They create traveling exhibits and public programs and host a variety of fund raising events.The Labor History Walking Tour was the product of one of these partnerships.

The overall tour structure was well imagined. Three compelling themes connected sites and stories. First, through work that was often difficult, tedious, and dangerous, working class people shaped the economic landscape in Ottawa. Second, worker activism shaped the political landscape in Ottawa. As is often the case, however, only some industrial and work spaces still exist. Indeed, the third tour theme drew our attention to their absence; development of the modern capital city obliterated industrial districts and working class neighborhoods.

Tour leaders worked to construct a logical narrative with these themes as a framework, but the necessity of connecting stories to places and mapping a manageable walk forced them to segment the story. The tour began on Sparks Street, now a pedestrian mall, gestured toward Albert Street, and then traveled to Wellington Street and Parliament Hill, focusing on the Ottawa River and on political space. Each section of the tour roughly connected to one of the tour themes.

Electric Company building (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo)

Electric Company building (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo.)

On Sparks and Albert, tour leaders shared stories of worker activism, documenting the rise of a political culture tolerant of worker organization and sympathetic to workers’ needs. For example, the Bell Telephone Company on Sparks employed young single women during the early twentieth century—at least those who brought a character reference from their clergyman. Once on the job, they handled more than three hundred calls an hour, wearing large, heavy headsets and perched on backless stools. When management increased their hours and cut their pay in 1907, they staged a walk out. Similar unrest rocked Albert Street, a historically dense industrial district. During World War I and World War II, workers in related electrical and transportation industries demanded safer conditions, shorter hours, and fair pay. They were unsuccessful until they began staging sympathy strikes. For example, in 1919 the federal government declared that striking workers from the Ottawa Electric Railway Company were “essential,” and could be forced back to work. In response, machinists from the Ottawa Car Company and other related unions walked out. Negotiations were reopened and the workers won some concessions. Together, the stories in the first leg of the tour were pointed and focused, drawing attention to early organizing tactics and their impact on working conditions.

Distinctive architecture of government buildings in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo)

Distinctive architecture of government buildings in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo.)

As the tour traveled along Wellington Street, tour guides sought to connect these demonstrations to Canadian political history. The tour paused at the Supreme Court building, where guides described several late twentieth-century cases that tested demands for workplace equality. Although there was no direct connection between the events on Sparks and Albert and the advancement of federal law, the Supreme Court stories advanced the idea that organized workers achieved political authority over time. As we continued down Wellington to Parliament Hill, however, the tour sometimes lost its thematic coherence. Many of the buildings along Wellington are under renovation, and tour leaders began to focus more on architecture and less on labor.

Arguably, the most compelling stories coincided with our walk along the Ottawa River. As we looked toward Chaudière Falls and Victoria Island, tour guides described the evolution of the lumber industry, clearly highlighting the crucial role that working class people played in the evolution of the Canadian economy. In addition, sites visible on the opposite bank in Gatineau and past Victoria Island on LeBreton Flats interestingly illustrated the presence and absence of working class history in Ottawa. Workers won significant political rights, including the right to organize and support for arbitration. Unions enjoy a significant political presence. At the same time, the working class has been less successful in shaping their private living conditions. LeBreton Flats is the crucial case in point. Now dominated by the Canadian War Museum, LeBreton Flats had been a thriving working class community. But, visible from Parliament Hill, it was considered an eyesore. It stood in the way of a large-scale effort to redevelop Ottawa as a symbol of the nation. The federal government appropriated the land, forcing residents to relocate with very little compensation. The last structure was demolished in 1965.

The Labor History Walking Tour raises important and relevant questions about the place of working people in a modern nation and testifies to the fact that museum-university partnerships produce compelling public programs. As currently constructed, the tour has all the right ingredients, but it would do well to serve them more sparingly. Hoping to prove labor’s broad impact on the Ottawa landscape, tour leaders walked us through several neighborhoods and time periods. But as a result the tour occasionally lost chronological focus and thematic coherence. Scaling back in scope would actually enhance the complexity of the story. Imagine a Labor History Walking tour focused on the Ottawa River. The federal buildings rise imposingly over the banks. An abandoned mill is perched on Victoria Island.

Abandoned mill on Victoria Island (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo)

Abandoned mill on Victoria Island (Photo courtesy of Denise Meringolo.)

LeBreton Flats bears witness to the erasure of working class neighborhoods. These structures and spaces open up the very questions the tour seeks to address, and are well suited to a chronological story about labor activism, labor policy, and the conditions of the working class.


~ Denise D. Meringolo, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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