War, Revolution, and Change

World War One began in 1914. Hamiltonians were important contributors to the war effort, both in the many recruits who joined the fight and in the manufacturing of war materials. By the time the war ended four long years later, the young men who returned home from the front had seen unimaginable horror. It changed their lives and their expectations.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia showed many working people around the world that there was a real need for change. Workers in Canada took action to demand their rights in the midst of these changes. In August 1918, the Vancouver General Strike, the first general strike in Canadian history, was organized to protest the killing of draft evader and labour activist Albert Goodwin. And in 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike and the creation of the One Big Union were important ways that workers fought back.

Workers used more organized ways to seek change, too. Building on working people’s growing political strength, the Trades and Labour Congress helped found the Canadian Labour Party in 1917. And in 1921, NUPSE, the National Union of Public Service Employees, was created.

1914 - Hamilton’s 91st Highlanders say goodbye as they leave for Europe.
Hamilton’s 91st Highlanders say goodbye as they leave for Europe, 1914. Courtesy of the Local History & Archives Department, Hamilton Public Library.

Working Life in Hamilton

By 1915, many industries began to boom as the government increased its military spending and Canada became an important supplier of materials to the war effort. The recession of 1913 and high unemployment were soon replaced by a labour shortage as industries looked for workers. New technologies were introduced during the war, and workers had to learn different skills and ways of working.

The 1920s were also a time of change in the workplace for both inside and outside civic workers. Inside workers, for example, were introduced to new machines such as typewriters, and their work became increasingly deskilled. And outside workers had to master new equipment, such as gas-powered lawnmowers, and new ways of working, too.

At the same time, some work — especially for outside workers — was still mostly done by hand, and was back-breaking. Unpaved roads were still the norm in many cities, and the work of keeping them passable was not mechanized. And large groups of men were still put to work shovelling snow on the city’s main streets and removing it using wagons.

By the early 1920s, another severe recession had taken hold. Hamilton’s unemployment rate climbed to 15% by 1921, and many Hamiltonians who had gone overseas to fight in the war found themselves back at home with no work prospects and unclear futures.

1923 Wages

Inside workers earned $25 a week
Outside workers earned $22 a week (55 cents an hour)