Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Child Labour Problem.

Flora Nicholson of Flo in the City, my work in progress about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era based on the letters of http://www.tighsolas.ca/ A middle class girl... Here she is babysitting, most probably.

Well, I am reading the 1910 era archives of the Montreal Gazette, looking for articles on the child-labour issue and YES, child-labour, was a huge issue and especially with respect to girls.

I knew this from previous articles I'd read, but these first-hand accounts remind me that for all the Nicholson family money problems, the Nicholsons had it easy... and Flo especially easy. She was protected, even pampered.

And, there's my challenge, to make her 'problems' seem real, and still show the context.

One of the articles I found was about a recently published book by a British lady who crossed Canada in 1911 and published a book about her experiences in 1912. (Even today, the Canadian media loves to report on American reviews of things Canadian, especially if they are praiseworthy. It's a national trait.)

Well, this lady, who wrote this book called From Halifax to Vancouver, generally praised Canada but she had harsh criticism for the industrial conditions of Montreal. She quotes a woman on the Juvenile court as saying that the factory owners would hire monkeys to work if they could get away with it and that nowhere in the world, even New York, are there so many young women leading immoral lives. De Bullion Street!

A factory owner says he is appalled to learn that under-age girls are working in his factory. He does not sanction it: why would he? He wants the most efficient labourers to work for him so that he can compete internationally.

In another article about Montreal's girl labour in factories, it is claimed that although the official legal age for working is 14 -if literate- and 16 -if illiterate-, the reporter found girls working in factories who were so young, they didn't know their age. (Of course, this might be that they were told by their parents NOT to tell their age.)According to the article, "one little girl did not know the meaning of the word 'holiday.'"

Another article claims that women immigrants should only be allowed to enter Canada to work as domestics and not as factory workers. Domestic work is good work, they say. The President of the Montreal Suffrage Organization, a Mrs. Bullock, disagrees. She thinks that girls should be trained for trades, like boys, since only then can the young women support themselves and have their nights to themselves. (She writes this in an open letter to the Royal Commission. I intend to write a scene in my story where Flo takes on Mr. Robertson, in a public argument, when he visits Macdonald College in 1911.)

And there's one really prescient man quoted in another article: (Remember, these are all between 1908-1913) It is an Member of Parliament, a Mr. Henry Vivien. He wants suburbs designed and put up outside of cities, where houses are 20 feet apart. (He doesn't want suburbs evolving randomly, as overflow of cities.) He wants roads joining the suburb to the city. It's only 1910, but he says the automobile will take over from the horse, in 50 years time.

This is very prescient, as most people,then, thought the automobile was a 'toy'...a fascinating and desirable toy, but still a toy, and even in the Montreal Gazette, that same year, in the opening paragraph in the article about the Horse Show, it is written that the auto will never replace the horse in man's affections.

Many people quoted who were advocating change, more laws to protect women and children, often brought up examples from the US, which suggests the US was ahead of Canada, and Montreal. And yet they had their child labour horrors too.