Category: News

The Great Wildfire of 1870: A history told by Ruth Stewart-Verger and Murray McGregor

Until Fort McMurray in the spring of 2016, the Ontario fire of 1870 was the largest wild-fire in Canadian history.

It is startling how similar the descriptions of the skies, the golden glow across the horizon at midnight, the strangling smoke, the wall of fire sweeping across the land, people racing before the flames…

The Great Wildfire of 1870 started in the Ottawa Valley, as a small blaze near Arnprior and a brush fire near Pakenham raced across eastern Ontario. The wildfire swept past the Carp ridge, through the Almonte Area, devastating Bells Corners, and on to Ottawa. Smoke filled the skies. Farmers, villages and animals, wild and domestic raced before the oncoming flames. Farmlands, lives and habitats were lost. The fire was stopped at Preston Street by brave fire-fighters who, with the help of pick and shovel, breached the north dam of Dow’s Lake, flooding the old Dow’s swamp lowlands right down Preston on to LeBreton flats — just in the nick of time, of course.

Where: the Chambers at Ben Franklin Place
When: Saturday, September 17, at 2:00PM

Storytellers are Ruth Stewart-Verger and Murray McGregor.

Doors Open Ottawa event at the PSAC

Want to visit one of Canada’s top 500 buildings?

Saturday, 4 and Sunday 5 June, 2016, the Workers’ History Museum (WHM) is hosting a Doors Open Ottawa event at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) national headquarters, 233 Gilmour Street, Ottawa. Doors are open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

The 12 storey PSAC HQ is a distinctive elliptical iron-spot brick building at the corner of Gilmour and Metcalfe. Designed by Paul Schoeler of Schoeler & Heaton Architects, it was completed in 1968. In 2000, the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada | Architecture Canada identified it as one of the top 500 buildings produced in Canada during the preceding millennium.

WHM volunteers will answer questions about the PSAC building and about Workers’ History Museum exhibits which will be on display there.

Renovations are underway, so please enter the building by the rear entrance.


In Memoriam

The Worker’s History Museum wanted to remember our former Board and Trustee member, Pat McGrath, who passed away in November 2013. She gave a bequest of $10,000 to the Museum in her will.

A group consisting of Robert Hatfield, Barb Stewart, Arthur Carkner and Zelma Buckley met to see how we could best keep Pat’s memory and love for the Workers’ History Museum alive.

Pat was a very strong activist in many ways, but she quite strongly identified with disability issues. She invested a lot of time and effort in union education as a facilitator and served as a leader with many committees and conferences.

Zelma Buckley, a very good friend of Pat’s, told the group that Pat’s last wishes were to ensure that the WHM would flourish in coming years. Pat’s passion when she retired was to volunteer more and strengthen the WHM.

In her memory, the Workers’ History Museum will be using $2000 of Pat’s bequest to create a video and exhibit on workers with disabilities. The remaining $8000 will be used to establish an annual $1000 scholarship, open to any person with disabilities attending a university or community college, to support a project on labour history within our WHM mandate.

We think Pat would have approved.

National Day of Mourning – April 28

Is today the day you die at work?

day of mourningThis is a question asked by the Canadian Labour Congress. Between 1993 to 2011, 17,062 people lost their lives due to work-related causes – an average of 898 deaths per year. In 2012 alone, 75 Quebecers lost their lives in workplace accidents.

Each year on April 28th, the National Day of Mourning commemorates workers who have been killed, injured, or have suffered illness due to workplace-related hazards and incidents. Events are held in many locations across Canada. In Ottawa, the flag on Parliament Hill is flown at half-mast, and workers and employees observe this day by lighting candles, donning ribbons and black armbands, and observing moments of silence. Visitors to Vincent Massey Park can show their respect at the national monument built in recognition of all workers killed and injured on the job. This site was chosen because of its proximity to one of the worst construction accidents in Canada’s history: the collapse of the Heron Road bridge that killed 9 people and injured another 55 on August 10th, 1966. (Dave Bennett, a member and former Secretary of the Workers’ History Museum, worked tirelessly with others for the creation of the monument.)

April 28th was chosen for the National Day of Mourning because on that day in 1914, Canada’s Workers Compensation Act received its third reading. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) first observed the Workers’ Memorial Day in 1984, and the Canadian Labour Congress officially declared it an annual day of remembrance the next year. In December 1990, this day became a national observance with the passing of the Workers Mourning Day Act. April 28, 1991 was the first official National Day of Mourning for persons killed or injured in the workplace.

Since its inception, this homegrown observance has spread to over 80 countries around the world, although in most other countries, it is simply known as the Workers’ Memorial Day. In 2001, the International Labour Organization first observed the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on April 28th. Whatever its name, the purpose of this commemoration is twofold: to remember and honour those lives lost or injured and to renew our commitment to improving health and safety in the workplace in order to prevent further deaths, injuries, and diseases from work.

We have some of the best health and safety laws in the world, yet the number of workers that lose their lives continues to increase. In 1993, the number of fatalities in Canada was 758. In 2011, 919 workplace deaths were recorded in Canada – a decrease from 1,014 the previous year. This represents more than 2.6 deaths every single day.1 In addition, during 2012, there were 245,365 injuries in Canada.2 Unfortunately, the annual observance of the National Day of Mourning has not made Canada safer for workers.

Is today the day you die at work?

By Barb Stewart

1 Statistics come from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada “Number of Fatalities, by Jurisdiction 1993-2011” summary table and the annual average according to “Number of Fatalities, by Jurisdiction 1993-2011” summary table.
2 “Number of Accepted Time-Loss Injuries” summary table.

Remembering Pete Seeger: The Ottawa Connection

Pete SeegerLast month, we marked with sadness the passing of the great musician and activist Pete Seeger. We also learned the interesting story behind his appearance in Ottawa back in 1958.

Pete Seeger had been blacklisted in the US since 1953, a victim of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and many venues were closed off to him. But three enterprising young workers in Ottawa each put up $25 – a huge amount of money at the time – to bring Pete Seeger here. He played on November 27, 1958, at the Fisher Park High School Auditorium.

One of these men, Gil Levine, had a seven-year-old daughter at the time. We asked Tamara Levine to share her memories of that night. “I’d been raised on the music of the Weavers and Pete and remember the concert well,” she said. “I got to wear my patent leather party shoes and go on stage to pick a name out of a hat for the winner of the prize of a Pete Seeger album.”

Tamara was at Pete’s last Ottawa concert in 2009, along with the two other organizers of the 1958 event, Max Sternthal and Harvey Glatt. Gil couldn’t be there this time – he was to pass away later that year.

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven

Stories from the Railway

Get swept up in the tales of romance on the rails, as guest speakers share stories of love and marriage, community and family.

* Kay Leeson, a local war bride, tells us of her journey by train to Smiths Falls to start a new life with her husband after the war.

* Maureen Halpenny, daughter of Harold Halpenny, a local Engineer, transports us back to her youthful adventures while growing up as a child of the railway. Discover how the railway helped to shape her family and her community.

* Donna Stewart, an Ottawa-based storyteller, brings to life the story of two young people who found love in the midst of the Almonte Train Wreck in the 1940s.

Tickets are $10. The event will be held at the Rideau Canal Visitors Centre Auditorium at 34 Beckwith Street South, in Smiths Falls. This event is a fundraiser for the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario.

For any additional information or to purchase your tickets in advance, please contact the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario at (613) 283-5696 or purchase tickets online.

Announcing the J. Calbert Best Boardroom

The Workers’ History Museum is thrilled to hear that the Public Service Alliance of Canada is naming their Halifax Regional Office Boardroom after Cal Best! The organizers credit our work for sparking renewed interest in this co-founder of their union, and ultimately leading to this decision. Our video Simply the Best and its accompanying travelling display will be shown at the official opening. We are a virtual museum with real world outcomes!


December 6th – National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

December 6th is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada. Established in 1991 by the Parliament of Canada, this day marks the anniversary of the murders in 1989 of 14 young women at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. They died because they were women.

December 6, 2013, marks the 24th anniversary of the Montréal Massacre. As well as commemorating the 14 young women whose lives ended in an act of gender-based violence that shocked the nation, this day represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the phenomenon of violence against women in our society. It is also an opportunity to consider the women and girls for whom violence is a daily reality, and to remember those who have died as a result of gender-based violence. And finally, it is a day on which communities can consider concrete actions to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and girls remains a serious problem in Canada, from overt acts of hatred such as the Montréal Massacre to culturally based offences and everyday acts of coercion such as sexual harassment and domestic abuse.

Women and girls are more likely to experience certain types of serious violence and assault:
• On average, 178 females were killed every year between 1994 and 2008.
• In 2008, there were 146 female victims of homicide in Canada. Of these, 45 were victims of spousal homicide.
• Young women are particularly vulnerable. Between 1997 and 2006, young women (aged 15 to 24) were killed at a rate nearly three times higher than for all female victims of spousal homicide. During the same period, the rate of sexual assault for girls (under age 18) by family members was four times higher than for boys.

Some groups of women in Canada are particularly vulnerable to violence:
• The spousal homicide rate for Aboriginal women is more than eight times that for non-Aboriginal women.
• Immigrant women may be more vulnerable to family violence due to, among other things, economic dependence, language barriers, and lack of access to resources.
• Senior women are twice as likely as senior men to be victims of violent crime perpetrated by a family member.

Reprinted from the Status of Women Canada

Sad News

Pat McGrath, former Workers’ History Museum Director and Trustee, died peacefully on Tuesday, November 26, 2013, at the age of 60. Pat was a dedicated, hard-working union activist and a good friend. She was a great supporter of the Workers’ History Museum. Her cheery disposition, outgoing personality and positive outlook made her a wonderful WHM ambassador, particularly within the labour movement and at events such as Colonel By Day. She will be sorely missed.

Pat’s funeral will be held at St. George’s Church, 415 Piccadilly Avenue, on Monday, 2 December, 2013 at 11:00am.

In memoriam, donations may be made to the Workers’ History Museum, Station E, PO Box 4461, Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B4 or to a charity of choice.

Our sincere condolences to Pat’s family, her colleagues and her many, many friends.