"Fading Beams of the Nineteenth Century:" Radicalism and Early Socialism in Canada's 1890s

Gene Howard Homel
1980 Labour (Halifax)  
LATE nineteenth-century Toronto, according to "Uncle Thomas," an anonymous observer, contained a curious and colourful group of dissenters and radicals. "Socialists, anarchists, single taxers, Christian scientists, and candidates for the Legislature," they gathered in a little downtown restaurant wedged in between a row of wholesale businesses. For the uninitiated, the restaurant was "a quiet nook where men of 'isms and 'ologies congregate daily in the discussion of projects of transcendent
more » ... of transcendent vastness and lunches of co-relative modesty." The patrons, "social regenerators" who displayed "a Walt Whitman-like aversion to the razor habit," sat at the crowded square tables discussing a wide range of the world's problems, "from the cutting of bay ice to the passing of a resolution on the destiny of the North American continent." Felix Belcher, the proprietor of the restaurant, was "a quiet man, with a habit of playing chess and perfecting plans for reforming the world during his leisure moments. He holds views on the land question that would be startling to the Ratepayers' Association, and would think nothing of taxing land as heavily as low grade chewing tobacco." Belcher's customers, for the curious outsider, were merely men who sought "kindly sympathy" and "congenial companionship -men who believe in what is not self-evident; the perpetual minority; the cranks." 1 The "social regenerators" deserved more serious consideration than was given them by "Uncle Thomas." By the end of the nineteenth century, small but significant groups of Canadian radicals were grappling with the intensified problems of an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society. Unemployment, harsh conflict between workers and employers, and the stark contrast between the amenities of the wealthy and the distress of the urban poor were three distinct dangers. Of more general concern was what radicals perceived as the breakdown and ineffectiveness of over-arching and deeply felt ethics and values. A relative degree of community cohesion was apparently becoming supplanted by what one church called "the caste feeling between rich and 1 Uncle Thomas, "The Regenerators," The Canadian Magazine, I, I (March 1893), 65. Gene Howard Homel, " Tiding Beams of the Nineteenth Century:* Radicalism and Early Socialism in Canada's 1890s," Labourite TravaiUew, 5 (Spring 1980), 7-32. 8 LABOUR/LE TRAVAILLEUR poor," 1 and by whai a minister described as "two hostile camps" between which a "great gulf is fixed." 3 Canadians by the end of the century were facing a starkly frightening world of economic, social, and cultural crisis. This essay attempts to describe and interpret some of the major convictions, supporters, and organizations of Canadian radicalism during the 1890$. The radicals can be broadly defined as social critics whose critique of industrial capitalism was usually radical, in the sense of advocating or promoting rootand-branch change in Canada's economic and political system. That the diverse and often ambiguous radical legacy was characterized by Christian and secularized ethical appeals and a concern for the protection of traditional social and cultural life in no way detracts from its challenge to the status quo of the period. In Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, radical criticism and movements were progressively confronting the assumptions and effects of the capitalist market, and it is in this international context that the Canadian movement matured. 4 The Christian Guardian (
doi:10.2307/25139946 fatcat:h67ls4v4lzckldyhqbuqg4stfe