Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

"A Link Between Labour and Learning": The Workers Educational Association in Ontario, 1917-1951

Document type Article
Author Radforth, Ian
Author Sangster, Joan
Journal Labour / Le Travail
Volume 8/9
Date 1981 Fall & Spring 1982
ISSN 0700-3862
Pages 41-78


This paper traces the rise and fall in Ontario of the Workers Educational Association (WEA), a voluntary association whose main purpose was to organize inexpensive, non-credit night classes taught by university professors for the working class. The Association was an offshoot of the British WEA. ln Ontario the main impetus for establishing an Association in 1918 came from members of Toronto's intellectual elite. One of their aims was to teach labour people "responsible behaviour" at a time when the labour movement seemed to be gaining influence and becoming more radical. Working-class people within the WEA proved less malleable than the academics had hoped, and the Association soon became a workers' organization, largely controlled by some of its working-class members. It offered many liberal arts courses and, in the late 1930s and 1940s, developed innovative labour education and research programmes which proved of lasting benefit to the labour movement. Although continually threatened by the University of Toronto administration, the WEA failed in the 1950s because certain labour leaders, using Cold War tactics, opposed a labour educational institution that they could not control.