Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Commissioning Consent: An Investigation of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital, 1886-1889

Document type Thesis
Author Cole, Stephen J.
Degree Ph.D. (History)
Publisher Queen's University; Kingston, Ont.
Date 2008
Pages 532


The 1880s were turbulent years in the Dominion. Under the auspices of the National Policy, Canada was in the midst of a social and political ‘transformation.’ The social and cultural aspects of this transformation became a source of public debate as the ‘Labour Question’ and the relations between labour and capital reached a high mark of political and economic significance. Waves of strikes and the emergence of large international labour organizations challenged many liberal Victorian ideas about a strictly limited state. Many looked upon the federal government as responsible not only for economic growth, but also for protection from the more pressing problems of industrial life. The Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labour is a testament to not only the turbulent economic relations in late-Victorian Canada, but the emergence of the Canadian state’s active role in social relations. Its very title envisioned a dual role for the Canadian state: to “promote the material, social, intellectual and moral prosperity” of labouring men and women, and to improve and develop “the productive industries of the Dominion so as to advance and improve the trade and commerce of Canada.” However, this thesis argues that the Labour Commission was more subtly designed to enhance the prestige of the Canadian state and install Ottawa as an authority on, and mediator of, industrial relations in Canada. Attention to the formation, activities, and impact of the Labour Commission suggests that, rather than an exercise in addressing a mounting social polarization between “labour” and “capital,” the Commission lends insight into the emergence of a Canadian middle class. It was a carefully-constructed exercise in the assertion of middle-class cultural hegemony whereby such values and understandings as respectability, morality, manliness, worth and expertise were naturalized. In the process, the tension between labour and capital was diminished and in its place were developed visions of social reciprocity and mutual interest. It is in this way that the Labour Commission was an exercise in ‘commissioning consent:’ it placed oppositional voices and wrenching exposés about industrial life in a framework that worked to quell rather than stimulate far-reaching critiques of the established order. The Commission’s formation, methodology and language functioned like an industrial exhibition rather than a pointed social investigation. The evidence presents a thriving economy that had grown exponentially under a wise and paternal government. It also presented a vision of the Dominion whereby the disturbances that occurred between labour and capital could be handled within a conventional language of liberal politics. In addition, social and intellectual elites were fully ensconced in the formation and legitimization of these social and moral understandings. Because it was up to the state to select who would speak for labour and capital, the Commission’s message was not one of class polarization. Thus, exploring who became ‘labour’ and who ‘capital,’ and what sorts of things they said to each other, sheds light on to the emergent strategies of the Canadian state as it sought to understand and influence civil society. The Commission is an indication, even anticipation, of a more activist and energetic state.