Right-wingers today (and always) urge workers to think of themselves not as a social class but as individuals who are part of a particular ethnicity or skin colour group or gender. “The better to eat you,” as the Big Bad Wolf told Little Red Riding Hood about why his teeth were so sharp. One hundred years ago this month, workers at the Western Canadian Labour Conference in Calgary took at least partial aim against capitalist-driven notions that workers’ interests lay in cross-class alliances rather than in organizing together as workers to achieve either reforms to improve their position versus capital or revolution to get rid of capitalism altogether. The conference brought together union representatives from across the four Western provinces.
The Calgary Conference praised revolutionary workers’ organizations everywhere, sending “fraternal greetings to the Russian Soviet government, the Spartacans in Germany and all definite working class movements in Europe and the world recognizing they have won first place in the history of the class struggle.” Just as importantly, the conference attacked federal government efforts to sow ethnic divisions in the working class. This was tricky because the Canadian labour movement had a long history of xenophobia, partly simply a fear of immigration that flooded labour markets but also a reflection of racial prejudices within established Euro-Canadian working-class circles. Those prejudices were directed against southern and eastern Europeans almost as much as against non-whites whose entry into Canada was severely restricted by legislation and government administrative policies alike. Though the conference minutes entitled the resolution, “No Alien but the Capitalist,” it retained some standard fears of immigration policy under capitalism. It read: “That the interests of all members of the international working class being identical, that this body of workers recognizes no alien but the capitalist. At the same time we are opposed to any wholesale immigration of workers from other parts of the world who would be brought here at the request of the ruling class.” The conference specifically denounced a resolution that the Trades and Labour Council of Lethbridge had passed that favoured deporting unnaturalized “aliens.”