MORTIMER, JOHN T., journeyman tailor and union leader; b. in Scotland, son of James Mortimer; m. 2 Sept. 1901 Lena Cameron, and they had several children; d. 26 Nov. 1908 by drowning near Emerson, Man.
Details of John T. Mortimer’s early life are unknown. After September 1896 he began a rise to prominence in Winnipeg’s working-class movement by helping to rebuild Local 70 of the Journeymen Tailors’ Union of America (JTUA), affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Local 70 had been formed in 1892 on the third attempt to establish a tailors’ union in Winnipeg. It went on strike in February 1893 when merchant tailors – proprietors of men’s custom-made clothing shops – attempted to cut wages for the manufacture of cheaper-quality suits. It met with bitter defeat, however, at the hands of the proprietors and central Canadian strikebreakers three months later. Since then, Local 70 had been adrift.
In 1897 Mortimer was elected president of Local 70. He made an energetic attempt to persuade the city council to impose, in its contracts for clothing, clauses specifying union labels and he led other anti-sweatshop initiatives. He intervened on behalf of factory seamstresses during a strike in 1899 which established one of the first unions of women wage-earners in western Canada, and he pressed for legislation to improve conditions in the workplace. He also urged that the labour movement establish links with farm producers.
In 1899–1900 Mortimer was president of the Trades and Labour Council in Winnipeg. He twice represented the council at meetings of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, and served as vice-president of the national organization’s Manitoba committee. An equally significant aspect of Mortimer’s years in Winnipeg was his close association with Arthur W. Puttee*, who would become Canada’s first independent labour mp. Mortimer was election agent in Puttee’s successful bid for the federal riding of Winnipeg in a by-election held on 25 Jan. 1900. Another indication of their close friendship was Puttee’s attendance as best man at Mortimer’s wedding on Labour Day 1901; not even their subsequent ideological differences would erase Puttee’s regard for the “impossiblist” tailor.
In the spring of 1900 Mortimer was working in a shop established by a charter-member of Local 70 who had remained sympathetic to the JTUA. Mortimer himself was well regarded by Winnipeg’s trade unions and labour politicians and his financial situation was reportedly sound enough for him to consider a voyage to his native Scotland. Circumstances changed dramatically in May, however, when the JTUA went on strike in an attempt to control job allocations, introduce overtime rates, and prevent work at home. During the strike, which ended in defeat that September, Mortimer was reviled in the daily press, fired by his employer, and blacklisted in Winnipeg. His reputation for labour militancy seems to have preceded him since he was barred from work in at least one other trade centre after he headed west. With much of his savings depleted, he was obliged for a short time to try his hand at farming.
Mortimer lived in Vancouver from about 1902 to 1906. While there, he unsuccessfully contested the provincial riding of Vancouver City as a socialist in the general election of 1903. The following year he joined the newly formed Socialist Party of Canada (SPC). In the federal election of 1904 he polled 741 votes in Vancouver City, behind Liberal Robert George Macpherson (2,938 votes) and Conservative R. B. Ellis (2,080 votes). As an active member of the SPC, as well as in his activities as a member of Local 178 of the JTUA, Mortimer mobilized resistance to more moderate political candidates, such as Christopher Foley of the Provincial Progressive Party. He also opposed what he considered class-biased state intervention in conflicts in the workplace, and those who, in his own sometimes bleak view, had made trade unionism a “miserable failure” by confining its benefits to “favoured sections” of the working class. His radicalism led to sharp public exchanges with more moderate figures such as British labour leader Keir Hardie and the western lieutenant of the AFL, Ed Stephenson. The “loquatious” Mortimer relished his reputation as a hell-raiser. “Time was,” he admitted in 1908, “when in the labor press I saw an individual with a contrary opinion to mine I could not rest until, either I knocked him out, or – which more often happened – he put me to sleep.”
After 1906 Mortimer returned to work in the Winnipeg shops and resumed his duties as a delegate of the JTUA and gadfly to the Trades and Labour Council. On 2 Sept. 1901 he had married Lena Cameron of St Vincent, Minn., a farmer’s daughter who soon became a SPC activist. They would have several children. By the fall of 1908 he and his family were residing near his wife’s relatives in St Vincent, just south of the Canadian-American border. He was on his way to Winnipeg to pick up a photograph of one of his daughters who had died on his seventh wedding anniversary when he fell through the ice on the Red River below Emerson and lost his life.
Shortly before he died, the souring of the wheat boom had led him to fear – with some prescience – that “working people must starve and suffer until their lords and masters consume the surplus or waste it in a bloody war . . . for a market in which to dispose of it.” Yet Mortimer had clearly given more of himself than outbursts of spleen, as was attested to when the Trades and Labour Council established the Mortimer Memorial Fund after his body had been recovered. In urging men and women of his class to understand and set about changing their conditions of life, Mortimer, on the podium or at the blackboard, had become a familiar figure among city activists. During his final weeks, he may have been pleased to learn that his prompting had helped encourage other wage-earners to speak out. The Western Clarion eulogized him as an “earnest and thorough” student of economics and history, “with a well-developed faculty for keen analysis and clear presentation, and an utter contempt for the shams, hypocricies, prejudices and conventionalities of present class-ruled society.” It considered Comrade Mortimer “one of the most effective men . . . that the Socialist movement has yet produced.”
Mortimer’s energetic opposition had had a quickening effect on his local, and its absence was felt there and in the JTUA after his death. An anonymous writer in the Tailor, the journal of the international union, pointedly complained in 1911 that the incommunicative Local 70 was once again drifting. It had been “an aggressive organization when Winnipeg was the stamping ground of the late Jack Mortimer, but we have heard nothing from Winnipeg from some time now.” John T. Mortimer’s legacy was more aptly registered in 1913, when Local 70 rallied, and its leaders were said by one observer to be “of the Radical Socialist type.”
NA, RG 27, 301, Lawrence Pickup to R. H. Coats, 11 Dec. 1913. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 25 June 1900. Voice (Winnipeg), 5 Aug., 7 Oct. 1898; 24 March, 8 Dec. 1899; 19 Jan. 1900; 30 Aug., 6 Sept. 1901; 19 July 1902; 20 Feb. 1903; 7 Feb., 14 Aug., 4, 11, 18 Dec. 1908; 30 April, 18 June 1909. Western Clarion (Vancouver), 12, 26 Dec. 1908. Western Socialist (Vancouver), 11, 18 Oct. 1902. CPG, 1905. Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1812–1902 (Toronto, 1982). J. E. Hample, “In the buzzard’s shadow: craft subculture, working-class activism, and Winnipeg’s custom tailoring trade, c.1882–1892” (ma thesis, Univ. of Manitoba/Univ. of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, 1989); “Workplace conflict in Winnipeg’s custom tailoring trade, c.1887–1921,” Manitoba Hist. (Winnipeg), no.22 (autumn 1991): 2–15. Labour Gazette (Ottawa), 1 (1900–1): 217. McCormack, Reformers, rebels, and revolutionaries. Tailor (Chicago, etc.), September 1896, June 1909, March 1911.