BENOÎT, OLIVIER-DAVID, shoemaker and trade union leader; b. 6 Feb. 1837; m. Mathilde Thouin, and they had four children; d. 19 Feb. 1897 in Montreal.
Olivier-David Benoit was one of the first generation of labour leaders who fought to give working people a voice in society. He received his early trade union education in the Knights of Labor, an organization that spread from the United States to Canada late in the 19th century. It advocated far-reaching social reforms, seeking nothing less than the abolition of the wage system and the establishment of a new economic order based on cooperation and small-scale ownership of property. Viewing social relations as essentially harmonious, the Knights of Labor reckoned they could achieve their ends by educating the public, organizing cooperatives, and participating in elections.
The 1880s were the golden age of the Knights of Labor in Canada and the United States. The first English-speaking assembly in Montreal, Dominion Assembly 2436, was founded in 1882, followed the next year by the French-speaking Ville-Marie Assembly 3484. The latter included workers from various trades, among them a number of lasters, skilled workers whose job was to sew together the soles and uppers of footwear. Benoit, who practised this trade, became president of the Ville-Marie Assembly shortly after it was founded. Its meetings served as a forum for discussing the problems facing the members, who numbered 230 by 1885.
During Benoit’s term of office the Ville-Marie Assembly fought mainly to get the poll tax abolished. Under this municipal regulation, all citizens not paying taxes were charged $1.00 for the right to vote in municipal elections. Since this was a considerable sum in relation to their income, many workers did not pay it and consequently were denied the right to vote, with the result that labour’s influence on municipal politics was weakened.
It was chiefly this injustice that led the Ville-Marie Assembly in January 1886 to call the assemblies and trade unions of the city together to discuss a broad program of social reform. The program it had drafted was the first comprehensive statement of the social and political demands being made by the city’s workers. It included 14 measures affecting their protection in the workplace as well as their political rights. At the same time, and also at the suggestion of the Ville-Marie Assembly, an organization was formed to take workers’ grievances to the public authorities. Called the Central Trades and Labour Council of Montreal, it was the first union body in Quebec designed to operate at the political level. It was a sign of the awakening of working people as a social force in the province.
In 1888 Benoit testified before the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada [see James Sherrard Armstrong*] about the conditions faced by workers in the boot and shoe industry. Having personally experienced the transition from hand to machine production in that industry, he emphasized that mechanization and specialization had not improved the lot of the workers. Wages had fallen and the number of jobs had decreased, but footwear prices had not been lowered for the benefit of consumers. In his opinion it was the manufacturers who had profited from the introduction of machinery.
In circumstances still not entirely clear, Olivier-David Benoit in 1889 put forward the idea of founding a shoe manufacturing cooperative. That year the lasters established a separate body, Cooperative Assembly 6023, some of whose members managed the footwear factory. For reasons that are not known, the factory had to shut down in 1891. This set-back demoralized the lasters, and they remained disunited for some years. In 1894, exhausted and disillusioned, Benoit withdrew from participation in trade union affairs.
ANQ-M, CE1-51, 22 févr. 1897. Can., Royal commission on labour and capital, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889). Le Monde (Montréal), 1893–94. La Presse, 20 févr. 1897. Fernand Harvey, “Les Chevaliers du travail, les États-Unis et la société québécoise, 1882–1902,” Aspects historiques du mouvement ouvrier au Québec, Fernand Harvey, édit. (Montréal, 1973), 33–118; Révolution industrielle et travailleurs; une enquête sur les rapports entre le capital et le travail au Québec à la fin du 19e siècle (Montréal, 1978). Jacques Rouillard et Judith Burt, “Le monde ouvrier,” Les travailleurs québécois, 1851–1896, sous la direction de Jean Hamelin (Montréal, 1973), 61–111.