BAKER, JAMES A., miner and labour organizer; fl. 1899–1903 in southeastern British Columbia.
Canadian-born, in 1899 James Baker moved to the mining centre of Slocan, B.C., where he lived for the following four years. In 1899 also, he became a member of the Western Federation of Miners, a union made up chiefly of workers in the base and precious metals industry of western North America. The union, like other facets of mining in the western cordillera, paid little heed to the border; it organized both Canadians and Americans. Its first Canadian local had been formed at Rossland, B.C., in 1895. By late 1899 British Columbia miners had established 13 locals and in December they created their own district within the larger union. Under the leadership of Christopher Foley and James Wilks, District 6 pursued a moderate policy and was particularly active in lobbying at both the federal and the provincial levels. Two prolonged disputes in the Kootenays at the turn of the century (a strike at Sandon in 1899–1900 and one at Rossland in 1901–2) discredited this strategy, however. In 1901 Baker, known as “a pronounced advocate of Socialism,” was named District 6’s representative on the executive board, a body located in Denver, Colo, and composed of the federation’s three senior officials and one representative from each region. He also took over the job of general organizer for western Canada. His selection reflected a leftward move by the Canadian district and followed a similar trend in the union as a whole.
Baker’s appointment also coincided with a series of bitter strikes by coalminers in the Crowsnest Pass and on Vancouver Island, as well as a strike in the city of Vancouver involving an affiliate of the union. These disputes attracted much attention; it seemed to some that the province in 1902–3 was approaching political and industrial anarchy. Public concern led to the establishment on 18 April 1903 of the federal royal commission on industrial disputes in the province of British Columbia. Baker was the first witness and was subjected to heavy questioning by the openly antagonistic commissioners, Chief Justice Gordon Hunter and the Reverend Elliott S. Rowe. They thought that much of the blame for the deteriorating labour situation was attributable to unions such as Baker’s which had their headquarters outside the province. They sought to determine the degree of autonomy that the Canadian district of the WFM had within the union and were anxious to discover how easy it would be for one group of striking workers to persuade (or coerce) others to join them in sympathy strikes. Baker later reported that his experience as a witness “showed me beyond doubt that instead of this being an investigating proposition, that the Western Federation of Miners and kindred international organizations were on trial for their right to exist in Canada. . . . They even charge that our organization is a party to a scheme to bring about the annexation of Canada to the United States.”
Baker complained of the size of the territory that he had to cover for the union, and was increasingly overworked. In 1903, two years after his appointment, he declined to accept renomination to the executive board “on account of private business.” His subsequent fate is obscure, but he had helped to establish a new and more militant trajectory for British Columbia’s miners, whom one scholar has described as “the vanguard of radicalism in the west.” Through Baker and others like him, the province became a bastion of the Socialist Party of Canada and a place where the class struggle was fought with particular intensity.
Reports by James A. Baker appear in the Western Federation of Miners, Official proc. . . . (Denver, Colo), 1902: 142–45, 166–71, and 1903: 99–111, and his testimony before the federal royal commission on industrial disputes in the province of British Columbia on pp.8–36 of its Minutes of evidence (Ottawa, 1904), also available as Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1904, no.36a.
Canadian Socialist (Vancouver), 20 June 1902. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 11 June 1903: 5. D. J. Bercuson, “Labour radicalism and the western industrial frontier, 1897–1919,” CHR, 58 (1977): 154–75. R. A. Johnson, “No compromise – no political trading: the Marxian socialist tradition in British Columbia” (phd thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1975). Loosmore, “B.C. labor movement.” McCormack, Reformers, rebels, and revolutionaries. C. J. McMillan, “Trade unionism in District 18, 1900–1925: a case study” (mba thesis, Univ. of Alta, Edmonton, 1969). Miners’ Magazine (Denver), 2 (1901)–4 (1903). Jeremy Mouat, “The genesis of western exceptionalism: British Columbia’s hard-rock miners, 1895–1903,” CHR, 71 (1990): 317–45. A. D. Orr, “The Western Federation of Miners and the royal commission on industrial disputes in 1903 with special reference to the Vancouver Island coal miners’ strike” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., 1968). P. A. Phillips, No power greater: a century of labour in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1967). Robin, Radical politics and Canadian labour. J. H. Tuck, “The United Brotherhood of Railway Employees in western Canada, 1898–1905,” Labour, 11 (1983): 63–88.