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FOLEY, CHRISTOPHER, miner, labour organizer, and political activist; probably b. 1848 in Toronto; d. in or after 1903.

Christopher Foley reportedly moved with his parents from Toronto to Paris, Upper Canada, in 1853 and worked on the family farm until he was 14. After leaving home, he spent a few years travelling extensively through the southern United States. In 1866 he went west to work as a prospector and miner, and over the next 20 years he mined the Cordilleras from Mexico to British Columbia. Sometime during this period he became an American citizen, although he subsequently was to resume the status of a British subject. In 1886 he settled in Vancouver and became a contractor in the new city. He accumulated substantial real-estate holdings but lost most of his assets in the economic downturn of 1893. In 1895 he moved to the Kootenays to work once more as a miner.

Within months of his arrival in Rossland, Foley joined the miners’ union, Local 38 of the American-based Western Federation of Miners. The WFM represented virtually all hardrock miners in western Canada, as well as many of the coalminers. Foley was active in the daily business of the local, and in 1900 he became the Canadian member on the union’s executive board in Denver, Colo. At the same time he began to take part in the political life of the province. He was chosen by a convention of union delegates in Nelson to represent “Independent Labor” for the riding of Yale-Cariboo in the 1900 federal election. The move reflected the disenchantment of many in the ranks of organized labour with both Liberal and Conservative representatives. The contest in Yale-Cariboo was a three-way one among Foley, a Liberal, and a Conservative. One Liberal strategist argued that his candidate, William Alfred Galliher, should withdraw in Foley’s favour since Foley, “quite an able man – and really a Liberal,” would split the party’s vote and thus spoil Liberal chances. At least one Kootenay paper criticized Foley for declaring himself “just as good a Liberal as Mr. Galliher.” In the event the Liberal candidate was narrowly elected with Foley a close second.

Less than a fortnight after, Foley was chosen by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* to sit on the royal commission to investigate Chinese and Japanese immigration into British Columbia, whose work went on through the spring and early summer of 1901. Labour’s representative was to have been Ralph Smith*, but Smith had been successful in his bid for a seat during the federal election. Foley and the other two commissioners unanimously recommended that the immigration of Chinese labourers be prohibited as soon as possible and that, as an interim measure, the entry tax for each Chinese migrant be raised to $500. The latter suggestion would be implemented by parliament in 1903.

Foley’s next significant public role was at the Kamloops Convention, a meeting of various labour and left-wing delegates which was held in the spring of 1902 following the annual convention of the Canadian locals of the WFM. In his addresses to the gathering Foley advocated moderation and restraint. The new, and short-lived, Provincial Progressive Party created by the Kamloops Convention elected Foley as its president, and was certainly not a radical one; the Fernie Free Press thought that it would likely develop into a “Liberal-Labor alliance.” The gathering was Foley’s last known connection with the miners’ union. He had been replaced on the executive board by James A. Baker in 1901. He subsequently moved back to Vancouver and became active in the Builders’ Laborers Union. During the summer and autumn of 1902 he debated the merits of “Independent Labor” with representative socialists in the city, who argued that the moderate approach he was advocating was increasingly discredited.

The death in November 1902 of George Ritchie Maxwell, the Liberal mp for Burrard, led to Foley’s second attempt at securing a federal seat. Maxwell had acted as a spokesperson for labour, and “an influential committee” persuaded Foley to offer himself as a candidate in the by-election of February 1903. His opponents were a Liberal, Robert George Macpherson, and, running as an independent Liberal, former lieutenant governor Thomas Robert McInnes. The by-election caused bitterness among the ranks of organized labour in Vancouver. Foley’s campaign did not receive the unqualified support of the city’s unions; indeed there were those who were publicly critical of his candidature. His platform was based on a denunciation of Liberal patronage and corruption and contained the anti-Chinese rhetoric characteristic of many provincial politicians. He lost by a narrow margin to Macpherson.

Class tensions and industrial unrest reached an unprecedented height in Vancouver in the months following the by-election. A strike by railwaymen attracted considerable support from other unionized workers, and their feelings turned to outrage when a popular socialist and union leader, Frank Rogers, was murdered. Foley’s initiatives must have seemed particularly bankrupt in the wake of these events, although he continued to defend his views in newspaper articles and letters to the editor.

In June 1903 Foley appeared before the dominion royal commission on industrial disputes in the province of British Columbia. He engaged in an angry debate with the commission’s secretary, William Lyon Mackenzie King*, making plain his belief in the essential justice of labour’s cause. Although he felt any union could be “crushed if capital feels like expending sufficient money to do it” and agreed with much in “the socialist platform,” Foley clung to his faith in “the evolutionary methods of bringing these things about.” “My interest is with co-operation and that socially one shall be the equal of all,” he explained. This was an unpopular position in the charged atmosphere of British Columbia, and Foley was incapable of maintaining his prominent place in the province’s labour politics. In the autumn of 1903 he was still defending his opinions in acrimonious exchanges with the increasingly influential socialists, but he does not seem to have played any significant role in politics or the union movement subsequently.

Jeremy Mouat

A photograph of Christopher Foley may be found on the front page of the Vancouver labour newspaper the Independent, 31 Jan. 1903.

NA, MG 26, G: 50142. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 9 Oct. 1900. Fernie Free Press (Fernie, B.C.), 26 April 1902. Independent, 10 Nov. 1900; 19 April, 28 June 1902; 18 April, 10 Oct. 1903. Vancouver Daily Province, 18 Dec. 1900; 8, 10 July 1903. Vancouver Daily World, 23 Nov., 7 Dec. 1900; 12 Jan. 1903. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1902, no.54; 1904, no.36a: 670–83. Craig Heron, “Labourism and the Canadian working class,” Labour, 13 (1984): 45–75. 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. Jeremy Mouat, “The genesis of western exceptionalism: British Columbia’s hard-rock miners, 1895–1903,” CHR, 71 (1990): 317–45. P. A. Phillips, No power greater: a century of labour in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1967). Robin, Radical politics and Canadian labour. W. P. Ward, White Canada forever: popular attitudes and public policy towards Orientals in British Columbia (Montreal, 1978).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jeremy Mouat, “FOLEY, CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foley_christopher_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foley_christopher_13E.html
Author of Article: Jeremy Mouat
Title of Article: FOLEY, CHRISTOPHER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: October 24, 2014