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LEAHEY, RICHARD HENRY, longshoreman, union organizer, and labour leader; b. in 1852 or 1853 in County Cork (Republic of Ireland), son of Robert and Mary Leahey; m. 27 Nov. 1876 Julia Doyle at Quebec City; d. there 19 Sept. 1889.

Richard Henry Leahey came to Quebec City as a child, probably with his mother and stepfather, the trade unionist Joseph Kemp. Leahey must have had some formal education because his first employment was apparently as a clerk to Dr John L. Wherry of Rue Champlain in the Lower Town. He then worked as a cabinet-maker before becoming a longshoreman. Leahey performed various semi-skilled jobs on the docks, such as winch-man, hatch-man, and stower, but never worked in the supervisory capacity of stevedore. As a labourer, he was representative of the Irish Catholics who immigrated to Quebec City in the 1850s. By 1860 they accounted for approximately 40 per cent of the population, forming a large pool of unskilled labour for local capitalists. Most of these immigrants settled in the suburb along Rue Champlain, near the docks that were their principal locale for employment. Historical circumstances influenced the division of labour along ethnic lines in 19th-century Quebec; French Canadians had a monopoly of the skilled jobs in shipbuilding, an industry which had begun during the French régime, and the Irish had to be content with the unskilled and semi-skilled work of longshoring.

Timber, the main export of the port of Quebec in the 19th century, was potentially the most dangerous product to load. The size of the deals, the speed with which the vessels had to be charged to take advantage of the tides, poor and faulty equipment, and adverse weather conditions, all combined to create an extremely hazardous working environment. As well, the seasonal nature of the port, which was open for only seven months of the year, did not allow dockers a stable and reliable income. Once the ice came the longshoremen were unemployed. Leahey, who was apparently one of the more experienced and busy workers on the Quebec docks, earned $245 for 27 weeks of work in 1887. Evidence given before the Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labor the following year indicated that the annual income of dock workers in Quebec City averaged between $160 and $170. To supplement their low wages, most harbour workers sought other jobs during the winter. Some stayed in the city to shovel snow or work as tradesmen’s assistants, but the majority, including Leahey, were forced to leave Quebec City to work either in lumber camps or in year-round ports such as Savannah, Ga, and New York City, where they easily found employment: the Quebec dockers enjoyed a reputation as steady and trustworthy workers.

The uncertainties facing longshoremen led them to organize themselves for self-protection. In 1857 they founded the Quebec Ship Labourers’ Benevolent Society which was incorporated five years later. During a period when trade unions operated clandestinely as benevolent associations because of a federal law which prohibited their formation, this society soon dedicated itself to defending the interests of longshoremen. The monthly dues were originally spent mostly to help workers injured on the job, or families whose main wage-earner had died, naturally or by accident. As the QSLBS grew, moneys collected were also used to build a strike fund and to cover expenses incurred in suing employers. The association was transformed into a true union by a period of crisis which threatened the livelihood of longshoremen in the Quebec region. In the 1860s the port of Quebec began to decline and by the 1880s was superseded by Montreal as a result of the replacement of the square timber trade by grain, the improvements of the shipping channels of the St Lawrence River, and the undisputed supremacy of steamships which could more easily navigate against the current of the St Lawrence River than could sailing vessels.

It is not known when Leahey joined the QSLBS, but by 1888 he was president of one of its five sections; the members of his section worked primarily at the coves near Cap Diamant. The approximately 2,000 members in the union represented virtually all of the dockers who worked in the area and they strove to protect themselves from the repeated attempts by the Quebec Board of Trade to prevent all forms of group action among maritime labourers. As early as the 1860s the society had been powerful enough to insist on certain working conditions. For example, the “donkey engine,” a steam-powered engine used in such ports as Montreal to stow timber in the holds of ships, was forbidden in Quebec because the union felt it was too dangerous. In addition, by the time Leahey was president in 1888 the union had secured agreements on the number of men to form gangs. Unlike their counterparts in Montreal and Halifax, the men had also won overtime pay-rates of time-and-a-half after eight hours and double-time on Sundays and holidays. Furthermore, the men could refuse to work more than a normal shift without jeopardizing their chances of being rehired. The wage rate at Quebec was also the highest in Canada: at 37 1/2 cents per hour in 1887 it was nearly double the 20 cents per hour paid in Halifax and higher even than the 30 cents per hour paid in New York City. These benefits were won in part through recourse to general strikes such as those in 1866 and 1867 which completely shut down the port of Quebec and to sporadic strikes against such ship owners as Narcisse Rosa.

Leahey, like his stepfather, was involved in organizing the Knights of Labor in Quebec City. From 1887 to 1888 he replaced Kemp as the master workman of district assembly 114, a mixed assembly, espousing industrial union principles, in which longshoremen predominated. Many dockers belonged to the Knights of Labor, but they endeavoured to maintain the QSLBS as a separate entity because they felt that their particular needs might be overlooked in the myriad reforms advocated by the Knights. Leahey was indefatigable in his efforts for the Knights, organizing working men despite the hostile pastoral letters of the Roman Catholic Church [see Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*] which forbade Catholics to join any secular labour association. However, in July 1888 the district assembly which encompassed Quebec City voted 17 to 3 to withdraw Leahey’s organizer’s commission after he refused to organize the bateaux-men of Quebec as Knights. He felt that these men, who unloaded and transported goods from off-shore ships to shore, might then “work against” the QSLBS, competing with the longshoremen and taking their jobs.

On 19 Sept. 1889, at about 7:30 p.m., several thousand tons of rock broke off from the cliff near the Dufferin promenade and crashed down onto the houses on Rue Champlain. Leahey, his wife, mother, stepfather, and three other members of his immediate family were among the 52 killed; the Leaheys’ canary was the sole survivor in their house. The avalanche was the third in 50 years to ravage the working-class areas at the foot of the cliffs at Quebec City. The coroner’s inquest blamed the government of Sir John A. Macdonald* for not constructing buttresses below the cliffs as recommended by the city’s chief engineer, Charles Baillairgé*, in 1881.

Leahey and his wife and 16 other victims were buried on 22 September in Woodfield Cemetery, St Patrick’s parish, Quebec City. Over 700 members of the QSLBS marched in the funeral cortège. On the day after the tragedy, Daniel John O’Donoghue*, a prominent labour figure in Ontario, introduced a motion in the Toronto Trades and Labor Council offering condolences to the QSLBS in “the loss it has sustained in the death of Brother Richard Leahey and several others of its members through the occurrence of the catastrophe.”

Leahey’s death was a misfortune for the QSLBS, which none the less remained one of the strongest unions in the country into the 20th century. Its influence and prosperity were only to wane with the further decline of the port. Although union leadership was not solely responsible for improving working conditions, men such as Leahey must be credited with focusing the grievances of their fellow labourers and bequeathing to the workers the necessary tools of resistance in the struggle against their employers. In the vanguard of the workers’ movement in the 19th century, Leahey, like so many others, recognized the necessity of unifying and coordinating the actions of labourers to deal effectively with their employers.

Catherine A. Waite and Robert Tremblay

AC, Québec, État civil, Catholiques, St Patrick’s Church (Québec), 27 Nov. 1876, 22 Sept. 1889. Catholic Univ. of America Arch. (Washington), Terence V. Powderly papers (mfm. at PAC). PAC, MG 28, I44, 1: 174a. Can., Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labor in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889); Evidence: Quebec, esp. 744–49. Globe, 20 Sept.–1 Oct. 1889. Le Journal de Québec, 20–26 sept. 1889. Quebec Morning Chronicle, 20, 26 Sept. 1889. Toronto World, 20 Sept.–1 Oct. 1889. Jean Hamelin et al., Répertoire des grèves dans la province de Québec au XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1970), 16–17, 25–26, 40–41, 95–96. Quebec directory, 1877–90. J. Hamelin et Roby, Hist. économique, 309–10. 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. Les travailleurs québécois (J. Hamelin). C. A. Waite, “The longshoremen of Halifax, 1900–1930; their living and working conditions” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1977). J. I. Cooper, “The Quebec Ship Labourers’ Benevolent Society,” CHR, 30 (1949): 336–43.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Catherine A. Waite and Robert Tremblay, “LEAHEY, RICHARD HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leahey_richard_henry_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leahey_richard_henry_11E.html
Author of Article:   Catherine A. Waite and Robert Tremblay
Title of Article:   LEAHEY, RICHARD HENRY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   May 21, 2024