PAQUETTE, WILFRID, weaver, office holder, and trade union leader; b. 1860 or 1861 in Lower Canada; m. Marie Rennie, and they had two children; d. 25 May 1917 in Montreal and was buried 28 May in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery.
Wilfrid Paquette stands out as the key figure in the unionization of Quebec textile workers early in the 20th century. Like many employed in this industry, he was very young – 13 years old – when he was apprenticed as a weaver in a cotton mill, and he became familiar with the various tasks carried out by the workers. For some time he had a job in a cotton factory in New Hampshire. When he returned to Montreal he took employment as a clerk at the Hochelaga Cotton Manufacturing Company, but left it in 1904 to become secretary of the Circuit Court for the District of Montreal.
In the winter of 1905 the spinners at the Hochelaga factory, which was owned by the Dominion Textile Company, elected Paquette secretary of the trade union they had just formed. The following spring all the men and women of the factory’s labour force went on a wildcat strike. The management called on Paquette to act as mediator and his efforts led to an increase in wages for the employees. Hoping to improve the wretched working conditions in the textile industry, Paquette headed up a vast organizing campaign in the Montreal spinning mills. Before long 3,000 workers in Montreal and Magog had joined unions, which Paquette then affiliated to the United Textile Workers of America. Since he was not greatly impressed with the energy shown by this union in the United States, he suggested that a purely Canadian body be set up, and in September 1906 he became the first president of the Canadian Federation of Textile Workers. Under his leadership the federation grew rapidly in Quebec and by July 1907 it had 7,000 members. Throughout this period Paquette managed to combine his duties as union president with those as secretary of the Circuit Court. In March 1908, however, he had to resign the union presidency, apparently under government pressure, although he remained on the executive as secretary.
In its first two years the federation won the right to bargain collectively with two of the biggest employers in Quebec, the Dominion Textile Company and the Montreal Cotton Company, which owned the spinning mill in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. This achievement was no mean feat for a group of mostly unskilled or semi-skilled wage-earners who had little power at the bargaining table. Through the union they won a substantial increase in pay, an end to arbitrary action by foremen, and the passage of a government-sponsored bill reducing the maximum work week from 60 to 58 hours and raising the minimum age for cotton workers from 13 to 14 years. At a celebration held in Paquette’s honour in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield in 1907, the union gave him a sum of money and an address declaring: “Yesterday we were nothing, abandoned to our individual fates; today 5,000 brothers stand united and ready to demand the rights of one and all. This was your work.” At the end of 1908, however, the federation broke up after a month-long strike which followed the companies’ decision to cut the wages of all unionized employees by ten per cent. During this stormy period Paquette played a central role in the difficult decisions the executive had to take. Despite the set-back he was still regarded by the cotton workers as the one who had enabled them to improve their conditions significantly through unionizing. In 1911 he answered a call to revive the federation, but he did not achieve the success hoped for. Not until the end of the 1930s would these employees really rejoin the trade union movement.
In addition to labour organizing, Paquette played an active role in the workers’ clubs of Montreal, which were a kind of pressure group intended to influence municipal politics. In 1905 he was president of the Club Chénier. He was also a founder of the Club Maisonneuve, a workers’ association of which he was president at the time of his death on 25 May 1917.
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Montréal), 28 mai 1917. La Patrie, 22 avril 1907, 29 mai 1917. La Presse, 26, 28 mai 1917. Jacques Rouillard, Les travailleurs du coton au Québec, 1900–1915 (Montréal, 1974).