DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

SYME, JAMES – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 April 1881 at Victoria, B.C.


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

SMITH, RALPH, coalminer, labour leader, and politician; b. 8 Aug. 1858 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, son of Robert Smith, a farmer, and Margaret Isabella Gray; m. first —, and they had a daughter; m. secondly 10 Feb. 1883 Mary Ellen Spear*, and they had four sons and a daughter; d. 12 Feb. 1917 in Victoria and was buried in Vancouver.

Ralph Smith started work in the coalmines of Newcastle at the age of 11; gradually he made his way into office positions. He became involved in Liberal-Labour politics, and in 1889 he was a delegate to the Glasgow Cooperative Congress. In 1891 he and his wife, Mary Ellen, emigrated to Canada and the following year they settled in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Smith worked there as a coalminer, but left the pits within the year.

After a short spell on trial as a Methodist minister, Smith was elected general secretary of the Miners’ and Mine Laborers’ Protective Association, a local union representing miners who worked for the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company Limited at Nanaimo and for the infamous mines of Robert Dunsmuir* at nearby Wellington. Attempts to unionize had met with blacklisting and firings; strikes with lockouts, evictions from company housing, arrests, and confrontations with the militia. In 1883 Dunsmuir introduced the use of Chinese workers to cross picket lines. This calculated effort to divide the workforce was successful, and Asian exclusion became an important political demand for the miners. In 1890–91 they struck for an eight-hour workday and recognition of their union. With the failure of this strike, miners in Nanaimo turned to political action. After forming the Nanaimo Reform Club together with farmers and others disgruntled with the government of Theodore Davie*, the miners ran three candidates in the provincial election of 1894: Smith, Thomas Keith (a miner first elected to the legislature in 1890), and Tully Boyce (president of the MMLPA).

Although provincial politics in British Columbia would not be formally divided along party lines until 1903, some partisanship was evident in 1894. The Davie government tended to favour the federal Conservatives. A staunch Liberal, Smith ran in North Nanaimo against John Bryden, a supporter of Davie and manager of the Dunsmuir coal operations. A key plank in the Reform platform was a call for the end of government subsidies and charters for railways. An especial sore point was government support for the Dunsmuir-controlled Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

Smith’s own platform straddled the concerns of the Liberal oppositionists and the labour movement. He advocated several measures favoured by labour, such as the eight-hour day and women’s suffrage. Playing to the racism of the miners, he demanded that “every Chinaman be brought out of . . . the mines.” But Smith was careful not to alienate supporters who represented the Liberal faction of the Nanaimo Reform Club. On the shorter workday, he maintained that “eight hours a day was long enough for any man to work, yet it was one of those questions which it was not always quite safe for the Government to interfere with.” As a compromise he pledged to restrict the hours of workers only on provincial and municipal contracts. Similarly, he went to great lengths to reassure supporters that he was no socialist and favoured no radical redistribution of wealth. Instead, he wanted to counterbalance the power of capitalists in government and to ensure that workers and capitalists alike had “an equal chance to get at the natural resources of the country.”

Despite their support among the miners, Smith and his fellow Nanaimo Reform candidates went down to defeat. In 1898 Smith and the oppositionists regrouped and this time, more clearly discernible as Liberals, they were successful. Disenchanted electors had grown tired of Premier John Herbert Turner*’s “government by entrenched interest,” and Smith capitalized on the popular desire for reform. Running in South Nanaimo, he handily beat government supporter William Wymond Walkem. The head of the new government, Charles Augustus Semlin*, who was no supporter of labour, had a majority of only two seats. This situation gave Smith and the other pro-labour mlas a balance of power that allowed them to secure important bills on such matters as the eight-hour day in the mining industry, safety inspections, and, less progressively but reflective of miners’ sentiments, the exclusion of Chinese from working underground.

During the 1890s Smith also furthered his career as a labour leader. As the MMLPA’s representative at the annual convention of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada in 1896, he had called upon it to lobby the federal government for an increase in the head tax on Chinese labourers and for stricter measures against the Japanese. Elected vice-president of the TLC at this convention, he served as president from 1898 to 1902. This position, from which Smith continued to press Ottawa for Asian exclusion and labour reform, gave him access to Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government, where he was welcomed as a Liberal-Labour, or Lib-Lab, reformer. In September 1900 he accepted an appointment to sit as labour’s representative on the federal royal commission to investigate Chinese and Japanese immigration into British Columbia, but he rejected an opportunity to become deputy minister of labour, stating that he “would not separate himself from the labor interests of Vancouver Island.”

In British Columbia the fall of the Semlin government in February had left Smith without a secure political home. Liberal maverick Joseph Martin* formed a brief government, but his policies and flamboyance alienated nearly everyone with whom he could hope to build a coalition. Smith campaigned against him, in part because Martin had plotted against the Semlin administration, from which labour had had some success in extracting reforms. In addition, Martin did not get along with Laurier, and Smith disliked Martin’s populist demagoguery, which threatened his leadership of reform in British Columbia.

Because of this feud, Smith campaigned under the labour banner in the provincial election of June 1900. As the unofficial leader of the Independent Labour party, he travelled to support like-minded candidates in Vancouver, Rossland, Kaslo, Revelstoke, and Nelson. His platform included the demands of the more conservative wing of the labour movement, such as public ownership of utilities, a single tax on land, the eight-hour day, and the union label on government goods. Though most ILP candidates lost, Smith won an impressive victory in Nanaimo City. Unfortunately for labour supporters, James Dunsmuir was called upon to form a government, and even worse for Smith, Martin was made leader of the opposition and began scheming to become head of the Liberals in British Columbia. Working under Martin was not a prospect Smith could stomach. Thus, when the TLC asked him to run as a labour candidate in the federal election of November 1900, in the riding of Vancouver, which included Nanaimo, he resigned his seat and accepted with alacrity. If he had good reason to jump to federal politics, his provincial constituents were preparing to give him a push. Vancouver Island miners were turning to socialist politics and radical unionism in response to the failure of reform politics and the continued strife with the coal companies [see James A. Baker*]. By 1900 the Nanaimo miners were no longer content with the reformism offered by Smith.

Smith ran as an independent labour candidate to avoid the resentment of voters who were angry with Laurier and the federal Liberals for disallowing British Columbia’s anti-Asian legislation. Even so, his nomination was challenged by those who thought him too closely linked with Laurier, among them two former allies in the Nanaimo Reform Club, Boyce and Keith. Smith none the less won both the nomination and the election, as a result of which he resigned from the immigration commission. His success was due to his skill in oratory and to the broad electoral base of his riding, which included the city of Vancouver. In this constituency militant miners carried less weight, and Smith’s mild reformism and party loyalty were appreciated by the conservative elements in the city’s labour movement and by other citizens.

Although Smith continued along his path of labour reform within the Liberal party, increasingly his career moved away from trade-unionism and towards straight partisan politics. As an mp, he sought to win workers to the Liberals and to push the party to adopt labour reforms, including compulsory arbitration. His aim was to end the abuses that created radicalism and class conflict. Thus, in 1900 and 1901 he called upon the federal Department of Labour to mediate labour disputes in British Columbia; he specifically wanted to involve deputy minister William Lyon Mackenzie King*, who privately saw Smith as an aggressive, cigar-champing rival for the ministership. Smith’s position on binding arbitration, however, was not endorsed by those in the TLC who distrusted the government’s ability, or desire, to be impartial. Instead, the congress of 1901 supported a less interventionist policy of “compulsory conciliation.”

Smith then took up another unpopular cause. In 1901, as president of the TLC, he launched an attack against American international unions, typified by the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers. Its growing power in Canada, where about 80 per cent of workers belonged to international unions by 1900, threatened Smith, for the AFL opposed tying labour to a single party. As the Liberals’ labour lieutenant, Smith could not agree. He lobbied for the creation of Canadian unions, ostensibly to ensure that Canadian labour issues had Canadian solutions and to retain the portion of Canadian dues paid to American unions. But Smith’s efforts are better viewed as an attempt to pledge the Canadian labour movement to the Liberal party. At the same time, he increased his polemics against socialism in an attempt to generate support from conservatives in the AFL. This move backfired: it succeeded only in uniting the socialists and the conservatives against him. Given the number of Canadians in American unions, his campaign was doomed from its inception.

In Nanaimo, where Smith still maintained a presence, as secretary of the MMLPA, the miners viewed his rejection of socialism as an attack on their own political action and their election of socialist mla James Hurst Hawthornthwaite* in 1901. Smith’s attempt to replace American unions was equally vexing for the miners, who needed allies if they were to fight successfully against the coal magnates. Thus, just as Smith undertook to create an all-Canadian labour movement linked to the Liberal party, the miners were electing socialists and planning to join a powerful American union, the socialist-led Western Federation of Miners. When the miners announced in 1902 their intention to leave the TLC and affiliate with the WFM, Smith worked hard to stymie them. His vigorous round of meetings, speeches, and baiting of socialists nearly carried the day: the final ballot in September among the miners was 264 to 260 in favour of joining the WFM. Despite the close vote, Smith resigned immediately as secretary of the local.

Smith’s resignation meant that, though still president of the TLC, he could not attend its annual convention as a voting delegate. His friends in the Vancouver labour movement, many of them Liberal supporters, came to his rescue. Led by Joseph Henry Watson* of the boilermakers’ union, the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council offered Smith the chance to stand as one of its delegates. Smith accepted, and at the TLC convention in Berlin (Kitchener), Ont., in September 1902, he sounded his familiar themes of national unionism, reform labourism, and anti-socialism. But the AFL supporters were now even less inclined to consider Canadian unionism, and voted to purge non-AFL unions from the TLC. Under severe attack from both the conservatives and the socialists at the convention, Smith did not run for re-election as president, and he was replaced by AFL supporter John A. Flett of Hamilton, Ont.

Rebuffed by labour, Smith threw himself into Liberal politics. In 1903, when British Columbia’s politicians formalized their party affiliations, he made a bid for the provincial Liberal leadership. Once again, however, he ran foul of Joseph Martin and local Liberals who feared that he would bind them too closely to Laurier. Testing the waters of his old provincial riding, Nanaimo, he found that he would have little chance there. When the election was called in the fall of 1903, Smith urged the Liberals and Conservatives to back a single candidate to prevent the election of Hawthornthwaite. His efforts were unsuccessful, however, and even though he had mended his relations with the AFL, he was booed off the stage by angry miners at one campaign meeting. Smith returned to the more congenial life of federal politics.

In the federal election of 1904 Smith was elected in Nanaimo, which had become a separate riding. During the next four years he was active in the Lord’s Day Alliance movement and worked for women’s suffrage and a universal old-age pension. His credo remained one of individualism with a reform tinge; as he put it in one speech in 1906, he believed in “individual effort first, organized effort next, state assistance afterwards.” He continued to oppose Asian immigration and in 1907 he supported Vancouver’s Asiatic Exclusion League. Perhaps his most significant contribution was to help lobby for a coastal road on Vancouver Island to support life-saving stations.

Despite Smith’s local popularity and party loyalty, he was never offered a place in cabinet. Considered for a patronage position as immigration commissioner to England, he was offered the commissionership of the Yukon in 1907. He refused, believing himself better suited to the post of minister of labour, which had gone to Rodolphe Lemieux*. Smith also rejected the less powerful, and for him less interesting, position of superintendent of Indian affairs in British Columbia. Although the Liberals relied on him for direction in labour matters, and TLC leaders looked to him to gain the government’s attention, his abrupt treatment by some of Laurier’s ministers and the party’s dismissive handling of many labour concerns, such as Smith’s union-label bill in 1904–5, exposed the weakness of labour’s voice and of Smith’s influence within Liberal circles. The chief contribution of the Liberals was King’s Industrial Disputes Investigation Act of 1907, with which Smith had had little to do and which ultimately gave labour minimal protection.

Smith was re-elected in 1908 even though his old foe Hawthornthwaite outpolled him in the mining districts. Only the voters in Esquimalt, site of a federal naval base and much courted by Smith, saved him. He declared that he would be a cabinet minister in the new government, but he was not offered a post. Smith fell along with the Laurier government in the reciprocity election of 1911. He moved to Vancouver and dabbled in real estate, insurance, and mining stock. As befitted his status as an important political figure, Smith, a one-time trustee of the British Columbia Permanent Loan and Savings Company, joined the elitist Terminal City Club and served on the Vancouver Board of Trade. But politics remained his first passion, and he threw himself into the provincial election of 1912 as a candidate in Vancouver. City. Richard McBride’s Tories were riding a crest of prosperity, however, and the Liberals were shut out of the legislature. A leading player in the rebuilding of the party, Smith served as president of the Vancouver Liberal Association and vice-president of the provincial association.

By the election of September 1916 the Liberals were prepared for victory. The depression of 1912–14 had hurt the Conservatives and the retirement of the popular McBride in 1915 had left the Tories without an effective leader. Moreover, Liberal promises of women’s suffrage, the elimination of patronage in the civil service, and improvements to the Workmen’s Compensation Act found favour with a reform-minded public. Led by Harlan Carey Brewster, the Liberals won handily; Smith took one of Vancouver’s six seats.

Despite his long service and ambition, Smith was not originally destined for a cabinet post. The premier had others in mind, and hoped to give Smith the less important job of chairing the new Workmen’s Compensation Board. This plan may have been intended as a way to rebuke Smith, who had broken Liberal ranks some months before the election over Brewster’s opportunistic claim that the legislature had expired in March and that subsequent legislation was invalid. Smith apparently made amends, however, for Brewster named him minister of finance in November. His success was not to last long. Early in February 1917 he became ill; a week later he died in his Victoria apartment. He was survived by his wife, three sons, and a daughter. His estate was valued at $31,150, with debts totalling $23,000; most of his assets were in real estate and a life insurance policy.

From one perspective, Smith’s career was one of missed opportunities. Passed over for deputy minister of labour, refused federal cabinet positions, purged from the union movement for his political allegiance, and made a provincial minister for only a few months before his death, Smith seems to offer an object lesson in bad timing. Indeed, he has been largely neglected by historians. Mary Ellen Smith would become better known than Ralph. Running in the by-election of 1918 that followed his death, she would be one of the first women elected to parliament in the British empire and in 1921 the first female cabinet minister. Viewed from another angle, however, Ralph Smith’s career has more significance, as a précis of an important sector of the early labour movement in British Columbia. He took part in some of the most influential battles within the movement and, if his personal victories were often fleeting, he represents a trend of reformism that has too often been ignored.

Mark Leier

BCARS, GR 1415, file 1917/4599. NA, MG 26, G: 194325. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 1900–7, 13 Feb. 1917. Nanaimo Free Press (Nanaimo, B.C.), 13 June 1894. Vancouver Daily Province, 1900–8, 1916. Victoria Daily Times, 1906–8, 22 June 1916. R. H. Babcock, Gompers in Canada: a study in American continentalism before the First World War (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Paul Craven, “An impartial umpire: industrial relations and the Canadian state, 1900–1911 (Toronto, 1980). M. J. Dwyer, “Laurier and the British Columbia Liberal party, 1896–1911: a study in federal-provincial party relations” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1961). Electoral hist. of B.C. Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1812–1902 (Toronto, 1982). T. R. Loosmore, “The British Columbia labor movement and political action, 1879–1906” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., 1954). A. R. McCormack, Reformers, rebels, and revolutionaries: the western Canadian radical movement, 1899–1919 (Toronto and Buffalo, 1977; repr. 1991). Jeremy Mouat, “The politics of coal: a study of the Wellington miners’ strike of 1890–91,” BC Studies, no.77 (spring 1988): 3–29. M. A. Ormsby, British Columbia: a history ([Toronto], 1958). P. A. Phillips, No power greater: a century of labour in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1967). Martin Robin, Radical politics and Canadian labour, 1880–1930 (Kingston, Ont., 1968). Scholefield and Howay, British Columbia. Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Mark Leier, “SMITH, RALPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_ralph_14E.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/smith_ralph_14E.html
Author of Article:   Mark Leier
Title of Article:   SMITH, RALPH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   April 18, 2024