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OAKLEY, ALFRED, stone-cutter and trade union leader; b. c. 1846, probably in Brighton, England; d. 30 Sept. 1883 at Toronto, Ont. He was survived by his wife Emily.

Alfred Oakley arrived in Toronto in 1872. He soon became a trade union activist and first came to prominence in labour’s campaign for the repeal of the “violence, threats and molestation” provisions in an 1872 amendment to the criminal law. The campaign was reinforced when five Toronto stone-cutters were found guilty of coercion and sentenced to 15-day jail terms for refusing to work alongside a strike-breaker. At a protest meeting sponsored by the Toronto Trades Assembly, Oakley denounced Police Magistrate Alexander McNabb as an “imbecile” and the law as “a disgrace to the country.” In July of that year the Journeyman Stonecutters Union elected Oakley as their representative to the TTA and one month later he became vice-president of that body. The assembly was the first central labour organization in any Canadian city, with an active life from 1871 to 1878.

Before the federal Toronto West by-election held in the fall of 1875 Oakley solicited the opinions of the various candidates on the amendments of that year to the criminal law which had been passed as a result of labour’s agitation since 1872 but which did not satisfy labour leaders. He reported to the TTA that the Liberal candidate, Alderman John Turner, was favourable to the TTA’s position.

In 1876 Oakley was his union’s delegate to the annual convention at Toronto of the Canadian Labor Union, formerly the Canadian Labor Protective Movement and Mutual Improvement Association founded in 1872 after the Nine Hour movement. Oakley was active at the convention in endorsing universal manhood suffrage and in advocating an improved provincial Mechanics’ Lien Act. The latter was of great concern to workers in the building trades because it would ensure that labourers would be paid if contractors went bankrupt. He also seconded a motion expressing support for a new amendment to the criminal law introduced by Edward Blake*. The Canadian Labor Union chose its first parliamentary committee that year and Oakley was among those named to it.

An “advanced Radical” in politics, Oakley was active in Liberal campaigns. As a result he was a controversial figure among trade union leaders in Toronto where, after 1872 and the Trade Unions Act, Toryism was the prevailing orthodoxy. In 1880 he actively opposed the “Beaverback” currency reform campaign which, following American “greenbackism,” called for a looser monetary supply, and which was put forward by the independent Alexander Whyte Wright* in the Toronto West federal by-election. Oakley gave his support to the Liberal candidate.

The following year Oakley was involved in the founding of the Toronto Trades and Labor Council, a successor to the TTA, and, after being defeated for the office of financial secretary, was elected treasurer and appointed to the legislative committee. As a member of the committee he lobbied for a federal factory act and for further changes in the provincial Mechanics’ Lien Act. Re-appointed to the committee in 1882, he led the council in its endorsement of Oliver Mowat*’s new Lien Act passed to placate labour. In the hard-fought federal election campaign of 1882 in Toronto the working-class vote was of considerable importance. Oakley’s attack on Sir John A. Macdonald*’s Conservative government during the campaign and his attempt to lead the TTLC to support the Liberal party brought partisan politics to the council and almost destroyed it. That same summer John Armstrong, a printer and supporter of the Conservative party, defeated Oakley for the presidency of the TTLC in a bitterly contested election, the legality of which was disputed for nearly two months. Oakley paid another price for political partisan activity; he was fired from his job as a city sewer inspector.

Oakley was involved in yet another political wrangle in the winter of 1882 when he came to the defence of the Liberal mayoralty candidate, John Jacob Withrow*. A leader of the Master Carpenters’ Association during a strike in the spring of 1882, Withrow was roundly condemned by the TTLC for his role in this strike and his actions ten years earlier when he opposed the Nine Hour movement. Oakley managed to gain an open meeting for his candidate so that he could respond to labour’s charges. Withrow’s spirited defence of his actions convinced none of the other labour leaders, and he was defeated in a close election. Following this successful intervention in city politics, the TTLC decided to run candidates in the provincial election of 1883. Oakley was mentioned as a possible independent labour candidate for Toronto West, but, partly because of bad health, he stepped aside for his close friend, carpenter Thomas Moor. When Moor lost the nomination by a single vote to painter John W . Carter, Oakley charged “outside interference.” Procedural irregularities were cited and a second vote was taken. After Carter won decisively on the second ballot, Moor and Oakley moved to make the nomination unanimous. In this first campaign in Toronto by an independent labour candidate, Carter won 48 per cent of the vote, losing by only 200 ballots.

Oakley’s health continued to deteriorate and he resigned from the TTLC in April 1883. He died a few months later, at 37, from consumption, the dread occupational disease of stone-cutters. Surviving him were his father and two brothers, all stone-cutters living on Alfred’s Toronto street block, and his wife. The struggle Oakley had carried on in the TTLC in favour of the Liberals was continued after his death by Daniel John O’Donoghue* who enjoyed a far greater degree of success.

Gregory S. Kealey

CTA, Toronto assessment rolls, St Stephen’s Ward, 1880. PAC, MG 28, I44. Canadian Labor Union, Proceedings of the Canadian Labor Union congresses, 1873–77, comp. L. E. Wismer (Ottawa, 1951). Toronto City Council, Minutes of proc. (Toronto), 1878–82. Globe, 1875–83. Toronto Daily Mail, 1875–83. Trades Union Advocate (Toronto), 1882–83. Toronto directory, 1872–83. G. S. Kealey, “The working class response to industrial capitalism in Toronto, 1867–1892” (phd thesis, Univ. of Rochester, N.Y., 1977); “The life of a Toronto artisan: Thomas William Dowson, stonecutter,” Committee on Canadian Labour Hist., Bull. ([Halifax]), 1 (spring 1976): 10–[14]. Wayne Roberts, “Artisans, aristocrats and handymen: politics and trade unionism among Toronto’s skilled building trade workers, 1896–1914,” Labour ([Halifax, Rimouski, Que.]), 1 (1976): 92–121.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gregory S. Kealey, “OAKLEY, ALFRED,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/oakley_alfred_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/oakley_alfred_11E.html
Author of Article:   Gregory S. Kealey
Title of Article:   OAKLEY, ALFRED
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 8, 2023