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Fishermen's Protective Union

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The Fishermen's Protective Union (sometimes called the Fisherman's Protective Union, the FPU, The Union or the Union Party) was a workers' organization and political party in the Dominion of Newfoundland. In many ways, the development of the FPU matched that of the United Farmers movement in parts of Canada.

Origins and purpose

The FPU was founded on November 3, 1908 by William Coaker and nineteen men following a speech by him at the Orange Hall in Herring Neck[1] as a cooperative movement for fishers on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It was the first serious attempt to organize fishers as a political movement along class lines.[1] With a rallying cry of "to each his own" the FPU sought to achieve reforms in Newfoundland society in order to attain an equitable distribution of wealth in the fishing industry.[1]

At its peak, it had more than 21,000 members in 206 councils across the island; more than half of Newfoundland's fishers.[1] The FPU set up the Fishermen's Union Trading Co. (UTC) which established stores throughout the province which would purchase fish from fishers for cash and would also import goods to sell to fishers directly at a non-inflated price, thus circumventing the St. John's fish merchants. Previously, merchants did not pay cash for fish but advanced fisherman staple goods at an inflated price on credit and then took took the fishers' cured fish at the end of the season at rate determined by the merchant - a system which kept most fishers in perpetual debt making him dependent on the merchant.[2][3]

Church opposition

The party was overwhelmingly, almost exclusively Protestant, and was accused of having links with the Orange Order. As a consequence, it was distrusted by Roman Catholic voters, and vigorously opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, who opposed the union not only for its alleged Orange links, but also for its trade unionism and class-based politics. Archbishop M.F. Howley of St. John's, objected to the FPU as he was concerned that the secular union might undermine the church's authority among Catholics living in Newfoundland's outports.[1] Howley's successor, Archbishop Roche, was even more opposed to the union, particularly when it moved towards political activity.[1] The church's hostility to the union impeded its ability to recruit members in Catholic areas such as the southern Avalon Peninsula and in Conception Bay.[1]

Bonavista Platform

In 1912 the FPU adopted the Bonavista Platform, a political manifesto calling for radical change in fishery policy, social policy and governance. Consisting of 31 planks it an advocated co-operative marketing and government regulation of fish grading. In social policy it proposed the reduction of tariffs on staple foods, improvements to old age pensions, free and compulsory education and a minimum wage. The Platform also called for democratic reforms such as the right to recall Members of the Newfoundland House of Assembly and having a salary for elected representatives in order to make it feasible for those who are not independently wealthy to be involved in politics.[4][5]

Electoral politics

The FPU entered electoral politics in 1913 as a left-wing party with a platform calling for government regulation of the fisheries, administrative and constitutional reform, and the extension of education and social welfare. Eight members of the FPU were elected to the House of Assembly in 1913 including Coaker.

The FPU believed that the interests of fishers were being ignored by the mainstream parties, and that candidates elected on a class basis would be able to hold the balance of power and influence government in the interests of fishermen. In his maiden speech to the House of Assembly, Coaker spoke of the significance of outport fishermen gaining a measure of political power. "It is not an accident we have come here," he said, "[a] revolution ... has been fought in Newfoundland. The fisherman, the toiler of Newfoundland has made up his mind that he is going to be represented on the floors of this House."[5]

FPU members of the House of Assembly joined Edward Patrick Morris' wartime National Government of 1917 with Coaker as minister of fisheries. The FPU's reputation was hurt, however, by its support of the government's conscription policy which was unpopular in Newfoundland's outport fishing villages, particularly as by taking their sons overseas it hurt the ability of fishing families to earn enough to support themselves.[5] Coaker had promised that there would be no conscription without a referendum but he and the FPU ended up supporting the government's decision to implement the measure without a vote resulting in some FPU council's passing resolutions to censure Coaker.[5]

In 1919, the FPU joined with the Liberal Party of Newfoundland led by Richard Squires to form the Liberal Reform Party. The Liberal-Union coalition won 24 of 36 seats in the 1919 general election with half of the coalition's seats being won by Union candidates.[6] Coaker was appointed Fisheries Minister and attempted to introduce regulations to control the prices of fish exported abroad but the rules were too weak and failed in its goal of preventing Newfoundland's exporters from undercutting each other.[6] The fishery industry declined in the 1920s as a result causing high unemployment, falling fish prices and emigration from the island.[6] The influence of the FPU subsequently declined[2] and it withdrew from electoral politics in 1924 though it attempted a return in the 1928 election winning 9 seats and becoming a junior partner in the government of Frederick C. Alderdice with much less influence then it enjoyed a decade earlier. Coaker became minister without portfolio and again attempted to pass reforms to the fishing industry but was not successful.[7][6] The downward economic spiral caused by the decline of the fishing industry was aggravated further by the Great Depression resulting in the collapse of responsible government in 1934[6] and the implementation of direct rule from Britain via the Commission of Government.

Coaker resigned as FPU president in 1923 but retained his position as leader of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company.[3]


The FPU's political role ended entiely with the suspension of responsible government in 1934 (which Coaker supported). The union became a service organization for its members, running businesses and its activities on behalf of fishermen and loggers. The FPU survived into the post-confederation period when democratic politics resumed in 1949 though it ran no candidates and had faded away by 1960. The Fishermen's Union Trading Co. survived until 1977 when it fell into receivership resulting in its ten remaining stores being sold.[3]


  • William Coaker 1908-1923
  • J.H. Scammell 1923 - 1934
  • K.M. Brown 1934 - 1948
  • C.R. Granger 1948 - 1954
  • Gilbert Yetman 1954 - 1960


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Formation of the Fishermen's Protective Union, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, accessed February 20, 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fisheries Policy, Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed February 18, 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Fishermen's Union Trading Company Limited (Greenspond) fonds, 1914-1922, Maritime History Archive, accessed February 18, 2008
  4. Webb, Jeff A. The Fishermen's Protective Union and Politics, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage, accessed February 19, 2008
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Union and Politics, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, accessed February 20, 2008
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Fishermen's Protective Union, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, accessed February 20, 2008
  7. Baker, Melvin, "Newfoundland in the 1920s", History 3120 Manual: Newfoundland History, 1815-1972", Division of Continuing Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1994, revision of 1986 edition, retrieved February 20, 2008

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