A Labour Heritage
In the 1870s shoe manufacturing replaced shipbuilding as Québec’s main economic engine, and the city became Canada’s leather capital. The factories were all concentrated in the Saint-Roch district, near the tanneries. They employed many thousands of people, most of whom lived in the neighbourhood. But life was far from easy for the underpaid workers.
An economic sea change
In 1866 shipbuilding reached a historic peak in Québec City. It was, however, the industry’s swan song, since 15 years later there would be almost nothing left of it. Shoemaking then picked up as shipbuilding declined. In 1871 with the introduction of steam engines, shoe manufacturing became the city’s main economic driver, and it remained the leading industry for over 60 years.
Factories spring up like mushrooms
Steam-powered equipment was a 100 times more productive than artisanal shoemakers, who were quickly marginalized. In Québec City, Guillaume Bresse, an entrepreneur who had apprenticed in the United States, became the first to equip his plant with steam engines. In 1871 his 200 workers produced 1,000 pairs of shoes a day. The severe economic crisis that occurred two years later only accelerated the trend toward automation.
In 1879, to protect and stimulate Canada’s increasingly industrialized economy, the prime minister instituted a tariff policy. Instantly shoe factories sprang up like mushrooms in Saint-Roch, and Québec City became known as the hub of Canada’s leather industry. Every year until the early 20th century, the sector accounted for 25% of all jobs in the city.
The working class
The lot of shoemakers was far from enviable. As elsewhere, industrialization disrupted ways of life. Untrained worker/machinists replaced specialized craftspeople. In response to the automation of work and the crisis of the 1870s, which drove down wages, workers rose up in 1878. Thousands of strikers, driven by hunger, defied the army. “Bread or blood!” cried some rioters. Such tensions in the shoe industry continued for many years.
Workers generally lived close to their workplace, next to the dozens of factories grouped together in the narrow area of town between rue Arago, rue De Saint-Vallier, and rue Langelier. In the summer, smoke from the coal-fired plants made the area’s air almost unbreathable.
They worked ten hours a day, six days a week, sometimes more. Safety measures were nonexistent. In Québec City there was one work-related death a month. Workers rarely knew how to read or write, since the whole family had to work to make ends meet. Women made up around 30% of the workforce, and children ages 10 to 14 accounted for 5%. Manufacturers usually operated at full capacity seven months a year, leaving workers on unemployment for the other five months, the time it took to sell excess production.
Rise and fall of the shoe industry
In Québec City manufacturing output peaked in 1901. It was mainly driven by the 225 shoe manufacturers in operation at the time, which employed 10,000 people. A large part of their production was for export.
Over the next 30 years, a combination of factors steadily weakened Québec City’s competitive position in the North American industry. Despite this, in 1931 shoemaking remained the main source of employment in the city, with 3,000 jobs. Today shoes are no longer manufactured in the town centre.