Thursday, 21 July 2011

The True Story of Little Match Girls in Canada: Why Unions and Government Regulation Are Important

"The Little Match Girl" is one of those Hans Christian Andersen stories that wrench the heart: the poor little match seller outside a grand residence dies of cold after slowly burning all the matches she has to sell. It is a staple of sentimental collections of tales for children, and was one of the few stories that made me weep as a child.

Le Devoir ran another about match girls Monday, this one true and even sadder. For decades at the turn of the 20th century, young women worked at the E.B. Eddy match factory in Hull, dipping tiny sticks of wood into phosphorous, a highly toxic substance. Not only did they fall victim to disease specific to handling the substance, but they were frequently victims of fires. Phosphorous was used in matches because it flames at low temperatures, after all, and it seems the match girls had to keep buckets of water by their work stations to put out flames. In the end the factory where they worked burned to the ground because of one such conflagration: a half dozen young women perished because supervisors had padlocked the doors from the outside. In protest, the workers, who had formed the first union of female workers in Canada, walked out on a wild-cat strike.

Today the Boulevard des Allumettières is a major, tree-lined thoroughfare linking one end of Gatineau--the bedroom community across the Ottawa river from the Canada's capital on the Quebec side--to the other. Let us hope these little match girls descendants are able to enjoy some of its benefits. Let us also hope that the horrors of rampant, unrestrained capitalism are not forgotten in this time of union-bashing. Life is not a fairy tale: we need action, not sentiment.

Photo: E. B. Eddy factory and match girls, c. 1880, from Le Devoir.

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