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"To Each His Own"

For the Week of Monday October 28, 2002

From November 1-3, 1909, the first annual meeting of the Supreme Council of the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) was held at Change Islands, Newfoundland. Although short-lived, the FPU was a groundbreaking movement. It revolutionized Newfoundland’s fishing industry by encouraging equity among fishermen and merchants, and played an important role in developing the political and community life of the fishermen.

William Coaker's bungalow

William Coaker's bungalow
© Parks Canada / R. Goodspeed

The FPU was founded in 1908 by Sir William Ford Coaker in response to the poor management and exploitative nature of Newfoundland’s fishing industry. Following its motto, “To Each His Own,” the union sought to liberate the fishermen from an unjust economic system run by merchants. Fish was under-priced and would be exchanged with the merchants for expensive goods, causing most fishermen to go into debt. The FPU established its own cash stores to end the fishermen’s reliance upon the merchants’ credit system. The movement spread rapidly until it encompassed over half of Newfoundland’s fishermen—more than 20,000 people!

Coaker’s vision for the FPU included a cohesive community life. In 1916 construction began on the town of Port Union. Located in the Catalina region, this was the only town in Canadian history to be built and run by a union. Once constructed, Port Union housed the FPU headquarters and quickly became a thriving centre for commercial and industrial activity. The Union Trading Company, the Union Export Company and the Union Shipbuilding Company were located on the harbour. Port Union also had its own school, church and newspaper. A major addition in 1924, the Congress Hall was used for the FPU’s annual conventions.

Shoreline where the shipbuilding yard was located

Shoreline where the shipbuilding yard was located
© Parks Canada / R. Goodspeed

To realize the FPU’s goals, Coaker encouraged the creation of a Union political party. Enjoying early success, the Union Party — working with the Liberal Party — became Newfoundland’s largest opposition party and then a partner in a coalition government. Included in its revolutionary political agenda were revised regulations for the fishing industry, an effective education system and the introduction of old age pensions. By the 1920s the FPU’s popularity was declining. In 1924, the Union Party was integrated into the Liberal Party and larger unions absorbed the last of the FPU in 1960.

Today, the Port Union Historic District retains many of its original structures. The Ryan Premises, headquarters of a significant company in Newfoundland’s fishing industry, is also a national historic site. For his leadership role in Newfoundland’s fishing community, a plaque for William Coaker stands in Port Union.

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