Now here’s something you don’t see every day: A senior exec at a major Canadian company defending unions.

That’s what happened at a recent roundtable discussion on the future of organized labour put together by Canadian HR Reporter, when Canadian Pacific’s vice-president for human resources and labour relations, Peter Edwards, credited unions with the creation of the modern middle class.

"When you talk to anyone remotely connected to the world, they understand the role of unions providing what we have today,” he said.

“They're a key driver in the creation of the middle-class, for the reduction of work hours, paid vacation, all sorts of benefits that we all enjoy."

Edwards made his comments last month, but they didn’t get much attention until the Broadbent Institute’s PressProgress blog flagged it.

Edwards suggested unions are suffering from an identity crisis as the economy shifts away from manufacturing, their traditional stronghold.

“There is a certain image they’re predominantly blue collar, or they’re government workers. And gee, I’m neither of those, so where do I fit in? Where are the people that are like me? And what can you offer me in the future?”

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  • Labour Day: A Canadian Invention

    Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.

  • The Winnipeg General Strike

    The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.

  • The Regina Riot

    During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.

  • Bloody Sunday

    In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.

  • Giant Mine Bombing

    In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.

  • The Toronto G20

    The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.

  • Occupy Canada

    When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.

Others on the panel noted that unions in Canada are at a crucial crossroads. The “elephant in the room,” said labour lawyer Jamie Knight, is the rise of “right-to-work” states in the U.S., where union members are given the choice not to pay union dues, a move critics say has undermined unions and driven down wages.

Knight noted that Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party has adopted “right-to-work” as party policy, and given the minority government situation in the province, the PCs could soon be in a position to make this policy.

“It’s going to play out in the next Ontario election, and there’s a real possibility the next government of Ontario will be formed by a party that proposes to follow the recent example of Michigan, which is a primary competitor for Ontario jobs.”

But Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he doesn’t see the decline of unions as “a problem that necessarily needs solving.

“We’re not talking about a PR problem, we are talking about the general public having a fundamentally different view of the workplace than unions,” he said.

A recent Harris-Decima survey carried out for the Canadian Association of University Teachers found two-thirds of Canadians oppose right-to-work rules.

Watch the panel discussion here: