The Fishermen’s Protective Union, waves of history dating back to 1908

Posted on June 10, 2022 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


William Ford Coaker, responsible for forming the Fishermen’s Protective Union (photo credit: Richard Hibbs)


When you think of Newfoundland and Labrador, the fishery certainly comes to mind. Formed in the early 1900s, the Fisherman’s Protective Union (FPU) aimed to create a more equitable and profitable industry for fishermen. While the FPU is of the past, its historical legacy remains.

Cast off
The Fishermen’s Protection Union was established by William Coaker and 19 other fishermen in Herring Neck, N.L in 1908. Hoping to address the economic, social and political disadvantages of fishermen, the Union was the first of its kind in N.L. “To each, his own” became the Union’s motto, which referenced its goal to positively impact the industry by reducing merchants’ exploitation of fishermen and gaining political support.

As president of the FPU, Coaker visited communities across Newfoundland to grow membership. After one year, the FPU had 1,200 members. By 1914, membership had reached 21,060 (over 50 per cent of all fishermen on the Island).


A Fishermen’s Union Trading Company store located in Seldom, N.L., constructed in 1912, and now a historic site (photo credit: Canada’s Historic Places)


Reforming trade
In 1910, the FPU began developing stores across the Island to equalize the trading of fish. The Fishermen’s Union Trading Company (UTC) was incorporated in 1911 with five stores across the island. To save fishermen from being indebted to merchants, the UTC purchased fish for cash and sold goods at fair prices. This gave fishermen the power to choose to do business with the UTC or with merchants who then had to price more competitively.

Shortly afterwards, the FPU began plans to move its headquarters from St. John’s to outport Newfoundland. In 1916, construction began in Port Union—the only North American town established by a union. The town became home to many of the FPU’s enterprises including the Union Shipbuilding Company, the Union Exporting Company, The Fishermen’s Advocate (the FPU’s newspaper) and more.


A 1910 edition of The Fishermen’s Advocate, the FPU’s newspaper that eventually became a community paper in Port Union and was published until the 1980s (photo credit: Memorial University Digital Archives)


Political influence
Under Coaker’s leadership, the FPU also attempted to gain political influence to reform the fishery. Instead of creating a government, the Union aimed to hold enough seats to have an impact. The FPU created the Bonavista Platform in 1912, which listed its political goals. In 2013, the first nine FPU candidates ran for election and eight were successful. When a National Government was formed in Newfoundland during wartime, Coaker joined as Minister of Fisheries. However, due to wartime hardships, Coaker was not successful in advancing FPU’s political agenda. By 1924, FPU’s attempts at political influence had ended.


The Fishermen’s Protective Union’s flag (photo credit: Richard Hibbs)


Sailing away
After a rocky political journey, Coaker stepped down as Union president in 1926 to focus on FPU’s commercial activities. Many FPU companies had long-term success. For example, the Union Electric Light and Power Company operated until 1967 when it merged with other utilities to form Newfoundland Light and Power. The UTC had its share of difficulties, but still had 10 stores when it went into receivership in 1977.

As for the Union itself, it slowly faded away after its final annual convention in 1939. However, as the first organization of its kind, its impact on Newfoundland’s fishery cannot be denied. Today, Port Union and many FPU buildings are designated historical sites.

114 years later, ripples of influence remain.

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