Catholics forbidden to join union


September 19, 1913

William Ford Coaker (1871-1938) ended an hour-long speech to a group of fishermen at the Orange Hall in Herring Neck by asking those who wished to form a fishermen’s union to stay behind. Nineteen did, and thus, the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) was  founded  that evening, November 3, 1908.

The FPU, under Coaker’s leadership as president, became a dynamic social, economic and political force unlike anything previously witnessed in the Colony.  Never before had there been a serious attempt to organize fishermen, in a movement to challenge the established order.

Two other fishermen’s organizations extant in this period were little more than social and fraternal societies organized along religious lines: the Star of the Sea Association was a Catholic club that existed primarily in St. John’s while the Society of United Fishermen was an Anglican benevolent society.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. John’s Michael Francis Howley was not at all receptive to the idea of a fishermen’s union. On  September 19, 1913 he had a notice posted in all the churches in the Placentia District, forbidding all Catholics from joining or having anything whatever to do with Coaker’sUnion.

Coaker quickly realized that he would need the support of the bishop if he was to get his union established in Placentia Bay. Coaker’s officials met with church officials convincing them that a line in the FPU constitution that implied that members had to take a secret oath in order to become union members was not true.

On September 29, 1913 upon hearing that Coaker had altered the constitution of the FPU, Howley immediately withdrew his condemnation and allowed Catholics to join.

Coaker was instrumental in establishing Port Union, Canada’s only union-built town, created in 1916 by the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU). The town became the centre of the FPU’s business, which included the Fishermen’s Union Trading Company, a weekly newspaper called the Fishermen’s Advocate, a retail store that served 40 outlets in other communities, a salt-fish plant with electric dryers and many other businesses and amenities. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work with fishermen.

Recommended WebsiteFormation of the Fishermen’s Protective Union:

Recommended Reading: McDonald, Ian D.H., “To Each His Own”: William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union in Newfoundland Politics, 1908-1925.St. John’s:Institute ofSocial and Economic Research,MemorialUniversity ofNewfoundland, 1987.

Recommended Song:  We are Coming, Mr Coaker: