Fishermen's Protective Union

The Fishermen's Protective Union (sometimes called the Fisherman's Protective Union, the FPU, The Union or the Union Party) was a workers' organisation and political party in the Dominion of Newfoundland. In many ways, the development of the FPU matched that of the United Farmers movement in parts of Canada.

FPU Official Banner and Flag

Origins and purposeEdit

The FPU was founded on 3 November 1908 by William Coaker and nineteen men following a speech by him at the Orange Hall in Herring Neck[1] as a cooperative movement for fishermen on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It was the first serious attempt to organise fishermen as a political movement along class lines.[1] With a rallying cry of "to each his own" the FPU sought to achieve reforms in Newfoundland society to attain an equitable distribution of wealth in the fishing industry.[1]

At its peak, it had more than 21,000 members in 206 councils across the island; more than half of Newfoundland's fishermen.[1] The FPU set up the Fishermen's Union Trading Co. (UTC) which established stores throughout the province which would purchase fish from fishermen for cash and would also import goods to sell to fishermen directly at a non-inflated price, thus circumventing the St. John's fish merchants. Previously, merchants did not pay cash for fish but advanced fishermen staple goods at an inflated price on credit and then took the fishermen's cured fish at the end of the season at rate determined by the merchant – a system which kept most fishermen in perpetual debt making him dependent on the merchant.[2][3]

The FPU's newspaper, The Fishermen's Advocate, was founded in 1910 and ceased publication in 1980. From 1914 to 1924, the Advocate was published in both daily and weekly editions, and for a short time in 1917, had three editions, evening, morning, and weekly. It published as a weekly from 1914 to 1980.[4]

Roman Catholic oppositionEdit

The party retained much of its support from Newfoundland's Protestants and had links with the Orange Order. As a consequence, it was distrusted and vigorously opposed by elements within the Roman Catholic Church who opposed the union due to its constitutional requirement of secrecy, its trade unionism and its alleged socialism. Archbishop M.F. Howley of St. John's, objected to the FPU due to his concerns that the secular union might undermine the church's authority among Catholics living in Newfoundland's outports.[1] Howley's successor, Archbishop Roche, was even more opposed to the union, particularly when it moved towards political activity.[1] The church's hostility impeded the union's ability to recruit members in Catholic areas such as the southern Avalon Peninsula.[1]

Bonavista PlatformEdit

In 1912 the FPU adopted the Bonavista Platform, a political manifesto calling for radical change in fishery policy, social policy and governance. Consisting of 31 planks it an advocated co-operative marketing and government regulation of fish grading. In social policy it proposed the reduction of tariffs on staple foods, improvements to old age pensions, free and compulsory education and a minimum wage. The Platform also called for democratic reforms such as the right to recall Members of the Newfoundland House of Assembly and having a salary for elected representatives to make it feasible for those who are not independently wealthy to be involved in politics.[5][6]

Electoral politicsEdit

The FPU entered electoral politics in 1913 as a left-wing party with a platform calling for government regulation of the fisheries, administrative and constitutional reform, and the extension of education and social welfare. Eight members of the FPU were elected to the House of Assembly in 1913 including Coaker.

The FPU believed that the interests of fishermen were being ignored by the mainstream parties, and that candidates elected on a class basis would be able to hold the balance of power and influence government in the interests of fishermen. In his maiden speech to the House of Assembly, Coaker spoke of the significance of outport fishermen gaining a measure of political power. "It is not an accident we have come here," he said, "[a] revolution ... has been fought in Newfoundland. The fisherman, the toiler of Newfoundland has made up his mind that he is going to be represented on the floors of this House."[6]

FPU members of the House of Assembly joined Edward Patrick Morris' wartime National Government of 1917 with Coaker as minister of fisheries. The FPU's reputation was hurt, however, by its support of the government's conscription policy which was unpopular in Newfoundland's outport fishing villages, particularly as by taking their sons overseas it hurt the ability of fishing families to earn enough to support themselves.[6] Coaker had promised that there would be no conscription without a referendum but he and the FPU ended up supporting the government's decision to implement the measure without a vote resulting in some FPU council's passing resolutions to censure Coaker.[6]

In 1919, the FPU joined with the Liberal Party of Newfoundland led by Richard Squires to form the Liberal Reform Party. The Liberal-Union coalition won 24 of 36 seats in the 1919 general election with half of the coalition's seats being won by Union candidates.[7] Coaker was appointed Fisheries Minister and attempted to introduce regulations to control the prices of fish exported abroad but the rules were too weak and failed in its goal of preventing Newfoundland's exporters from undercutting each other.[7] The fishery industry declined in the 1920s as a result causing high unemployment, falling fish prices and emigration from the island.[7] The influence of the FPU subsequently declined[2] and it withdrew from electoral politics in 1924 though it attempted a return in the 1928 election winning 9 seats and becoming a junior partner in the government of Frederick C. Alderdice with much less influence then it enjoyed a decade earlier. Coaker became minister without portfolio and again attempted to pass reforms to the fishing industry but was not successful.[7][8] The downward economic spiral caused by the decline of the fishing industry was aggravated further by the Great Depression resulting in the collapse of responsible government in 1934[7] and the implementation of direct rule from Britain via the Commission of Government.

Coaker resigned as FPU president in 1923 but retained his position as leader of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company.[3]


The FPU's political role ended entirely with the suspension of responsible government in 1934 (which Coaker supported). The union became a service organisation for its members, running businesses and its activities on behalf of fishermen and loggers. The FPU survived into the post-confederation period when democratic politics resumed in 1949 though it ran no candidates and had faded away by 1960. The Fishermen's Union Trading Co. survived until 1977 when it fell into receivership resulting in its ten remaining stores being sold.[3]


  • William Coaker 1908–1923
  • J.H. Scammell 1923 – 1934
  • K.M. Brown 1934 – 1948
  • C.R. Granger 1948 – 1954
  • Gilbert Yetman 1954 – 1960


In 1999, the town founded by the FPU, Port Union, was designated a National Historic Site of Canada as the only town in Canada to have been established by a union.[9]


The original anthem of the Fishermens Protective Union was titled "We are Coming Mr. Coaker" which was sung or chanted at FPU meetings to show support for Coaker and his movement to unite the fishermen. The author of the work is unknown. The source of the tune has been identified as the American Civil War song "We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More", a call to arms written in 1862 by James Sloan Gibbons.

We are coming, Mr. Coaker, from the East, West, North and South;
You have called us and we're coming, for to put our foes to rout.
By merchants and by governments, too long we've been misruled;
We're determined now in future, and no longer we'll be fooled.
We'll be brothers all and free men, we'll be brothers all and free men,
We'll be brothers all and free men, and we'll rightify each wrong;
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, we are coming, Mr. Coaker,
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, and we're forty thousand strong.
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, men from Green Bay's rocky shore,
Men who stand the snow-white billows down on stormy Labrador.
We are ready and awaiting, strong and solid, firm and bold,
To be led by you like Moses led the Israelites of old.
We are ready for to sever, we are ready for to sever,
We are ready for to sever, from the merchants' servile throng;
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, we are coming, Mr. Coaker,
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, and we're forty thousand strong.
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, blood of Saxon and of Celt,
You arouse a feeling in us, that before we never felt;
Valiant men from far Placentia, who the angry oceans brave,
They are with you heart and spirit, breasting Cape St. Mary's waves.
They are with the fight for freedom, they are with the fight for freedom,
They are with the fight for freedom, and the Union is their song;
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, we are coming, Mr. Coaker,
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, and we're forty thousand strong.

An additional verse was added to the song during the 1990s when Port Union was being brushed up to be a heritage site.

We're still people, Mr. Coaker, with a spirit strong and true;
We will follow in your footsteps, and we know just what to do.
We'll rebuild the town you dreamed of, and we will not back away;
For we're looking to our future, that began just yesterday.
Will we perish? We'll say NEVER! Will we perish? We'll say NEVER!
Will we perish? We'll say NEVER! Port Union's here to stay;
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, we are coming, Mr. Coaker,
We are coming, Mr. Coaker, and we're forty thousand strong.


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Formation of the Fishermen's Protective Union, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University. Retrieved 20 February 2008.
  2. ^ a b Fisheries Policy, Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  3. ^ a b c Fishermen's Union Trading Company Limited (Greenspond) fonds, 1914–1922, Maritime History Archive. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Webb, Jeff A. The Fishermen's Protective Union and Politics, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. Retrieved 19 February 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d Union and Politics, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University. Retrieved 20 February 2008.
  7. ^ a b c d e Fishermen's Protective Union, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University. Retrieved 20 February 2008.
  8. ^ Baker, Melvin, "Newfoundland in the 1920s", History 3120 Manual: Newfoundland History, 1815–1972", Division of Continuing Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1994, revision of 1986 edition. Retrieved 20 February 2008.
  9. ^ Port Union Historic District. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 14 July 2012.
  10. ^

External linksEdit