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Davies, William Gwynne (1916–99)

William Gwynne Davies (right) at Canadian Congress of Labour meeting, March 1949.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A11176-4

Bill Davies was born on February 11, 1916, at Indian Head, Saskatchewan. He took his early schooling there, then moved with his family to Regina at age 7. Bill Davies was a good student, but the death of his father forced him to abandon his studies and go to work to help support his siblings and mother. His first job was as an office boy at the Regina Daily Star, which paid him $25 a month. He was interested in political causes from an early age, and attended his first socialist meeting at the age of 16. He was also present at the Regina Riot, where he was tear-gassed by the police.

A long career in the Labour movement began when Davies was working at the Swift Canadian slaughterhouse in Moose Jaw in the 1940s: Davies, Hub Elkin and others organized the plant for the United Packinghouse Workers of America. In 1944 Davies was a leader in the effort to establish the first Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), which was affiliated to the Canadian Congress of Labour. He was named to the Federal Wartime Labour Relations Board and the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board, where he served for almost two decades. Before the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour had a full-time president, the most prominent labour leader in the province was the executive secretary of the Federation, a position Bill Davies held for twenty-five years. During that time he wrote hundreds of submissions, briefs and policy papers on behalf of organized labour and working people; he, more than anyone else, laid the philosophical and structural groundwork for modern, industrial trade unionism in Saskatchewan.

In the early 1950s, when Pat Conroy retired as the top staff person with the Canadian Congress of Labour, its president Aaron Mosher and others offered this important national post to Davies; but he declined, preferring to remain in Saskatchewan.

Bill Davies also had a successful political career, first as a member of Moose Jaw City Council from 1948 to 1956, and then as a CCF member of the Legislative Assembly for Moose Jaw from 1956 to 1971. During his tenure in municipal government he was instrumental in establishing the first low-cost housing program in the province. He was also appointed to the provincial health committee, which recommended a universal, publicly funded medical care plan. He was appointed to Cabinet from 1960 to 1964, serving as Public Works minister and as minister of Public Health during the introduction of Medicare. Davies’ calm, sensible leadership during the three-week doctor’s strike in July 1962 was a significant factor in the successful implementation of medicare: he recruited physicians from abroad, and kept the Hospitals open until an agreement could be worked out with the Saskatchewan Medical Association.

Davies was an advocate for the Conservation of the natural landscape, and an avid walker with a keen interest in Archaeology and Aboriginal culture. He also wrote poetry, and published a book of verse entitled The Buffalo Stone. Bill Davies and Murray Cotterill of the Steelworkers Union spent many years researching and writing an extensive history of the Saskatchewan trade union movement. He was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1978, and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1975.

Davies was strongly committed to his leftist and pro-labour principles—yet he was also an accomplished negotiator and often managed to achieve compromises. Just days before he died, he wrote a letter of encouragement from his hospital bed to 190 locked-out packinghouse workers on a picket line in Moose Jaw; it was an inspirational message which, when read at an SFL convention a few days later, received a standing ovation from the 600 delegates. Bill Davies died on November 9, 1999.

Garnet Dishaw

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