Solidarity in Wartime: The 1942 Kingston Shipbuilders Sympathy Strike

In April of 1942, workers at the Kingston Shipbuilding Company organized a sympathy walk-out to supporting striking builders at the Midland shipyards. On the heels of the Royal Commission Investigating Wages and Working Conditions in Ontario and Québec Shipyards, shipbuilders felt slighted by the federal Department of Labor for not giving serious consideration to worker concerns. The shipyards in Kingston, Midland, and Collingwood were owned by the same big capitalist who was routinely criticized by municipal politicians and federal officials for being a disorganized and ill-prepared opportunist who was hostile to unionized workforces. Although the strikes at Midland and Kingston were perceived to be instigated by the firing of a Midland worker, they were part of a larger marine wartime labour movement seeking fair working conditions. Facing a wartime economy with long hours and low wages, a belligerent employer, inadequate health and safety measures, and a housing shortage, the Kingston shipbuilders made a democratic move to show solidarity with their fellow workers in Midland.

Shipbuilding in Kingston

Second World War shipbuilding was part of a long history of wartime naval production in Kingston. The British established a naval depot at Kingston in 1789 and the city had a barracks and naval dockyard in the War of 1812. The Marine Railway Company was founded in 1836 by some local businessmen which included the construction of a shipbuilding station, wharves, a drydock, an engine foundry, and a marine railway to haul ships from the water. The Kingston Shipbuilding Company was founded as a subsidiary of the Collingwood shipyards and produced trawlers and other boats in World War One.

Wartime shipbuilding in Kingston was extensive and lucrative. Work on naval patrol vessels and trawlers began in March of 1940 while over 1000 applications for work came into the shipyard. Pocketing profits of $110,806 in 1940, the Kingston Shipbuilding Company landed more contracts in 1941 and began building corvette warships and minesweepers. The Kingston shipyard workers built and launched the HMCS Belleville, HMCS Charlottetown, HMS Flax, HMCS Napanee, HMCS Prescott, HMCS Peterborough, and HMCS Sudbury among other ships. The Kingston shipyards were also a refuge for several vessels that wintered in the harbour.

An article from April 2, 1940 in the Kingston Whig-Standard described the scene at the shipyard:

“From Ontario Street or a vantage point on Kingston’s ice-coated harbor the construction site of the patrol vessel has the appearance of a small section of forest where branches and foliage have been stripped clean, leaving pealed tree trunks standing erect and tall. These 14 uprights, each consisting of two split logs firmly planted opposite one another, mark out the shape of the vessel and act as a wall or anchorage for the various stages of construction […] The activity at the shipyard is music to the ears of workmen in the city. Already welders, carpenters, steel construction men and ordinary laborers are hard at work.”

Kingston Whig Standard. September 18, 1942.

Shipyard Ownership and Wartime Production

The shipbuilding situation in Midland provides some context for the ownership of several shipyards in Ontario, including in Kingston. The Town of Midland struggled to get war production up and running and the new owner of the shipyards was a hard-headed industrialist who used the war as a bargaining chip to secure profits. In 1940, Midland’s Town Council adopted a resolution calling upon the Canadian government to expropriate shipyards and put them to work for the war effort. The Midland shipyard was initially built by a joint venture between the Midland Shipbuilding Company and the Town of Midland, with workers building tugs for the First World War. Subsequently the shipyard was owned by Canada Steamship Lines but was left idle after the first war.

Midland residents were hopeful when wealthy industrialist Roy M. Wolvin purchased the shipyard in 1940 for $160,000. Wolvin claimed that he and his associates would spend $50,000 to renovate the equipment and have the yards operating within 3-4 weeks. When development of the property was stalled, Midland Town Council again called for the federal government to expropriate the shipyards to produce war materials, as the Department of Munitions had the power to expropriate property that was necessary to carry out the war effort.

The Midland Mayor and Council asked Wolvin if he would lease a portion of the property to other interests who would apply for contracts to build launches for the government, but Wolvin said no. Midland Mayor O. H. Smith noted that Wolvin did not want to accept contracts on the Department of Defense’s terms because he was not satisfied with the potential profits. Wolvin, born in Michigan and former President of the British Empire Steel Corporation which had shipbuilding operations in Nova Scotia, was characterized by the media as a “American-born capitalist” who was in the business for the profits. The media reported that there was a difference of $100,000 between what Wolvin wanted for shipbuilding contracts and what the government was willing to pay. Shipyards were exempt from most taxes through an agreement from 1917, but since Wolvin refused to come to terms with the federal government on shipbuilding contracts, Midland Town Council gave Wolvin and his associates notice that the Midland Shipbuilding Company would no longer be exempt as of January 1, 1941. Wolvin would eventually agree to terms on government war contracts as he become the owner and President of shipbuilding companies in Midalnd, Collingwood, Port Arthur, and Kingston.

The 1940 Shipyard Strikes and the The Royal Commission of 1941

The Federal Government established the Royal Commission Investigating Wages and Working Conditions in Ontario and Québec Shipyards in 1941 to investigate working conditions through interviews with employees, employers, and union representatives. This Commission was a direct response to labour action taken at shipyards the previous year. It was an attempt to quell labour tensions and deal with wage disputes, but also served as a catalyst for further labour action. At this time Wolvin was President and owner of both the Collingwood and Kingston shipyards now producing ships for the war effort.

Shipbuilders at Collingwood and Kingston went on strike over wage increases in the fall of 1940. On October 24, 500 of 700 workers at the Collingwood shipyards walked off the job. An agreement was reached in November. A month later, on November 28, 1940 all members of Local 210 of the International Union of Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the United Association of Journeymen Plumbers and Steamfitters walked of the job at the Kingston Shipbuilding Company demanding higher wages. Labor Minister McLarty notified the 200 workers through a wire on November 29 that the strike was illegal under the Industrial Disputes Act. The unions argued that the Labour Minister denied them a Board of Conciliation to deal with their grievances, and the Minster eventually conceded to consider the wage increases and the workers went back to work on the first week of December.

The Board of Conciliation released its report in March of 1941 and the shipbuilders rejected it, asking for a 10 cent per hour wage increase. The unions asked to meet with Wolvin but to no avail. Secretary of Local 210 John McCourt noted the Board report stated the cost of living had only risen three per cent in Kingston, but that was not true. The union had asked for a wage increase to offset cost of living increases in the summer of 1940, but it took officials until March of 1941 to release a report. On March 22, 1941, the Kingston Shipbuilding Company management took out a full-page ad in the Kingston Whig-Standard to state their case against the workers and included a list of everyone employed at the shipyards. The shipbuilders were working nine-hour days for a 54-hour work week, with more than 300 workers on payroll. The workers eventually accepted the Board report later in March, averting further labour action.

Kingston Whig Standard. November 30, 1940.

Shortly after the labour action at Collingwood and Kingston, the Royal Commission Investigating Wages and Working Conditions in Ontario and Québec Shipyards began. The Commission held an inquiry to investigate wage and working conditions at Kingston City Hall on October 21 and 22, 1941 including representatives from the Department of Labor, unions, and Wolvin. The Commission was run by Senators, lawyers, and judges from Ontario, Québec, and Nova Scotia with a main objective to find a solution to disputes over wages, hours of work, overtime, promotions, and cost of living. Union officials focused on wages and health and safety protocols.

Wolvin’s involvement with the Commission was plagued by disorganization and disregard for the proceedings. Commissioner and judge F.H. Barlow criticized Wolvin for not having his documents ready and available for the investigation. Barlow noted that Wolvin showed a “great lack of courtesy” to the Commission. The opening of the inquiry in Kingston was delayed while Wolvin tried to gather statistics from Kingston Shipbuilding Company offices, and he was further scorned by both Barlow and fellow Commissioner and Senator L. M. Gouin of Montréal for returning from his offices with insufficient copies of materials. When questioned about labour relations by Commissioner Walter Schroeder, Wolvin argued that he was not opposed to collective bargaining if the union “fairly represented” the employees of his plant, but he was “unalterably opposed to a closed shop […]” After all the Commission’s investigative work was finished, a report was submitted to the Department of Labor.

On January 17, 1942, L. E. Sharpe, Secretary Treasurer of Local 210 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Welder and Helpers of America, wrote a letter to the Kingston Whig-Standard which noted:

“[…] A royal commission had been appointed by the federal minister of labor, to investigate the working conditions and wages of the shipyards of the Great Lakes and Lower St. Lawrence. This investigation had for its task the establishment of a stabilized wage rate as well as suitable working conditions for all employees in the shipbuilding industry of that designated area. After an extensive survey, in which both the company and the employees gave their assistance, a report was submitted, by this royal commission, to the minister of labor. This report with alterations, particularly with regard to wage rates, was later sent to the parties concerned. […] The latter report, after discussions between the company and employees at Collingwood, Midland, and Kingston, was not considered acceptable or satisfactory to either the company or the employees. The rejection by the workers, authorized the international representatives of the particular unions to negotiate further with the minister of labor and the National War Labor Board. The rejection of the revised report was partially due to the fact that, while the mechanics might receive a slight increase, they felt the report did not recognize the most apparent need for improvement of the lower paid workers. The workers adamantly expressed their desire for increased war production and were willing to include, in any agreement concluded, a clause penalizing any worker for any unnecessary abstention from war work. Greater co-operation between the company and employees was also anticipated by a mutually agreed clause covering bi-monthly conferences between both parties. We feel this explanation will give a more complete and accurate account of the present so-called differences […]”

In February, an Order-in-Council was tabled in the House of Commons providing wage increases for shipyard employees below the recommended Commission rates, which prompted union representatives from Kingston, Midland, and Collingwood to send a telegram to B. M. Stewart, Chair of the National War Labor Board, which stated: “The Shipyards Central Council, representing the Midland, Collingwood and Kingston employees concerned in recent wage proposals by the Department of Labor, under P.C. 629, have been instructed to refuse the wage rates proposed and to request a hearing from the National War Labor Board. Expecting immediate action in this respect.”

The fallout from the Royal Commission was that the Department of Labour did not heed the recommendations or the concerns expressed by the workers in Collingwood, Midland, and Kingston. Since 1940, really since the war began, workers felt short-changed and cheated. The shipbuilders were up against an uncooperative government and owner. This is the context that set the stage for the 1942 strikes.

The 1942 Midland Strike

On April 15, 1942, Midland shipbuilders walked off the job. The Workers’ Committee, representing the shipbuilders, stated that the strike was “not for higher wages […] All we ask is a reinstatement of a semi-skilled worker whose services are urgently required and assurance by the government that an investigation will be undertaken.” Workers turned down a proposal for settlement from the Ministry of Labor at a mass meeting on April 18 as union representatives argued it included concessions, an attempt to form a company union, and failed to address workers’ requests for a government investigation.

The Department of Labor threatened the striking workers with fines and imprisonment for participating in an illegal strike in a defense industry like shipbuilding. The Industrial Disputes Act prohibited strikes in war industries until a Board of Conciliation could report and a strike vote was taken with government supervision. Workers’ representatives challenged the Department of Labor and asked for clarification from government officials, which they did not receive. The Department of Labor and Department of Justice worked together to try and convince the shipbuilders to return to work, calling the strike “subversive to Canada’s war effort.” Midland Mayor Smith and the head of the Chamber of Commerce tried to convene the workers to end the strike.

On April 22, newspapers reported that the dismissed worker, whose firing precipitated the strike, would be rehired and a higher wage request would be sent to the National War Labor Board. This action effectively ended the Midland strike.

North Bay Nugget. April 20, 1942.

The 1942 Kingston Sympathy Strike

Rumours of a Kingston shipbuilders sympathy strike were reported as early as April 18, 1942, when Joseph Sharpe, the secretary-treasurer of the Kingston branch of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Welders, and Helpers of America Union, was quoted in The Globe and Mail saying that he hoped no action would be taken, but workers were “prepared to cease work at ten o’clock tomorrow morning if the Midland situation is not settled. There are about 135 members in our union here, and although they represent one-third of the total number employed in the Kingston Shipbuilding Company’s yard, their absence would naturally tie up production.” On April 20, employees of the Kingston Shipbuilding Company walked off the job in a sympathy strike with the Midland workers.

The numbers of workers on strike varies between newspaper reports. The Ottawa Journal and Windsor Star reported 275 workers walking out in Kingston, while the Kingston Whig-Standard reported that out of 351 workers, only 83 reported to work on April 20. On April 21, the Whig-Standard reported only 67 of 375 men reported for work, meaning the numbers had grown to over 300. On April 21, the Ottawa Citizen reported 297 workers on a sympathy strike in Kingston. Paired with the 400 workers in Midland, there were nearly 700 shipbuilders on strike between the two shipyards.

The Department of Labor and Kingston Shipbuilding Company management scrambled to get information on the Kingston sympathy strike and warn workers of the illegality of their action. The Director of Labor Relations in the Department of Labor came to Kingston on April 20 to gather information, meeting with the shipyard General Manager. The Company Manager T. G. Bishop released a statement on April 20, stating that there were “no matters in dispute” and there was a special committee that would usually handle any small grievances between the workers and management, but the company was informed that the workers “would not report to work on Monday morning unless the dispute in Midland between the management and employees was satisfactorily settled over the week-end.”

The shipbuilders responded by noting:

“At a meeting of Kingston shipyard workers Saturday afternoon at the Labor Hall, the question of the present dispute, affecting the Midland shipyard workers, was given a very thorough discussion. Midland, with Kingston, Collingwood and Port Arthur form a group of Ontario shipbuilding yards under the same ownership. A question, involving wage adjustments covering all workers in Midland, Kingston and Collingwood shipyards, is at present under discussion by the National War Labor Board following the presentation of a brief by delegates of the three yards on March 23. It was reported at the meeting that assurance had been received today from the board that there would be no further avoidable delay. The dispute in Midland had arisen over an accumulation of unsettled grievances climaxed on Thursday by the discriminatory discharge of a worker followed by the refusal of the management to meet with a committee of the employees who were delegated to make representations on the worker’s behalf. After hearing all the details of the situation, the meeting decided to continue the protest begun in this yard at 11:30 o’clock Saturday morning in which 95 percent of the works participated, the remainder of whom were left to tie up a boat being released from repair work in the docks […]”

The shipbuilders expressed their desire for the Department of Labor to settle the dispute within the terms set by the Midland workers (e.g., the reinstatement of the discharged worker and the setting up a Board by the government to assist in properly classifying workers in the three yards at Midland, Kingston, and Collingwood). Two months earlier, shipbuilder union representatives sent a telegram to Prime Minister King calling for the establishment of a “war production board” with at least 50% labor representation to settle wages disputes in Kingston, Midland, and Collingwood. The call for the War Production Boards was in direct response to order-in-council P.C. 629 which fixed wage rates for mechanics, which were between 7 and 9 cents less in those three cities than they were in Toronto and Port Arthur (a difference between $0.75 and $0.85). The workers’ statement called for changes in the industry to conserve material, reduce wastage and use all available efficiency of the employees to the best advantage. It said if the government was to establish a Board with labor representation “much would be accomplished to speed and improve the building of necessary ships.” It pledged full cooperation by the workers in such a plan.

Much like in Midland, government officials threatened legal action under the Industrial Disputes Investigations Act against workers on strike. Deputy Minister of Labor Bryce Stewart was vocal in the newspapers about both Midland and Kingston, emphasizing and re-iterating to workers in both cities that “[u]nder war legislation it is illegal to stage a strike unless the dispute has been investigated by a board of conciliation and failing settlements a strike vote has been taken under Government supervision.”

On April 22, the workers at the Kingston Shipbuilding Company voted unanimously to return to work. Workers’ spokesperson W. E. Blair stated: “Kingston Shipbuilding Company employees at a meeting last evening voted unanimously to return to their jobs of building ships. This decision was reached after a telegram and a telephone message had been received from the Midland workers to the effect that a satisfactory settlement had been reached in Midland and that the workers there were returning to work in the morning without discrimination. The meeting expressed the desire that we might have the cooperation of the Department of Justice in with withdrawing all charges laid by them under the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act and thus removing all traces of any hostility that may have been interjected into the issue”

Legal Repercussions

A total of nineteen workers faced court action in both Midland and Kingston for striking. The newspapers noted that this was the “first major test” of Canada’s wartime labour legislation. Five Kingston Shipbuilding Company workers were remanded on charges of unlawfully going on strike contrary to the Industrial Disputes Investigations Act. The workers were John Montgomery, W. E. Blair, W. Bradley, James Rice, and James Sharpe. All were granted a week’s remand. Montgomery was the only one to appear in court. Crown Attorney T.J. Rigney, representing the Department of Justice, said they were granted a remand when they decided to return to work. Magistrate J.B. Garvin wanted a week to prepare their defence.

On May 13, 1942, the charges of unlawfully going on strike were dismissed in City Police Court on a technicality. The case hinged on interpretation of a section of the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act which noted there must be a “dispute” between workers and employers. Defence Council L. J. Cohen of Toronto claimed there was no evidence of dispute between the workers and the Kingston Shipbuilding Company, so it was impossible to rule a conviction on the charge. Crown Attorney T. J. Rigney submitted telegrams sent by the Kingston workers to Midland and Collingwood as evidence to claim there was a dispute. Interpretation of the word “dispute” was central, and Magistrate J.B. Garvin ruled there was technically no dispute and dismissed the case. Since the action was as solidarity walkout, and the union was clear that the action was not the result of a dispute between employees and employer, it technically could not be prosecuted under the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act. Cohen read clauses of the Act, noting: “Dispute or industrial dispute means any dispute or difference between an employer and one or more of his employees as to matters of things affecting or relating to work done or to be done by him of them.” Cohen stated that this proves there was no dispute between the Company and the workers. The Magistrate also ruled that the defence would have to pay for the costs of one remand.

Support and Backlash

One notable supporter of the shipbuilders was former lumber jack and Member of Parliament J.W. Noseworthy (York South). Noseworthy was a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the New Democratic Party. A former President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, Noseworthy was one of the few MPs who saw the larger picture for workers in wartime industries, criticizing the government’s approach to labour disputes as undemocratic. He spoke with delegations from Midland, Collingwood, and Kingston in Ottawa to help convince the government to amend hours of work and working conditions.

Noseworthy advocated for government-employer labour councils, as he believed harmony between workers and employers would not be achieved by “bulldozing the workers.” He argued that labour “must be taken into cooperation with the government and given a voice on the production committees […] Never in history was so much machinery required or the service of workers so important. It is essential there be harmony. I am afraid it does not exist.” Noseworthy, focused on the future and the connection between workers and soldiers, noting: “I am confident that when our soldiers return they will not be satisfied to come back to conditions that their fathers came back to […] If we can put people to work in factories to produce war materials, we will never again be able to persuade the people we cannot put them to work to produce the necessities of life in peacetime.” Noseworthy and the CCF proposed a 100% excess profit tax and minimum family allowance to help increase worker health and happiness.

Another show of support came on May 13, 1942. Over 500 people gathered in Owen Sound for a Conference of Ontario Shipyard Employees and approved a resolution censuring the Department of Justice for taking criminal action against workers at Midland and Kingston. The Conference argued the strikes at both yards were caused by the government’s War Labor Policy and the attitudes of shipyard management. They urged the Department to stop using legal proceedings to try and stop labor disputes. The Conference demanded that the government appoint a shipbuilding production board with equal representation from labour and management, a labour-management production committee in each shipyard, and new collective bargaining principles.

The shipbuilders faced a backlash not just from the Department of Labour and the state legal apparatus, but from Canadian newspaper readers. A letter to the editor in the Windsor Star from April 21, 1942 stated: “If men are conscripted for service in the armed forces, they have a right to expect the Government to see that work in war industries is carried on. It will not do these men any good to be told that weapons cannot reach them because a strike in a shipyard has caused a shortage of vessels. Whether it be employers or employees, who are at fault, the soldiers are entitled to assurance that the flow of supplies will not be interrupted by stoppages of work.” From the House of Commons, Labour Minister Mitchell spoke of the strikes saying saying “it would be just too bad if the men who go down to the sea in ships, in corvettes, went on strike because a man was demoted.”

Health & Safety and Material Realities for Shipbuilders

Work at the shipyards was not easy and often dangerous. It was not uncommon for workers to get injured or die on the job. A cursory look at newspapers from the 1940s to the 1950s shows numerous accidents, with workers being crushed by derrick booms or falling blocks from smokestacks, and workers falling from scaffolding or off the dock.

It was a constant struggle for workers to maintain proper health and safety on the job site during the war. Dr. J.G. Cunningham, Director of Industrial Hygiene for the Ontario Department of Labor, visited Ontario shipyards in August of 1942. He made several recommendations to improve health and safety including having more fresh air blown into areas where welding was being done, removing paint from all surfaces before heat welding is applied to reduce lead inhalation, improving ventilation where dry sand is used to fill pipes for bending to reduce inhalation and silicosis, improved ventilation for painting, and increasing toilet facilities in more convenient locations for workers. Dr. Cunningham also noted the accommodation for first aid was “the barest of minimum” and should be increased, including access to hot water and a physician designated by the company to supervise the administration of first aid and conduct periodic examinations of employees.

Kingston also had a housing shortage in the 1940s, with tenants being ousted from their homes on the south side of Lower Union St. between King and Ontario Streets in 1942 to expand the shipyard. The domestic pressures from the war pressed further onto working class families in the city as seven homes were torn down to make way for the shipyard expansion. A pipefitter noted in 1941 that it was “practically impossible” to get a house or apartment under $25 or $30 per month “[…] I am living in two rooms, am paying $16 a month rent, and am heating the place myself.” Government programs and joint ventures with building companies in the early 1940s began to try and alleviate the housing shortage and costs by building more affordable new houses for war time workers. The Wartime Housing/Kingston Heights area (now Kingscourt) is one example, and you can read our article on this neighbourhood here.

Although most of the news reporters’ language of the day gendered all workers as “men,” digging deeper in the newspapers archives provides us with some glimpses into a more accurate depiction of the gender dynamic at shipyards, as women were obviously working in the industrial war economy. An ad in the Kingston Whig-Standard from March 22, 1941 includes a list of employees on the payroll of the Kingston Shipbuilding Company. The ad was essentially a propaganda piece purchased by the Company management to shame workers for demanding fair wages, and although it provides the reader with last names, it does not provide first names or any sense of who the people were. However, in December of 1942, the Whig-Standard reported that women were employed in construction work on naval craft (painting, machine-shop, etc.), noting: “The company in recent months has been unable to get enough male help and found it necessary to enlist the services of women.” An article printed in the Enterprise Bulletin in Collingwood on March 2, 1983 includes a brief article that notes that many women were welders in the shipyards during the war. The article includes a photograph of 30 women who worked in the Collingwood shipyards in 1943, but unfortunately does not include the workers’ names.

Enterprise Bulletin. March 2, 1983.

Aftermath of the Strikes

The initial Midland strike, and the Kingston sympathy strike, were about much more than a fired worker in Midland. There were long-standing tensions about wages, working conditions, and the lack of commitment to the Royal Commission. The workers felt slighted. The firing of the Midland worker was the catalyst that caused the walkouts.

The story provides insight into what it was like to work during a time of crisis. There was a lack of protections for workers as they were expected to be silent and accept their role in the war effort overseas. The Canadian wartime labour legislation was stacked against any worker protesting dangerous working conditions or unethical labour practices, and the federal government took little interest in honouring employee perspectives in their investigation of working conditions in the shipbuilding industries. The fact that three of the most productive shipbuilding companies in the province were owned by one anti-union American industrialist added an extra layer of difficulty in improving working conditions. Workers were expected to commit their time and bodies to the war effort, but the federal government was willing to sell its shipbuilding potential to an unpredictable and unethical capitalist. There is a lesson about solidarity in this story. The Kingston shipbuilders, recognizing the pressure put on shipbuilders across the province during a time of crisis, risked legal action to show solidarity with their fellow workers in Midland.



  • The Brantford Expositor. 1942.
  • The Enterprise Bulletin. 1983.
  • The Kingston Whig-Standard. 1940 to 1943.
  • The Labour Gazette. 1940.
  • North Bay Daily Nugget. 1942.
  • The Ottawa Citizen. 1930 to 1955.
  • The Ottawa Journal. 1940 to 1944.
  • Owen Sound Daily Sun Times. 1942.
  • The Sault Daily Star. 1942.
  • The Windsor Star. 1930 to 1945.

Archival Materials

  • James Pritchard Fonds. F2688. Shelf: 5109.6 and 5091.2. 1973-2013. Queen’s University Archives.


  • Edwards, Frederick. (1941). This is Kingston. Maclean’s Magazine.

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