Sept/Oct 2009

Mining Lore

Digging in for a fight – Industry slump fuelled Cape Breton clashes

By R. Bergen

The monopoly of the company store got miners' hackles up from the start. BESCO stoked this smoldering resentment when it cut off credit at the "Pluck Me" shops.

The immediate cause of William Davis’ death on June 11, 1925, was precise: a bullet pierced his heart. What sparked the confrontation outside of New Waterford, Nova Scotia, that led to his death is less clear.

Five years earlier, with the First World War over, a race was on. Industrialists and investors were scrambling to strengthen their positions in coal and steelmaking operations. The British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO), with capital from both sides of the Atlantic, was conceived to be a force in the coal fields and steel mills of Nova Scotia and the shipbuilding centres of Britain, as speculation pushed prices higher. The plan, one promoter declared, was to “combine the capital and experience of the Old Motherland with the resources of our Overseas Dominions.”

The bubble, however, had burst by the time BESCO took control of coal and steel production in Cape Breton in 1920. Coal prices dropped, the demand for steel went slack, and the ambition to develop a presence in new markets withered. BESCO had to cut costs and cut them aggressively. In the labour-intensive operations of Cape Breton, that meant significant wage reductions for the legions of miners working the seams.

For Cape Breton coal miners, the war in Europe had been a boon. The thinner workforce and demand for wartime production had pushed wages up to a level that many coal workers at the beginning of the 1920s judged fair. Naturally, BESCO’s goal of clawing back those gains met ample resistance.

The company’s president, Roy Wolvin, was set on ridding its operations of organized labour, and he had the tacit support of the Nova Scotia government; Bolshevism had turned Russia red and had to be quelled before it could catch fire elsewhere. By 1922, Canadian soldiers were a fixture at BESCO’s operations. The following year, the United Mine Workers Association leader was convicted of seditious libel for trying to foment a province-wide miners’ strike. By 1925, BESCO workers had already struck 58 times and the end of the latest labour contract promised more friction between an increasingly radical union and an equally determined company. The previous year, BESCO, struggling to meet its costs, had riled investors by no longer paying dividends on its stock.

In March, BESCO cut off credit to the company stores in the particularly militant labour enclaves. Within a week, 12,000 miners had walked off the job. Each side baited the other. The company declined the chance to go to arbitration in June and soon after, the strike became total. Aptly, it was the power station that became the main front in the labour battle. Some accounts suggest BESCO had turned off the power and water to miners’ homes; others say that the general strike had compelled the company to rally forces and take control of the power and pump station or face a mine full of water. Some 700 to 3,000 people reportedly converged on the station that was guarded by mounted and armed company police. The immediate catalyst that sparked the violence is unknown — a rock may have been thrown, a horse may have bolted, or the police may have charged the crowd. Three hundred rounds were reportedly fired by the company police. One of those struck Davis, killing the father of nine — soon to be ten.

Davis’ death was the climax of the strike, but not its conclusion. In the following days, angry miners defying company and provincial police, as well as hundreds of Canadian soldiers, raided BESCO stores and operations. The next month, the governing provincial Liberals, an important ally for the company, were pushed from power. Financial backers lost patience with BESCO’s management and stopped extending it credit. The new Tory government worked out a temporary settlement between the two sides and established a commission to investigate the circumstances of Davis’ death and the broader labour conflict that had plagued Nova Scotia since BESCO began operations. Before long, the company was in receivership, its president Roy Wolvin ousted and by 1930, BESCO had ceased to exist.

People, however, still gather in Cape Breton each spring to observe what is now provincially recognized as William Davis Memorial Miners’ Day. This year, the small village of Port Morien hosted the official ceremony to honour the day’s namesake and all the other men who lost their lives working the Nova Scotia mines. The town is the site of Cape Breton’s first coal operation that had started nearly 300 years ago. A few kilometres away lies the Donkin mine, in the early stages of exploration which, like many in Cape Breton, remains under care and maintenance.

Post a comment


PDF Version