On September 29, 1931, a parade of vehicles carrying miners and their wives and children entered the town of Estevan, hoisting banners and protesting a sweeping range of poor working and living conditions that plagued the Bienfait coal mines in southeastern Saskatchewan. There were hundreds of confrontations across Canada during the struggle for labour rights in the early 1930s, but none as deadly as the one that crushed the Bienfait coal strike.
The Great Depression had brought a drop in coal prices and with it, layoffs and massive wage cuts at the mines. Mine workers were caught between seeking better working conditions and facing unemployment. In Bienfait, wages had been slashed, extra work was going unpaid, safety regulations in the mines were not being followed, company housing was squalid, rents were high, and the company store demanded a full monopoly while charging exorbitant prices.
On top of this, company intimidation had prevented workers from unionizing, making it difficult for them to express any grievances. By the summer of 1931, things had become unbearable. The miners approached the Workers’ Unity League (WUL), a labour union operated by the Communist Party of Canada. The WUL sent several organizers, including its president and the notorious, fiery speaker, Sam Scarlett.
After several days of speeches, the
union had signed up 100 per cent of
the miners – around 600 men. The
union instructed its members to
remain nonviolent. They also chose
men of British decent for the local
leadership to undermine rumours that
“the foreign element” was inciting
The union then approached the
operators of the nearly two dozen coal
mines in the area to negotiate wages,
working conditions and living conditions.
The operators refused to meet.
After repeated attempts to negotiate,
the union set a deadline and threatened
to strike. On September 8, the
miners walked off the job.
The local RCMP was immediately
put on alert, attempting to keep the
peace as the situation grew more and
more tense. The local detachment in
nearby Estevan was surprisingly sympathetic
to the miners. The officer in
charge, Sergeant William Mulhall, was
insistent that his force not be used as
strikebreakers, a stance that angered
and frustrated the mine operators
and many of Estevan’s
more prominent citizens. The
Coal Operators’ Association
(COA) began a public campaign
against the police force
and its sergeant, painting
them as incompetent, unwilling
and unable to crush the
so-called Communist agitators.
The COA also sent complaints
to the provincial
authorities. The provincial
RCMP was hesitant to take
sides, but the national authorities
were especially wary of the
union’s links to the Communist Party.
When the COA demanded that Sergeant
Mulhall be replaced, the national
RCMP Commissioner complied, overruling
provincial objections. Inspector
W. J. Moorhead arrived, along with a
contingent of heavily armed officers
mandated to protect industry property.
As the strike approached three
weeks, the union invited popular
organizer Annie Buller to speak to the
miners and help organize support for
their cause. Buller had quickly gained
a reputation as a powerful speaker and
a passionate socialist and political
After speaking at a mass meeting
for the miners, Buller was asked to stay
and speak again at a public meeting
the following Tuesday, September 29.
The union had planned a vehicle
parade from Bienfait into Estevan,
where they would meet with the citizens
of Estevan. The union was concerned
about the negative portrayal
they were receiving in the press and
wanted to inform the public of the
issues and rally their support.
On Tuesday morning, the Estevan
town council met and voted to prohibit
the parade, and called on the
RCMP to enforce the ban. No attempt
was made to communicate this decision
to the union leaders, who went
ahead with the day’s plan, unaware
that a heavily armed RCMP force
would try to stop them.
The parade of vehicles met the
police blockade as they entered Estevan.
When the strikers refused to
leave, the police moved in. A struggle
broke out and the police cracked
down, armed with sticks. Seeking to
gain control, the police chief ordered
the fire department to turn their
water hose on the demonstrators. But
a group of miners climbed onto the
fire truck, preventing them from
It was then that the RCMP pulled
out their guns, killing Nick Nargan,
one of the miners on the fire truck,
with a bullet through the heart. In the
violence that followed, several more
miners, five bystanders, and an RCMP
officer were wounded by police gunfire,
and many on both sides were
The wounded were taken to the
Estevan hospital, but were turned
away. The doctor in charge was
employed by the mine operators as
well and had been given orders not to
admit any wounded miners. A miner
named Julian Gryshko, shot in the
abdomen, died outside the hospital.
The rest were sent to the hospital in
Weyburn, 86 kilometres away. A third
miner, Peter Markunas, would die in
Weyburn three days later.
The next morning, police conducted
armed raids around Bienfait,
arresting 13 men and placing machine
guns around the town. Additional officers
had been sent from Regina.
Ninety officers patrolled Bienfait for
the next two weeks, searching homes
and making a further 13 arrests,
including several union organizers and
The trials began in October to great
national interest. The police crackdown
had been labelled a “riot,” and
union organizers were convicted of
rioting and inciting a riot. Sam Scarlett
was sentenced to a year in prison and
fined $100. Another organizer, Isidor
Minster, was sentenced to two years of
hard labour. Annie Buller was sentenced
to a year of hard labour in jail
and fined $500. After an appeal, Buller
was granted a new trial. She heroically
conducted her own defense, but was
sentenced again, this time to one year
in solitary confinement.
The RCMP admitted no responsibility,
and no officers faced prosecution.
The only officer to suffer any setback
was Sergeant Mulhall, who received a
damaging report on his service
The miners returned to work on
October 6, after gaining a number of
concessions from mine organizers and
agreeing to drop their union membership.
They would not gain union representation
until 1944, the year
Tommy Douglas’ CCF (Co-operative
Commonwealth Federation) party
came to power in Saskatchewan and
put pressure on industry operators to
recognize labour unions.
Nick Nargan, Julian Gryshko and
Peter Markunas were buried in a common
grave in the Bienfait cemetery.
Their tombstone reads, “Murdered in
Estevan, September 29, 1931, by the