Sept/Oct 2011

Inciting a riot

The Bienfait coal strike of 1931

By Correy Baldwin

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 labour unrest.

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 activist.

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 doing so.

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 injured.

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 local leaders.

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 record.

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 RCMP.”

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