Coal Mining: Conditions and Fatalities in Canada
Coal mining was dirty, difficult and dangerous. From the East to the West coast of Canada, miners worked hard in unsafe conditions. During the 19th century and early 1900s, the death rate was higher than in any other industry. Between 1891 and 1919, the coalmines in British Columbia alone saw 3,038 accidents of which 1,200 were serious and 866 fatal.
When mining accidents occurred, the fatalities were multiple. In Canada’s first mining disaster on May 13, 1873 in Westville NS, 60 died. These numbers are low in comparison to those that followed. On the East Coast in 1891, 125 miners met their death down the shaft; on the West Coast in Nanaimo, 150 died in the coalmines on May 3, 1887.
However, the worst was yet to come. On June 19, 1914, 189 men and boys lost their lives in the coalmines at Hillcrest, Alberta. This meant some 130 widows scrambling to find the means to provide even the barest of necessities for around 400 children. All this, they must accomplish without any government forms of support. Is it any wonder the wives and daughters of miners acted militantly in times of unrest?
Militant Miners’ Wives
Militant Miners’ Wives
The overall conditions miners and their families lived in was all down to what the mining company provided. Housing could be shacks or liveable. At the mining camps near Bienfait-Estevan, Annie Baryluk wrote about her home: “When it is raining, the rain comes into the kitchen.” Mrs. Harris described her home as “A slope made into a bedroom…” When questioned by a Commissioner, S. Holley, a manager for Western Dominion collieries remarked “Some of the houses are not so bad.”
Yet, no matter in what shape, the rents made it difficult to survive on meager pay cheques. Moreover, most of the home miners resided in belonged to the company for which they worked. The same applied to the stores and many of the amenities. The company set the prices and, as a result, there is certainly more than a little truth to these lyrics to a popular song from 1946 by Merle Travis. In Sixteen Tons. He writes:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
This refers to companies paying their workers in “scrip” for use at the local store and not cash. Such “privileges” could all disappear. During a strike, the company could and often did evict their tenants.
During strikes, men relied on the women to manage household matters. They had to make money last as long as necessary. Yet, the role women played was hardly a pacifistic one. They stood by and with their men on picket lines. From scandalously flashing their white or black stockings at passing scabs (Blacklegs) to physically attacking management and scabs, women stood up for their men. When questioned as to why they did so, one of the miner’s wives told a Vancouver Sun reporter: “Wouldn’t you fight and starve if need be, if when your man left the house you didn’t know how he was coming back?” (February 12, 1913).
For such actions, many women paid a price.
Bowen, Lynne 1982. The Coal Mines of Vancouver Island Remember: Boss Whistle. Oolichen Books: Lantzville, BC
Buhay, Beckie. 1927. “In the Grip of Steel and Coal.” The Worker, April 9.
“Corbin, BC Terrorism Described.” 1935. The Worker, April 25.
Hinde, John. 1997. “Stout Ladies and Amazons: Women in British Columbia Coal-Mining Community of Ladysmith, 1912-1914.” BC Studies 114:33-57.
Luxton, Meg. 1980. More Than A Labour Of Love: Three Generations Of Work In The Home. Women’s Press: Toronto.
Miners’ Wife 1930. “UMW and Besco Force Starvation on Nova Scotia Miners.” The Worker, March 24.
“Prosecution Closed.” 1913. The Daily Colonist, October 15.
Report of the Select Committee on the Attack on Funeral Procession of Ellis Roberts1891. BC Legislative Assembly Journal 20
Robson, Robert. 1983, “Strike in the Single Enterprise Community: Flin Flon, Manitoba – 1934.” Labour/Le Travailleur 2:63-86.
Seager, Allen. 1985. “Socialists and Workers: The Western Coal Miners, 1900-1921.” Labour/Le Travail 10:25-59.
“Sentences in Ladysmith Cases” 1913. The Islander. Saturday, October 25. Front Page