Bonnie M. Durtnall is a labour/working class historian. She focuses on Canadian Labour History. Her website is www.labouringallourlives.ca.
Estevan and Bienfait were coal mining towns eight miles apart. The working conditions in the mines reflected those across Canada. Wages were low; hours were long. Housing and working conditions fought each other for status as the worst in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Housing and Living Conditions
Estevan coal miners worked for the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Coal (M & S) Company. M & S was strongly anti-union. Bienfait Village was a small company town, and Estevan consisted of a few decent homes and businesses, but the miners around and in Estevan lived in poorly constructed company houses.
In November 1931, the revered Thomas Douglas (1904–1986), then a sanitary officer for the region, after inspecting 113 houses declared most of them unfit. He found 25 of them were overcrowded, 43 had leaky roofs, 52 were cold in the winter, 52 were also dirty and all required some sort of repair. The young daughter of a miner, sixteen-year-old Annie Baryluk testified to the conditions of the company homes in 1931.
One bedroom, two beds in there, dining room, no beds in there, kitchen, one bed, and eleven in the family…I think we need a bigger place than that. When it is raining the rain comes in the kitchen. There is only one ply of paper, cardboard paper nailed to about two-inch wood board…It is all coming down and cracked…When the weather is frosty, when you wake up in the morning you cannot walk on the floor because it is all full of snow, right around the room.
—Proceedings of the Royal Commission on the Bienfait-Estevan Mining Dispute, 1931
The Company Store
Other problems the miners and their families faced revolved around the relationship between the company store and its employees. An accepted fact of life was this: You did not purchase your food or anything else except from the company store in Estevan. The Royal Committee’s investigation into the dispute brought several things into the light.
- The company expected you to buy their goods and their goods alone.
- They might even fire you for not doing so.
- This store also charged more than others.
A constant guard at the gate could check any parcel coming into the camp for smuggled goods. Miners did successfully and illicitly manage to bring in supplies. However, they did so knowing they could lose their job. Howard A. Babcock told in an interview (now residing in the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan) a story of how his sister-in-law smuggled groceries they bought into the camp:
“…they were scared to death to come back from town with the groceries they’d purchased more cheaply. So the women, in their billowing skirts of that day, and petticoats, they’d hang this all up around their waists with strings, they’d tie it all up underneath their skirts and walk into their camp. They’d be about thirty pounds heavier. And this was quite necessary because if anyone of the company stools, or employers’ stool-pigeons, seen them bring it in, they would be reported and they would be let know about it and maybe even fired.”
Roy Ludwig, President of the Bienfait Local 7606 of the United Mine Workers’ Union summed up the overall conditions during a 1989 memorial service.
Living conditions in the camps were sub human, drinking water unsanitary and sanitation facilities inadequate. The miners were expected to live in these company houses and buy all their goods at the company store. Miners suffered a loss in wages for doing business with anyone but the company store. Since the miners were obligated to buy at the company store, it didn’t take long before the men got “due” bills instead of pay cheques.
The mines were a death trap, accidents a frequent occurrence. Rotting timbers, few refuge holes and the source of various lung diseases and other health issues, made mines the most dangerous place to work in the 1930s. The miners were also the poorest paid in the country. They went down into the ground risking life and limb for about $1.60 a day.
Add to this the lack of any access to a grievance mechanism. When workers did complain about being short-changed or the working conditions, they were frequently told they were lucky to have jobs. In fact, it was not a total surprise when the miners went out on strike. Against a truculent management, the miners knew this was not going to be an easy victory.
The Estevan Strike
The strike, begun on September 7, 1931, had just entered its fourth week when the Strike Committee called in Annie Buller. They had heard about her, her organizational skills and oratory talents. At the time, she was speaking in Winnipeg. An organizer for the Workers Unit League (WUL), Annie Buller was amassing a prestigious reputation. A talented speaker, this 35-year-old woman agreed to come to boost the morale of the Estevan strikers. Unknown to either herself or the committee, Annie Buller was about to become one of the legendary survivors of the Estevan strike.
Annie was not the only woman active in the coalmines. She met several—most members of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Mine Workers’ Union. They included the redoubtable Elizabeth Sherratt Davies and Mary Harris. The women walked with Annie as she toured the mines. These two women, along with other wives, sisters and mothers supported the miners in their fight. They were there, besides their husbands when they paraded into Estevan on September 27, 1931.
The sun shone high in the sky as the miners prepared to set off from Bienfait to Estevan. A procession of some 63 vehicles gathered together. The women climbed in and everyone set off. One staff reporter for the Leader-Post, Chris Higgenbotham, described the event’s prelude: “It started so simply...One might have imagined the miners and their wives were starting out for a big picnic.” It was indeed a fine start to what became a doomed enterprise.
This was the problem. The mayor of Estevan, Mayor Bannatyne, and his city council had cancelled permission for the miners to lead a parade or speak in the Town Hall. Annie was to speak that night along with the union president, James Sloan. According to her supporters, Buller did not take part in the parade. She remained in the kitchen of the boarding house working on her speech. This house, run by Mrs. Eva Adler, by all accounts a timid soul seeking to avoid any controversy or trouble, was where Annie remained during her stay in the town.
In Estevan, the orderly procession met with resistance. The town had become home to many law enforcement personnel. Local police, 13 Special Police and 47 RCMP reinforcements barred the way. All had guns, batons, machine guns and riding crops. In the end, the strikers circumvented the blockade. It was to prove fatal for some that day. The police opened fire. As the troops gave chase, firing at the men, women and children, one block of individuals stood firm. The Women’s Auxiliary refused to stampede. They were there to protect their men. Elizabeth Sherrat Davies stared straight at the police forces. She threw open her coat defiantly calling out: “Here, shoot me first!”
On that day, three men died, murdered by the RCMP. They were Nick Nargan (28), Juliet Gryshko (28) and Peter Markunas (28). The first two died almost instantly. The second man, Markunas, could have been saved if he had received medical immediate attention. He did not. Refused admittance to the Estevan Hospital, he had to make the trek to Weyburn General. The same applied to all who had taken part in the demonstration, including the 23 wounded. Banners at their funerals later summed up the feeling of the miners and their families: “They fought for bread and got bullets instead.”
The inscription “Murdered by the RCMP” was carved onto the headstones of the three dead miners. Over the decades, these words have tended to become erased only to be restored. However, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour created a plaque to memorialize the strikers. They unveiled it on May 10, 1987. The delegates voted to place this marker and explained its purpose by carving into the marker the following: "...it is to act “as a tribute to the fighting spirit of the 1931 strikers and the courage of the three miners who gave their lives to better the lot of other workers.”
As for Annie Buller—after escaping the authorities in Estevan, she fled to Winnipeg. Where she gave a speech on the murders in Estevan. She eluded capture once again, but was arrested in Toronto. She was jailed, tried and found guilty. She was subsequently fined $500 and spent 1 year in Saskatchewan’s worst prison, North Battleford.
- Cochrane, Ken, ed. Toil and Trouble: An Oral History of Industrial Unrest in the Estevan-Bienfait Coalfields. Government of Saskatchewan: Department of Culture and Youth, 1975.
- Estevan Mercury (August – December 1931)
- “Fierce Clash When Police Halt Parade. Sticks, Stones And Bullets Fly On Main Street. One Bystander Dangerously Shot. Five Miners Laid Low By Police Bullets” Regina Leader Post, September 29, 1931
- Hanson Staley D (1974). “Estevan 1931” in On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada, 1919-1949. Irving Abella (ed). James Lorimer & Co.
- Hanson, Stanley D. (1971). The Estevan Strike and Riot. University of Saskatchewan, Regina.
- Howard A. Babcock local resident and mine cook in 1930s interviewed 19 June 1973 in Regina by Larry Johnston. Excerpts Saskatchewan Archives Board, Tape R-326
- Proceedings of the Royal Commission on the Bienfait-Estevan Mining Dispute, 1931
- Regina Leader Post (September-December 1931)
- Seager, Allen. 1985. “Socialists and Workers: The Western Coal Miners, 1900-1921.” Labour/Le Travail 10:25-59
- Shackleton, Doris French. Tommy Douglas. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.
- Watson, Louise. She Never Was Afraid: The Biography of Anne Buller. Toronto: Progress Books, 1976.
© 2019 Bonnie Michelle Durtnall
Rupert Taylor from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 02, 2019:
This all has such a horribly familiar ring to it as corporations employ the coercive apparatus of the state to deny basic rights to the citizenry. Every time conservative governments get power in Canada they begin to unravel the labour standards so bravely fought for by earlier generations.