Bienfait: The Saskatchewan Miners’ Struggle of ’31

CANADA WAS HIT HARDER by the Depression than most industrialized capitalist countries as international prices for agricultural and resource production collapsed. The unemployment rate averaged about 30 per cent in 1933, which was the trough of the depression. The high unemployment destroyed the bargaining power of the entire working class and many sectors suffered repeated wage cuts, deteriorating working conditions, and consistent insecurity.

Most workers entered the cauldron of the Depression virtually defenceless. There was almost no safety net provided by the state. Except for a few pockets, trade unions hardly extended beyond the skilled crafts and not in nearly all of them. And as a percentage of the work force, unions had been in decline since the mid-1920s as the unorganized mass production industries expanded.

By 1930, the One Big Union (OBU), which began with such promise in 1919, was virtually extinct. There were three trade union federations: the international craft unions of the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC), the exclusively national unions of the All-Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL), and the so-called “confessional” unions of the Canadian Catholic Congress of Labour (CCCL). None of these federations had a strategy for dealing with the Depression. They lost members to the ranks of the unemployed and could hardly hold themselves together, let alone mount an effective resistance or attempt much new organizing.

There would be considerable resistance and even some new trade union organizing between 1930 and 1935. Much of it would be led by the Workers’ Unity League (WUL), which was founded in 1930 under Communist auspices as an outgrowth of the “class against class” international strategy adopted by the Comintern. The WUL was intended as a revolutionary alternative to the conventional trade union federation and was affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). It was organized along industrial lines and differed from conventional federations in that unemployed associations, women’s associations, and other organizations not meeting the strict definition of trade unions could affiliate. The emphasis was on the unity of all workers within and outside of unions and especially on the common interests of the employed and unemployed.

The WUL led the most effective agitation and organization among the unemployed. Among the employed workers they concentrated on mining, forestry, fishing, and related resource industries, although they were also present in longshoring, processing, and manufacturing in a more modest way. The WUL led most strikes in the resource industries and it has been estimated that they were involved in almost three-quarters of the strikes in Canada between 1930 and 1935. Many were “desperation” strikes, involving attempts to resist wage cuts and/or achieve union recognition. They were invariably met with vicious repression in the form of co-ordinated attacks by employers, police, government officials, the media, occasionally vigilantes, and often the judiciary.

One such strike among coal miners occurred in and around Bienfait, Saskatchewan in autumn 1931. It was led by the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada (MWUC), which was affiliated to the WUL. The most dramatic and tragic event of the Bienfait strike was the shooting and killing of Julian Gryshko, Peter Markunas, and Nick Nargan by the RCMP when they attacked a miners’ parade in the streets of Estevan on 29 September 1931. This was the single greatest loss of life of any of the hundreds of similar confrontations of the 1930s. It quickly became known throughout Canada and influenced the consciousness of thousands of workers and political activists. It created the erroneous impression, repeated in many subsequent references to these events, that the miners’ strike took place in Estevan, the only sizeable town in the district. The only major events occurring in Estevan were the fateful parade and some of the trials and hearings following the strike.

Endicott clears up the geographic misconception and many others in Bienfait. This work is very thoroughly researched and appears to have exhausted the relevant archival and other documentary sources as well as the secondary literature. Endicott also spent considerable time over several years interviewing people in Bienfait and the surrounding district. Some had been activists in the strike itself and others clearly remembered the events of 1931. Some were descendants of strike supporters or people on the other side of the struggle.

The result of Endicott’s labour is a magnificent work, not only on the strike and its aftermath but also on the social history of the district. It was an ethnically and religiously mixed community consisting mainly of immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia, and central and eastern Europe. About 30 per cent were from eastern Europe with the majority of these being Ukrainians, who were in turn divided into religious nationalists and secular leftists. Many of these cultural differences influenced events surrounding the conflict of 1931. Endicott is particularly creative in delving into personal and family histories to provide insights into the cultural and social milieu of the district.

Coal mining had begun in the 1890s with numerous small mines to serve a local market. By shortly after the turn of the century there were a few much larger commercial mines selling into the national and international markets as far away as Chicago. Hundreds would be employed during the winter months with seasonal layoffs in the summer when many found casual work on farms.

Class conflict inevitably developed and the miners began looking for unions to represent them. In 1907 they appealed for help to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which tried to organize and represent them for a few years but failed. The OBU tried in 1920 but fell victim to vigilante terror and police intimidation. Without union representation the abuses common to mining towns in that era became particularly oppressive in Bienfait. By 1931 the situation was ripe for another serious effort at unionization. Wages had been cut, working conditions deteriorated, and the drought had eliminated most of the summer employment on the farms. That summer 125 of 532 Bienfait residents were on village relief.

In August the miners appealed to the TLC in Regina to help them organize a union, but their request was ignored. The MWUC was approached and it responded with alacrity. Some of the top organizers were sent to Bienfait, including Joe Forkin from the Regina office, Sam Scarlett from Saskatoon, and President James Sloan from Calgary. Within a short period the union claimed to have signed up 100 per cent of the approximately 600 miners, and MWUC Local 27 was born. They were careful to build a community base, and they also chose a local leadership of men who were mainly of British extraction to fend off charges, made invariably when there was labour unrest in that era, that the trouble stemmed from “foreigners” and “un-patriotic” or “anti- British” elements. The union leaders also cautioned the miners to avoid violence at all costs if they were to maintain public support.

The main operators refused to recognize or negotiate with the union, leaving the miners no choice but to strike. The strike began on 8 September and was total except in a new strip mine that was not organized. It was a non-violent strike despite predictions from the corporations that there would be violence, along with their provocations to make their predictions self-fulfilling prophecy. Even before the strike began, they demanded police reinforcements and the arrest of the outside union leaders.

Endicott’s analysis of the police response to the pressures brought to bear upon them provides a masterful illumination of the class and political dynamics of the situation. The local Estevan district RCMP detachment was well informed about the grievances of the miners and the positions and motives of the operators and tried to keep the regional headquarters in Regina accurately informed about the situation. They attempted to play a neutral role and to protect life and property without being used as strike breakers. Regina RCMP headquarters at first appeared at least somewhat supportive to this strategy but were soon thereafter overruled by the provincial and federal governments and the national RCMP leadership. Sergeant William Mulhall, of the Estevan detachment, reported that C.C. Morfit, director at the Taylorton mine and leader of the Coal Operators’ Association (COA), was attempting to provoke a strike for economic reasons of his own and that the miners were being forced to strike when Morfit and others refused to negotiate. Morfit declared that he would not negotiate with the MWUC because it was affiliated to Moscow through the RILU. Mulhall, however, knew that Morfit, an American, was a principal in a firm of New York consulting engineers that had contracts to operate several mines in the Soviet Union.

RCMP officers sent from Regina at the request of the COA to investigate alleged threats of violence agreed with Mulhall that the miners had justifiable grievances and that the stance of the operators was the main problem. It was also reported that the miners had the solid support of the local community in and around Bienfait. This prompted the provincial Attorney General at first to caution restraint.

The restraint by the RCMP was soon abandoned. The élite within the liberal business and professional class in Estevan, many of whom owned mining shares, mounted a tremendous propaganda campaign against the miners who were denounced as “reds” and “foreigners.” This campaign included public criticism of the RCMP as a “rabbit force” and a “disgrace.” The campaign demanded that Sergeant Mulhall be replaced as commander of the Estevan detachment. The Regina headquarters at first resisted, but General J.H. MacBrien, national RCMP Commissioner, overruled them and Mulhall was replaced. More reinforcements were sent into the district and the provincial authorities dropped all pretence of neutrality and joined the campaign against the strike. The anti-strike propaganda campaign was made easier by MWUC President James Sloan’s insistence on union recognition as the main priority when more emphasis on specific demands and grievances would probably have been a wiser strategy. Sloan was severely criticized for this by WUL National Secretary Tom Ewen after the strike.

The miners’ parade to Estevan on 29 September was part of a strategy to rally public support for the cause. The parade was broken up by the RCMP, who killed the three miners and wounded many more despite the fact that it was a peaceful demonstration that included many women and children. This outrage was followed by a virtual reign of terror designed to break the strike and destroy the union. Ninety fully-armed RCMP descended on Bienfait and terrorized the village for two weeks with constant day and night patrols. “All day long, posses went on the rampage, searching homes in the village and in the mining camps looking for wounded miners, making further arrests, and generally spreading an atmosphere of terror.” (96)

The RCMP proceeded to arrest the outside MWUC organizers and many of the local leaders and activists. They were charged with a variety of offences, with the most common being “incitement to riot.” Some of the trials stretched into 1933. The Canadian Labour Defence League directed the defence in what were the most important political trials in Saskatchewan in the 20th century. The majority of those charged were convicted but the trials were a mockery of justice, which included jury-tampering, perjury, and biased judges. Annie Buller, who was in Bienfait and not Estevan at the time of the “riot,” was tried and convicted though it took two trials and even though W.J. Perkins (the Attorney-General’s agent) considered there to be insufficient evidence. General MacBrien insisted Buller be included because she was an important Communist on the national level, and the main Communist Party leadership had already been imprisoned under Section 98.

Some not convicted were blacklisted from the mines and some of these were deported when they had to go on relief, including an important local leader, Martin Day. Many were not employed again until the labour shortage during World War II.

The MWUC did not achieve recognition, though the miners did achieve an agreement of sorts. The MWUC maintained a shadowy existence and their activists helped organize a local of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1938. They would not achieve contracts until after the new CCF government, elected in 1944, forced the operators to recognize and deal with the union.

Today the underground mines are no more but several hundred strip miners are represented by the UMWA. Among other things they negotiated May Day as a paid holiday in the union contract — a rarity in North America. Many in Bienfait call it “Gemby Day” after Peter Gemby, a local strike leader blacklisted for ten years after 1931. He would later serve the community in many capacities including several years on the village council.

The local union has begun to look back on the activists of 1931 as pioneers of the labour movement. This has become more than purely a local memory. Endicott erected a plaque that has a moving description of a ceremony in Estevan that took place at the gravesite of the three martyrs in the Bienfait cemetery in 1997. It was sponsored by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Estevan Labour Committee and was addressed by local, provincial, and federal labour leaders and politicians. Also participating were Amelia Billis Budris, widow of Peter Markunas, who unveiled a plaque at the gravesite, and Peter Gemby, then 94, who addressed the crowd in Estevan with an optimism that would put cynics to shame. “In the long run, history is on the side of the people. I hope the young people here will feel encouraged by what can be achieved when the union makes you strong.” (138)

Endicott’s labours have been instrumental in encouraging local people to reclaim their own history. When he first began interviewing people, many were reluctant to talk. Decades of anti- communism and a conservative political culture in the outside society made them embarrassed about the events of 1931. Eventually they did begin to talk and became enthusiastic about redressing the conservative interpretation of their history. The launching of Bienfait in the fall of 2002 in Estevan and Bienfait drew large enthusiastic crowds.

By: Stephen L. Endicott