The Great Cape Breton Labour Revolt

Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos via Unsplash

It is often said that rights are not gifted, they are fought for. 


The coal mining industry is expansive in Canada as it is home to 0.6 percent of the world’s coal resources.

The coal industry was especially entrenched in Cape Breton where it operated multiple Coal and Steel mills in the area as well as company towns.

The Canadian Labour Revolt empowered citizens to stand up for their rights in a set of loosely connected strikes, riots, and labour conflicts.The conflict between the Dominion of Canada and Coal Workers established important labour rights and norms in Canada and increased the role of labour in Canadian politics.The Revolt would be inspired by the ghastly conditions coal and steel miners worked in as well as the expansion of corporations into ventures such as company towns.

Coal has been mined in Canada since 1639. The first mine to be opened in Canada was a small mine at Grand Lake, New Brunswick. The purpose of the mine was to supply the nearby Fortress at Louisbourg.

In the first years of coal mining the resources extracted from the mines were used locally. Eventually, Canada’s place in the British Empire would open up Canada to exporting to the global market. Cape Breton’s mines notability supplied Boston and some other American ports. 

Commercial coal mining commenced in New Brunswick in the 1830s.

Coal mining then expanded rapidly. By 1880, the industrial output of Nova Scotian coal increased to just over one million tonnes. This ballooned further to become seven million tonnes in 1913. A major motivating factor behind the expansion of the coal mining industry was the requirements of the Industrial Revolution which has recently exploded in Britain. 

The growing domestic market demanded steel for Canada’s railways and fuel for the factories popping up in Ontario and Quebec. When the First World War broke out, three-quarters of all coal burned in Canada would come from Cape Breton.


Working in these mines would be incredibly dangerous, and mine disasters left a lasting scar on communities. In Nova Scotia, the Springhill mining disasters have never been forgotten. In 1891, a fire caused by accumulated coal dust swept through the shafts, causing an explosion that took the lives of 125 miners. Some of them were child laborers no older than 13. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented in Nova Scotia’s history.

There were several more disasters at Springhill. In 1956, an explosion killed 39 miners, and in 1958, an underground seismic event killed 75 miners. 

When the media crowded the remaining miners of the 1958 event as they left the shaft, Douglas Jewkes would reply that the thing he wanted most was a 7-Up. 

After that, several miners would make appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, which increased the public knowledge of the incident. 

The following year, Maurice Ruddick was chosen as Canada’s Citizen of the Year. Ruddick was a coal miner born in Joggins, NS. When he was trapped underground in the 1958 Springhill disaster, he led his colleagues in song and prayer to keep their spirits up. Ruddick was an active musical artist and would sing regularly in the shafts including the songs “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Bye Bye Love.” When the Governor of the State of Georgia, Marvin Griffin, took advantage of the media spotlight to offer the survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island, he was ignorant of the fact that Ruddick was a member of the African Nova Scotian community and responded with hate. He exploded and demanded Ruddick be segregated from his comrades, as Jekyll Island was in the Deep South and was dominated by racist Jim Crow laws. Ruddick’s legacy was forever captured in a Canadian Heritage Minute, as well as in the song “The Springhill Mine Disaster Song” by his daughter, Val MacDonald. 


Mining rights in Nova Scotia were once by the Monopoly General Mining Association. This monopoly would only last from 1826 until 1858 as American-financed mining companies began development. The expansion of American-financed companies would particularly happen in Glace Bay, New Waterford, and Sydney Mines, and would start to shape the region which would eventually become known as Industrial Cape Breton.

 A key part of coal mines was the existence of company towns. These are places where all stores, housing, and property are owned by one employer. An employee will get paid his wage from his employer and then pay that money back to him through paying for necessities such as food. These towns are incredibly profitable and viciously exploitative. New Waterford, for example, stands out as a company town that was developed specifically for the coal mining industry. 

By 1873 eight coal companies were operating in Cape Breton. Miners would only be paid between 80 cents to $1.50 per day and underage child laborers were paid 65 cents. 

The first major mine was the Hub shaft of Glace Bay. Following this more mines were opened in the Glace Bay and the Sydney Mines region. The industry in Glace Bay would grow to include 12 coal mines.

In 1894, full control of mining rights was granted to an American syndicate called the Dominion Coal Company. By 1903, the Dominion Coal Company would be producing 3 250 000 tonnes per year. Its production would count for 40% of Canada’s total coal output. The British Empire became extremely dependent on Cape Breton coal to fuel its industrial production. 

Matthius “Tius” Tutty first started working in the Glace Bay coal mines when he was 14. He would drive horses and haul boxes of coal along the underground tracks of the coal shafts. He describes working 12-hour shifts. The workers were cursed at by their boss from morning to night. Once the children were old enough to swing a pickaxe they would be expected to. 

Dominion Coal was a dominating force over these men’s lives, owning the stores they shopped at, the houses they lived in, and even any place they purchased food to feed themselves. The pay was dismal but many miners had little education, no opportunities, and little choice.


These conditions led to one of the most prolonged and bitterest strikes in Canadian history. There were two main groups of workers.One group was the Provincial Workmen’s Association (PWA). This union was the only substantial labour organization in Canada at the time and it operated in Nova Scotia. The union organized an unsuccessful strike in 1904 which lost them several members as they failed to gain employment, or were fired. Dominion Steel and Coal planned on this, as their objective was to starve the PWA of funds and resources until it eventually would shrivel up and die. Dominion’s quest for economic dominance in Cape Breton was threatened by an organized labor movement. 

Another union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), would attempt to raid the PWA’s ranks. 

This union had three hundred thousand American members and was the biggest union in the United States.The PWA and UMW would go to war over union membership while Dominion planned ways to break those unions and continue their exploitation of the workers and their communities.

The PWA insisted on the firing of men who joined the UMW. As a result of Dominion controlling housing in company towns, many of these families were evicted from their homes. 

During the brutal paralyzing cold winter of 1909-10, families were forced to camp in tents on the hills overlooking Sydney and Glace Bay. They were joined by members of Canada’s small militia. Families were forced to survive under the surveillance of the cold barrel of the men’s rifles. 

Dominion exclaimed that its fight with the UMW was one of patriotism. This was despite Dominion itself creating the conditions that rose to competing unions. When the UMW announced its defeat after spending a million dollars on the fight, the support for the union went underground.

By 1917, supporters of the UMW captured miners’ leadership under the context of creating an entirely new organization. By the next year eleven thousand Cape Breton miners would be defacto members of the United Mine Workers. 

The war years were incredibly traumatic for Canadian Labour. Labourers were needed on the front lines which led to a serious labour shortage in 1916. Union membership increased heavily during the war from 166,163 to 378,047. 

When the war ended workers understood they had sacrificed everything they had for the victory. They needed to know that Canadian society would now change to accommodate them.Canadian labour groups went into the war enthusiastically, similar to their fellow countrymen. 

The economic depression which would follow in the years 1914 to 1916 significantly racked the country. However, the increasing industrial output would be key to ending the economic depression. 


Women entering the workforce in the First World War were met with incredible amounts of hatred, and misogyny. An estimate for women munition workers ranges from 10,000 to 35,000. Workers were crucial to the war effort which allowed labour to gain some influence. 

Strikes occurred for higher wages, job security, and safer working conditions. The start of this popular revolt is estimated to be between the dying days of 1916 and the election of the Union government in 1917. Conscription would greatly curb the civil liberties of labour and trade union members. At the start of the war, in 1915, union membership in Canada was 140,000, but by the end of the war in 1919, it had reached 378,000 workers. 

1919 was a defining year for labor in Canada, as the number of overall strikes rose to 427. 

The November Revolution in Russia resulted in the Borden government introducing reactionary laws that limited organized labour, which included the legal banning of multiple socialist and union groups. The Borden government stated explicitly that there would be an additional ban on “Any Association, Organization, society or corporation, one of those purposes or professed purposes is to bring about any government, political, social, individual, or economic change within Canada.”

Literature was also banned. Any material breaking that law would be subject to government seizure without a warrant. Censorship laws introduced with the War Measures Act were expanded.


The culmination of the Canadian government’s mistreatment of labor was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. On May 15th the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike after talks broke down. 30,000 men and women left their jobs, mostly employees of the city’s privately owned factories, shops, and trains.Public employees would join them in solidarity, including police, firemen, postal workers, telephone, and telegraph operators, and utilities workers. The strike was controlled by the Central Strike Committee, and every union involved was able to elect members of the committee to bargain on behalf of the workers. 

Helen Armstrong was among the members of the committee. She established the Labour cafeteria. This would provide women strikers with three meals a day and proved to be an essential service for those who lost wages due to the strike. 

The government’s response to the strike was intense. A citizens committee formed by some of Winnipeg’s most successful and influential business leaders and politicians pressured the government to act. They incorrectly claimed the strike was an attempt to start a revolution. Xenophobia was common among this group as they described the strikers as “alien scum” due to the presence of Eastern European Canadians who had immigrated to the Western provinces in the early 1900s.

The federal government then stepped in. They met with the citizen’s committee, not the democratically elected central strike committee. Their first action was a threat to fire workers unless they immediately returned to work. The immigration act was changed so any British-born immigrants could be swiftly deported.


The government arrested 10 leaders of the strike. Strikers held a silent parade four days later in solidarity with their comrades. When a crowd started to vandalize a streetcar the Royal North-West Northern Police responded brutally. Protestors were beaten with clubs and fired upon. 30 were injured and two killed in an event forever known as Bloody Saturday. By day’s end, federal troops occupied the streets of Winnipeg.

Amherst responded to this with their general strike on 19 May 1919. The Sydney Record declared that the strike was similar in size to the Winnipeg strike. Frank Burke was a champion of the idea of One Big Union (OBU). This is a concept developed in the early 19th and 20th centuries which aimed to unite the interests of workers. 

One Big Union champions the idea that workers should be organized into one big union and was developed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The IWW promoted solidarity through the concept that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” This asks workers to be concerned about the working conditions of their colleagues and fellow workers. One Big Union has the immediate goals of better pay, shorter hours, and better surroundings.

Striking workers in Amherst successfully closed down the city’s eight largest industries and local merchants and civil workers had decided to join the strike as well. One Big Union button became common on the streets of Amherst. Daily union meetings were held to inform the public. Leaders at The Winnipeg General Strike had officially created the One Big Union syndicalist union which was inspired by the IWW’s ideals. The OBU focused predominately on what was categorized as unskilled labour primarily organized by industry instead of trade. By late 1919 OBU membership was up to 70,000.

Amherst, at the start of the war, was a busy town with hundreds of maritime workers and their families relocating to the new manufacturing town. After the war manufacturing companies merged with Montreal corporations which would funnel much of the investment to Montreal-based operations. The local plant would see a crash in employment numbers, and the munitions production industry could not be relied on as a permanent supplier of jobs. The working men and women of Amherst started to become worried about their economic future. 


The Amherst Federation of Labour (AFL) was organized in the fall of 1918. All members fought to participate in AFL deliberations and to vote. The strike was supported by the local Socialist Party of Canada branch. The general strike lasted three weeks. Due to the economic crisis which the city found itself in, the AFL held a general meeting to discuss the future of the strike. The AFL recommended strikers accept the conditions of a 9-hour work day and no decrease in wages. This would prove to only be a temporary cease-fire between labour and the province.

Nova Scotia miners living in desperate conditions among company towns continued to fight for the right to collective bargain for coal operations. In 1919, the British Empire Steel Corporation promised a $500 million merger of DOMCO and DISCO which would create the British Empire Steel Corporation, controlling all the steel mills and most coal mines in the province. The corporation promised investors the profitability of the operation which it greatly overestimated. This resulted in BESCO seeking to reduce the wages of miners and limit their ability to disrupt production through striking. The ultimate goal would be to break up the United Mine Workers of America.


The Coal War started when the company in 1922 introduced a one-third reduction in miners’ wages. BESCO  used inhumane tactics to achieve its goals, including the firing and blacklisting of miners and their families from their homes.The President of UMWA disrespected and ignored his own union members’ demands.

Lewis condemned the actions and mocked local leader Dan Livingstone with all the unearned confidence that a Washington D.C. desk provides. He threatened to revoke the charter of District 26. Coal miners attempted to ignore Lewis’ abuse of office.


Union leader Dan Livingstone further insisted on the independence of District 26, stating full autonomy and annoyance with Washington dictating operations in Cape Breton without providing any type of support. Eventually, Livingstone and fellow union leader J.B. McLachlan were arrested on charges of seditious libel.


BESCO increased its attempts to destroy the organized coal mining activity by cutting off credit at company stores, and further wage reductions. The community of Cape Breton responded by throwing its resources behind the miners.


The coal war came to an end in June 1925 with the bloody battle at Waterford Lake. 

William Davis was a miner in New Waterford. His father, Thomas, was also a miner. His 14-year-old brother had died in a mining explosion, and Davis himself worked at Nos.1, 6, 12, and 16 collieries of the Dominion Coal Company Limited in Cape Breton. He worked his way up to become a pumpman and a roadmaker. Davis had his own family the year of the final round of strikes in 1925.


The latest contract expired on 15 January 1925, BESCO further cut off credit at company stores targeting especially the ones in communities with large union presence. BESCO forced thousands of Cape Bretoners to the point of starvation, refusing arbitration. 12,000 Miners would go on strike. When the corporation planned to resume operations without any settlement, a group of miners marched on the local power plant that served the mines in the New Waterford district. Although this created some inconvenience for the local population, coal miners devised a solution. They drew on local wells and set up a volunteer delivery service to take water to the hospital.


BESCO responded in direct force with a squad of company police tasked with escorting 30 men to restart the power station. The group went on a patrol around New Waterford on the morning of June 10, calling the miners to a public meeting. Police charged the group almost imminently upon their arrival. Neither the police nor the horses they rode on were trained. Police opened fire on the workers, and despite being fired upon workers rushed the police, forcing their retreat. In total, the police fired over 300 rounds. William Davis was shot and killed by one of those bullets. Policemen needlessly shot deliberately at the thirty-eight-year-old father, hitting him in the heart. 


Coal Miners rushed to New Waterford, broke into company towns, and distributed the supplies inside. In response, the 2000 Canadian Army soldiers were deployed with the sole purpose of dispensing striking workers. They would successfully restore BESCO’s control of coal and steel in Cape Breton.


A Royal Commission the next year in 1926 demanded BESCO recognize both the existence of the coal miners union and negotiate collective bargaining with the United Mine Workers of America.

Davis’s Funeral was held on June 14 and had 5000 in attendance, making it the largest for a funeral in New Waterford. June 11 became known as Davis Day. Although many Cape Bretoners refused to work on this day it did not become a paid holiday until 1969.


The fierce struggle for the basic human and labour rights of Coal Miners is a stark reminder that rights must be fought for and defended. The labour revolt would be an important building block in Canadian labour history. Many leaders would become prominent leaders in the Canadian socialist movement of the 1920-1930 period, such as George Armstrong, who would be elected to the Manitoba House of Commons. Several other striker leaders such as Roger Ernest Bray went on to be founding members of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to today’s NDP.


In 2008, a private members bill was passed by the Nova Scotia House of Assembly to designate June 11th as William Davis Memorial Day. The fight for decent working conditions still goes on, Nova Scotia should never forget those who have fought for and died for the privilege of living with dignity.