Friday, 28 December 2007


The People’s History of Cape Breton, a project completed in 1971, is itself a window into the history and the people of Cape Breton as the historical events it had reported were intended to be. It was an initiative facilitated by the federal Liberal government of the day under a scheme known as ‘Opportunities for Youth’. The political bent of the authors is unmistakable and utterly without apologies. The spirit of the authors is identical to the spirit of Cape Breton characters such as J.B. McLachlan, Dan Livingstone, and Dan Willy Morrison. As radical and pure of political spirit as these men may have been, it was the spirit of the mass of workers that held explosive revolutionary potential.

The People’s History of Cape Breton is laid out here for you to read. It may be read as a historical document, a sociological analysis, or as an historical drama. It is each of these things in spades.

It may strike you odd that such events had taken place in Canada within living memory. This is the stuff of other continents where the hegemony of the British Empire or American capitalism has not had much effect.

It is worth considering the nature of the collective spirit when reflecting on these events in Cape Breton. It is the nature of capitalism to bring out individualism. Most are held at the edge of an abyss where it is possible, if we slow down, to go over; over into a world of hunger and deprivation of our own basic needs and the basic needs of our children and loved ones. The coal and steel industrialists in Cape Breton pushed the workers over that edge and brought forth, as a result, a spirit that lies beneath the surface in all societies and all individuals. That is the spirit of collective struggle and mutual cooperation. It is that spirit, more than anything else that threatens the status quo. Those that harvest from the labour of others understand this reality better than anyone else.

On the island of Cape Breton this revolutionary spirit was awakened and burned with tremendous heat in the 1920s. Evidence that it continues to smoulder may be found in the spirit of these authors who have not identified themselves in the pages of this document. Evidence that this spirit still lives may be found in the people of Cape Breton and when you look it may be found in all individuals and all cultures the world over.

The People’s History of Cape Breton is laid out here before you as it was written in 1971. The book held some cartoons and quotes in the margins that are omitted, some of which are reproduced here.


This is a story of the working people of Cape Breton. It is not your usual kind of history. It is not about kings and queens, explorers, adventurers, politicians and prime ministers. It is a history of the common people of Cape Breton, of their day-to-day fight to improve their working conditions and their struggle to build a better way of life. The story of Cape Breton tells us a lot about the social system that Canadians live under, and about how ordinary men and women, when they work together, can change it.

This booklet, we hope, will be read and learned from by both Cape Bretoners and workers across the country. For Cape Bretoners it will chart the poorly known courses of the great struggles and accomplishments of the past and tell why the basic causes of those struggles has yet to be resolved. For Canadians generally, it will picture the little-known history of Cape Breton in its true light —— as a birthplace of militant working class struggle in Canada. This is the people’s history.

The earliest history of Cape Breton is shrouded in controversy. The arguments are about who first discovered Cape Breton Island. Some say it was Leif Erikson, who crossed the AtlantIc with his Norse Sailors in 1000 A. D. Others say it was’ Basque fishermen, who sailed here after the cod fish. The most popular version says that John Cabot, the Italian explorer working for the British Crown, landed here on his famous voyage of 1497.

Really, none of these people were the “discoverers” of Cape Breton. They couldn’t be, since the island was already inhabited. At the time of’ the so-called “great discoveries” Cape Breton was part “of the territory of the Micmac tribe of Indians. These people led a wandering hunting and fishing life style which was rudely disrupted by the intrusion of Europeans eager for fortune and empire. The mark of the Micmac people has been left on the island in the form of place names -- Baddeck, Malagawatch, Whycocomagh and the people themselves have not perished entirely either.
The Europeans, when they claimed Cape Breton for themselves, were the conquerors of a foreign land. The bountiful fishing grounds and the strategic location of Cape Breton on the Atlantic coast were the island’s great attractions. In the long battles for control of the North American empire, Cape Breton changed hands more than once. Eventually the British won out and the future of the island -- called Oonamagik by the Micmac people and Isle Royale by the French -- was settled. To consolidate their victory the British destroyed the mighty French fortress at Louisbourg.

New kinds of people now joined the Micmacs and scattered French settlements. The main source of the population of Cape Breton were the Scottish highlanders. They came to North America, mainly in the 1820’s, because there was no room left for them in Scotland. The Scottish landowners had decided to turn most of their land over to sheep farming and had to get rid of the families farming the land. Most of them came to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. After this period the main waves of immigration, to Canada largely bypassed Cape Breton, although the opening of the coal mines did bring experienced mining families from the British Isles.

The greatest resource of Cape Breton was its coal. Coal, the fuel of industry, made Cape Breton a very attractive piece of real estate to the builders of industrial empires. In l826 a British duke was given sole right to the coal resources of all Nova Scotia. He got rich by leasing land to mining companies. A long parade of corporations followed, all of them dedicated to mining coal as cheaply as possible and selling it at as a high a price as they could get.

Over the years, say these corporations, Cape Breton was “developed.” We would prefer to say it was robbed blind. It was a one-sided process; the coal was extracted and shipped off to Montreal, Upper Canada and New England. The steel industry, located at Sydney because of the enormous quantity of coal it needs, followed the same pattern. Its iron and steel went to feed manufacturing and industry in the heartland of the empire. Hundreds of millions of dollars of profits created by the coal miners and steelworkers of Cape Breton have been invested not here, but in distant industrial centres. All this was made possible because the riches of our country are not distributed wisely and rationally; they are distributed by the business decisions of huge international corporations. Cape Breton, more than almost any other part of Canada knows this well.

What was the price of all this “development” of Cape Breton? The past is strewn with untold stories of starvation and murder, children who were worked like dogs, 24-hour shifts and seven-day work weeks. Its conditions that make people rebel, that turn them into radicals and revolutionists. In this booklet we look at some of those conditions and at the system which produced them. We also look at the answers working people found as they struggled through victory and defeat to the present day. The patterns of the past have not changed; the struggle is not over. The day has not yet come when the working people of Cape Breton own and control the riches of their land and the products of their hand and brain.


The first giant mining company to come to Cape Breton was the Dominion Coal Company. This was in 1892. In a sweeping deal with the Boston financial interests who owned Domco, the Liberal government, awarded them the right to mine Nova Scotia’s coal for 99 years. In return for $88 million, Domco won the right to exploit the miners of Cape Breton to their heart’s content.

Quickly Domco whipped the existing mines into shape. Taking over more than half a dozen small and inefficient mining companies, Domco increased coal production enormously. Within six years of the takeover coal production more than doubled, mounting to 1.5 million tons in 1898. By 1902 production doubled again. Domco meant business.

As part of Domco’s efficiency drive, the people of the mining towns found themselves being organized into a modern day feudal system in which every single aspect of their life depended directly on the Company.

The company ran the stores. When you owed money to the store, which was most of the time, the company would take it out of your pay. If you caused trouble, went on strike, or got laid off, the company could cut off all credit at the stores. Since they quickly became the only stores in the area, the company stores were free to charge any price they wanted for the staples of life.

The company owned the houses in the mining towns. They had no trouble collecting rent, of course, since it came off the top of the wage packet. Evictions were a common weapon to keep the miners in line, or to punish striking workers. Many families spent the winter of 1909-10 in canvas tents after losing their homes during the strike of that year.

The company supplied coal to the miners’ homes, and water too was controlled by the company. The local doctors were all company doctors. A manager at one of the mines during the night would show up the next day as a magistrate in court.

To look at the way they all rallied to support the company against the workers, you’d think that the clergy, the newspapers, the army and the provincial and federal governments all worked for the company too. In 1907 more than one-third of the income of the provincial government came from Domco.

What happened to the money Domco made selling vast quantities of coal? A small portion found its way into the pockets of the working people of Cape Breton. Most of this, however, went right back to Domco as rent, or food money, or for doctors, clothes or fuel. Another part was spent on opening new mines and expanding Domco’s ability to produce more coal. Some of it went to the provincial government as royalties and in the form of outright bribes to the political party, in office.
But the biggest part of the money Domco got by selling coal went to the small handful of individuals who owned the corporation. These people either spent the money personally to lead a luxurious life, or invested it in other parts of Canada, in the U.S., in Latin America-- any place they could drive a hard bargain.

One thing is clear. Very little of the wealth created by the coal miners ended up in the, miners’ pockets. As far as Domco was concerned, the people who did all the work deserved nothing more than a meagre share.


The first formal organization of Cape Breton workers was not really a trade union. The Provincial Workmen’s Association was not much more than an “association.” It was no fighting force. Its longtime Grand Secretary, John Moffat, was greatly admired in government circles for being opposed to strikes and usually doing his utmost to prevent them.”

The main activity of the PWA was to request favours from the provincial government. Sometimes these favours related to working conditions. For instance, laws were passed limiting the use of child labour in the mines and regulating safety conditions, but they were never strictly enforced. Other times the favours were of a more personal nature. One of the PWA’s founders, Bob Drumond, gladhanded his way into a comfortable seat in the appointed upper house of the provincial assembly.
Trapped by the conditions of industrial feudalism we described, and working a 12-hour day for meagre pay, the Cape Breton miner turned to the PWA to help him fight back. The PWA turned a deaf ear. The workers’ only real weapon -- the strike -- would be kept under wraps.

When a sudden wage cut at the Sydney steel plant in 1904 took the workers by surprise, the PWA was catapulted into an unwelcome strike situation. All 1500 steelworkers left the plant and shut it down. The strike was swiftly and brutally crushed when the PWA’s buddies, the Liberal government, sent troops to help Domco reopen the plant with imported scabs.

Despite its failure as an effective tool for the workers, the PWA was still an important step forward. Originally a miners’ association set up at Springhill in 1879, the PWA spread the idea that working people should get together to fight for their rights all across the province. The PWA took in glassblowers, ironworkers, rail men, boot and shoe workers, steelworkers, quarry men, tramway men, longshoremen and even retail store clerks.


Unhappy withy the lack of fighting spirit in what was supposed to be their union, the miners began to look for an organization which would really be a defender of their interests. To J.B. McLachlan, J.D. McLennan, Dan McDougall and other strongwilled young miners, the answer seemed to be a union like the United Mine Workers of America, the coal miners’ union which was making great gains in the U.S. coalfields.

The movement for a new union began formally in 1907. The aim of the rank and file miners who started signing up their fellow workers was to have the PWA dissolve itself and join the United Mine Workers. In 1908 this goal was approved in a referendum among the Cape Breton miners. They rejected the idea of “improving” the old PWA.

Instead of bowing to the will of their membership, the PWA leaders schemed to stay in power and keep their comfortable jobs. At their convention that fall, the doors were simply locked to arriving miners’ delegates.

It was clear that the new union would have to organize entirely outside of the PWA. After an intensive membership campaign, District 26 of the UMWA was formed in March 1909. Seven thousand of the more than 10,000 miners had joined.

What were the aims of the new union? The new union would confront the mineowners directly to seek for the miners a “fair and equitable share of the wealth they produce.” The union would fight for higher wages, for an eight-hour day, for payment of the miners in cash rather than in credit, and for adequate health and safety provisions in the mines. This was-not a radical programme - - except by the standards previously set by the PWA.

While District 26 was getting on its feet, the coal operators were meeting secretly to plot their strategy -- smash the new union and keep the PWA alive. You can easily understand why the mineowners would make this choice. The PWA meant every worker for himself; the UMW meant all the workers together, fighting back.

How would the new union be smashed? Domco began with several forms of intimidation, threats and reprisals. The most active union men found themselves laid off, while others were warned they would lose their jobs too unless they deserted their union. A force Of 625 special police was recruited, armed with iron bars, and paid for by Domco. Barbed wire went up around the mines.

Domco was determined to have a showdown with it’s unruly workers. It began on July 6, when Domco refused under any conditions to meet with the miners’ chosen union.
That morning Domco’s operations were seriously Ƨrippled by the first strike in the history of the coalmines. Only two mines managed to operate that day, and production was cut to one-third of normal. Afraid that their 625 “special police” wouldn’t be enough, Domco wired to Halifax for 500 regular combat troops. Explosive confrontations developed at the mine gates, where “loyal” PWA men coming off work were jeered at by angry crowds of striking workers and their families. The mayor of Glace Bay refused to disperse these crowds, and Domco’s top superintendent had to do it himself by leading a charge of mounted “specials” into a crowd of several thousand townspeople.

The strike was over a single issue - - whether the company or workers would choose which union the company would deal with. This is a struggle which has still not been completely won in Nova Scotia. A basic principle of trade unionism is that the workers must be able to choose and control their union. If they can’t do this, their union is probably not worth very much.

With the miners on strike, Domco decided to wait them out. Production would be lost for a while, but in the end, Domco was sure the miners would have to give in.
To try to break the will of the miners Domco used one of the oldest weapons available to capitalists -the scab. Unemployed men were shipped in from all over the province, put in encampments behind barbed wire, and treated royally -- astronomically high wages, fine meals, plenty of liquor -- in return for helping to break the strike. The PWA men who kept working were also scabs, but they got none of this special treatment.

Other company tactics included evicting strikers from their company-owned homes and cutting off food and fuel supplies through the company stores. During the first three months of the strike Domco was able to inch production in the mines back up to 3/4 of normal. With great pain, the strikers were learning that unless there is 100 per cent solidarity among the workers, the company will find a way to divide them.
Domco could afford to wait, the striking families couldn’t, but they did anyway. Through the winter of 1909-10 they persisted grimly in a battle they were losing. Living in tents pitched in snowfilled fields, many families survived on a basic diet of bean soup and bread.

In the spring it had to be admitted that the strike had been smashed by the powerful combination of the coal operators, the armed forces and a company union. The mineowners promised there would be no reprisals against men who had fought for the right to organize an effective union, but nevertheless hundreds of unionists found themselves blacklisted for life. Some left the country; some changed their trade. Others, like J.B. McLachlan, who would never again be allowed to work in the coalfields he had entered at the age of seven, stayed to fight again.

In 1909 the miners of Cape Breton tried to organize themselves into a trade union. It was the first blow in a battle against an entire way of life, an entire system.

It was far from the last.


The bitter ten month strike was lost, but it’s memory survived. The determination to have a strong militant union of their own choice grew stronger during the war years. By the end of 1916 more than half the mine-workers again belonged to the United Mine Workers.

The success of the union in recruiting members scared Domco. The war years were high profit years and they didn’t want to see any disruption of their booming production schedule. During 19l6 Domco came across with two unexpected pay raises. The scheme was to show the workers that with such kind employers there was no need to have a union. The effect was the opposite. The workers learned that when they united together to back up their demands, the company was forced to give in.

The company tried out some of its old tricks. But harassment by the company police and the firing of active trade unionists didn’t work this time. Instead, mass walkouts began at the mines.

All, this upheaval worried the government. It could prove dangerous to the wartime economy if the coalfields became idle. The government stepped in and called for more wage increases for the miners and told the PWA and the new union to amalgamate. ‘Since the PWA was practically extinct by now, what this really meant was recognition of the miners’ own union.

The Amalgamated Mineworkers of Nova Scotia was formed in June 1917. Two years later the union entered the United Mine Workers of America as District 26. Why did they join this international union? Since corporations like Domco are based on international alliances between capitalists and financiers, the workers too would have to unite to fight them.

But getting a union was just the first step. Now the miners would have to learn how to keep it under their control and how to use it in their struggle.


A miners’ life is one of the most difficult and dangerous working people face anywhere. Only miners themselves know the real cost of coal. A man’s life is cut short by the strain of working underground in the dark. Thousands of Cape Bretoners have suffered serious injuries in the mines. Hundreds have perished in underground disasters.

On July 26, 1917 a sudden explosion in the Domnco mine at New Waterford took the lives of 65 men and young boys. The townspeople were enraged; a coroner’s jury ruled that both the government and the company were guilty of gross neglect of the workers’ safety. A government inquiry was forced to agree.

But the miners refused to let the issue die a quiet death under a mound of official condolences. Direct action had to betaken to drum the message into the heads of Domco and the Liberal Party -- the value of human life is far greater than the market value of coal.

In October the union took it’s stand – all the men would walk off the job twice a week until those responsible for the explosion were dismissed. Faced with an ultimatum like this, the usually slow ‘normal channels’ immediately charged three Domco officials with manslaughter, while the company itself as charged with ‘causing bodily harm’ to it’s employees.

-“Mining is a tough job,
really tough. God knows
there’s many people be-
ing injured and getting
killed. Well, if that’s
not going to make them
militant,. I don’t know
what is.”

Once the affair got into the courts, the govern1nent’s real strategy became clear. When the fight was taking place at the level of the mine -- when the miners were actually threatening profits and the orderly operation of the mines -- the government was anxious to appear sympathetic. But as soon as the fight could be switched to the government’s ground --the courts -- it was a different tune.
Twice the trials were delayed. It was more than a full year after the original tragedy that a court considered the cases.

The name of the judge was Mellish, a Justivce of the Supreme Court of the province. This was his first important case. But Mellish had a good background for the job. At the time of the actual explosion, Mellish was a lawyer for the Dominion Coal Company. If he hadn’t been sitting in the judge’s chair, he would have been busy preparing the defence.

After three days of evidence in which it was shown that the explosion was caused by the accumulation of dangerous gases in the shafts -- something Domco and the safety inspectors were supposed to keep close, watch on -- Mellish told the jury to return a not guilty verdict. They did.

Domco was off the hook and so was the government. But the miners would continue to go back day after day to face dangers which could be kept under control. This could only be done if the priorities of the coal owners, and their friends who run the governments and the courts could be changed. For them a miner’s life was only a small sacrifice.