She Never Was Afraid
The Biography of Annie Buller, by Louise Watson
Bienfait, locale of some of the mines of the
Souris coal fields of Saskatchewan, was much the same as mining towns
anywhere, only worse; mountains of slag, bereft of any grass or trees,
surrounding it on every side, as far as the eye could see, these being
not natural hills but spill piles of soil stripped away to make the
seams of coal more easily accessible. Nothing bright or beautiful to be
seen in the whole place, only the drab face of the grinding poverty of
A study of the working and living conditions of
the miners here in the late twenties and early thirties is like
something out of a horror movie.
Coal was discovered in this area by an early
settler who was digging into the hillside to build a stable. His shovel
turned up coal. This was a very fortuitous find, as it furnished fuel
for the winter not only for himself but for other settlers around him.
He permitted his neighbours to bring their picks and shovels and dig
their winter's supply of coal for $1.00. What a blessing it must have
been for them then, but not for long.
As the saying goes, news travels fast, and soon
the Souris Valley Coal Company opened a commercial mine in 1896. The
owner was himself a farmer, and he hired other farmers to dig the coal
during the winter, and work their farms in summer. Later it was bought
up by a Winnipeg concern, Western Dominion Colliers, and the enterprise
was greatly expanded. The name of the man who owned this company was
Taylor, so the mine later became known as Taylorton. When it was found
that the deposits of coal were much greater than at first realized, the
CPR opened another mine in Bienfait in 1906, then another Winnipeg
syndicate came in.
And so it went, until the whole area was being
mined. The mines flourished, but Bienfait and the miners did not. As
more and more profits were extracted by the mining companies and their
bankers in the east, the conditions of the miners became worse and
worse. One miner is reported to have said, "When I was 16 I started in
the mines. I worked all the mines, right around. The working conditions
in all were the same, rotten. I looked after the horses. They lived down
there. We had stables and everything underground. The horses went blind
from being in the dark."
The promise of free land brought thousands of
immigrants from Europe and the British Isles. The land was handed out
sight unseen to these people, and much of it was anything but fertile,
especially in the vicinity of the Souris mining country. They had little
or no money, and only what possessions they could carry in a bag. Thus
they were eager to work anywhere they could, and for most that was in
the mines of Bienfait. The mine operators took full advantage of their
plight, and swindled them out of much of their meagre earnings by all
sorts of trickery.
The mine owners built an assembly of "houses" for
the miners' families to live in, for which they paid from $5.00 to
$10.00 a month, and this was deducted from their pay. Single men were
relegated to a company bunkhouse where they paid 25 cents a day, and 11
men shared six beds. There was also a boarding house where the charge
was $1.05 a day. Single men who did not stay at the boarding house or
bunkhouse were charged $1.00 a month tax.
While company officials claimed it was not
compulsory for the miners to live in the company houses, most of the men
felt it was a factor in being classified as a permanent employee.
A description that was typical of them is that of
Annie Baryluk, a sixteen year old daughter of a miner:
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.
A district sanitary officer having made an
inspection of 113 houses and bachelor shacks reported that: "53 were
cold, 43 leaky, 52 dirty, 25 over-crowded, and almost all in need of
While there were health and sanitary regulations
in effect, they were not really enforced, and the penalties for
infraction were minimal minimum $5.00, maximum $100. About the only
change the mine owners made was to prohibit those living in company
houses from taking in boarders. This ruling only made things more
difficult for the miners, as it reduced their income.
The company store was another source of gouging
of the miners' income, and sometimes downright cheating. Prices of most
foods and wearing apparel were higher than in other places: e.g. $3.00
for 100 pounds of flour at the company store, only $2.35 in the village
of Bienfait; 20 cents per pound for meat, only 15 cents in Estevan and
10 cents from local farmers. While the companies claimed they had never
made it compulsory to buy from their stores, some miners declared they
had been told they would forfeit their job if they went elsewhere. Most
felt that to go anywhere else was to run the risk of being fired. One
miner claimed he had been fired for buying eggs from another source, and
taken back only when he promised to deal exclusively at the company
When Eaton's catalogue came along, the women
would eagerly scan the pages. For a brief moment they would dream of
wearing a nice dress in a clean and spacious house. The dreams were
shattered by the realization that if they sent for anything from Eaton's
and were found out they would incur the wrath of the company.
Sometimes there would be a man or woman peddling
produce around the homes of the miners, but the company put a stop to
that too. A notice was posted, "All employees are forbidden to purchase
anything from Mrs. A. Molyneaux while peddling around the mine. Anyone
doing so will be disobeying the wishes of the Management ... and will be
inviting trouble for themselves."
Mrs. Molyneaux peddled milk.
Working conditions in the Bienfait mines almost
defy description. The mines operated in the winter and shut down in
summer, so the men put in as many hours as possible during the winter
months 80 hours per week was not uncommon. They went down the mines at
7 a.m. or sometimes before sunrise, and came up again after sunset, so
that rarely did they see the sunshine or breathe fresh air. The whistle
would blow to end the workday. A long blast meant no work the next day.
The coal was shovelled by hand, and lifted as
high as six feet into the cars. Forty tons a day was the average for a
man. Often they worked in water up to their knees.
With the coming of the Depression, the price of
coal dropped, layoffs took place in the mines, and conditions worsened.
Those who couldn't find any other work to do during the summer bought
their food on credit at the company store, and when fall came, if they
got back in the mine the bills were deducted from their earnings, and
frequently "mistakes" were made in their bills, which they dared not
The companies adopted the practice of hiring
inexperienced men and putting them to work at the working face where the
coal was dug out. This was very dangerous, and accidents were frequent.
Also putting an untrained man along with an experienced miner reduced
the earnings of both.
By August wages had fallen to a deplorable level.
Mr. Nelson, an official, stated in a letter to
government that in the winter of 1930-1931 the average monthly wage was
from $9.00 to $25.00, the latter figure being exceptional.
Miners were cheated in many ways. The companies
contravened the regulations relating to the weight of the cars by using
inaccurate scales, and by docking as much as a thousand pounds from the
weight of the cars. This practice of docking pounds from the weight of
every car was bitterly resented by the miners, since they loaded many
more tons than they were paid for. One miner pointed out that slack was
being sold for $1.00 a ton, while the miners were being docked several
hundreds pounds per car for loading it.
Water seeped into the mines overnight, so many of
the men spent anywhere up to an hour removing it. They went to work
earlier to do this but were not paid for the extra time. One man
reported that over a three week period he pumped out three two-ton tanks
of water without any pay. Another calculated that he pumped for almost
100 hours per month for three months, and was only paid for 50 hours at
30 cents an hour. Also the equipment for pumping was old and full of
holes, threads and couplings didn't fit, so he would have to repair all
this before setting it up, and was never paid for that. One miner
maintained that several men had to go down as early as 3 a.m. to pump
water so that they could start loading as soon as the coal cars arrived.
Clay falls happened frequently and the men would
have to remove it. The company stated that payment for this was granted
if it could be proven that it was not the result of a miner's
carelessness. Also they were never paid for repairing timbers, as the
company claimed it was all part of a miner's job and was included in the
There was supposed to be a medical plan in effect
after 1918 whereby the miner paid $1.25 a month for medical and
diagnostic service from the doctor, who was Dr. James F. Creighton of
Estevan. Miners were required to report to the office when they needed
attention. The names were listed in a book and the doctor visited them
all when he made his rounds to each mine, supposedly once a week. Often
he didn't show up at all, but the monthly $1.25 was deducted regardless,
even though a man's monthly take-home pay would often be no more than
$10.00, and if they were injured or ill there was no compensation. The
doctor, though, managed to rake in about $1,500 a year.
There were so many fines and deductions that many
miners had only $5.00 or $10.00 left out of their monthly pay, and in
fact some had nothing and were given a bill stating how much they owed
the company. If they protested they were either laughed at, cursed at,
or threatened with black-listing.
Safety regulations were not adhered to either.
The report of an inspection undertaken by Mr. R.J. Lee, a consulting
mining engineer, and former Dominion Mines Inspector, indicated that all
but one mine were guilty of contravention of regulations contained in the
Mines Act. Yet the operators of the deep-seam mines were not prosecuted.
Mr. Lee stated that in the 30 years he had been around these mines, the
Mines Act had never been completely enforced.
Ventilation in the mines was very poor at any
time, and blasting smoke hung in the air for long periods, but it was
further aggravated by the practice of the company to turn off the fan
during the noon hour. On one occasion a cave-in was permitted to block
an air passage for six months. Men became ill from breathing foul air.
There were several other areas of unsafe
conditions faulty electrical wiring not sufficient manholes and
mud up to the knees of the men in the haulage roads refuge places full
of trash no partition between the man-way into the mine and the
hoisting shaft company practice of locking the entrance door while
hoisting was in progress. In addition no first aid equipment or
personnel were provided below ground, all creating the possibility of
injury or death. If any of the men complained of these conditions they
were just told if they didn't like it, to pick up their tools and leave.
Small wonder, then, that they wanted the
protection of a union contract. The first attempt at organization came
about in 1920. The One Big Union had just been formed and an appeal to
that body brought an organizer from Calgary, one R.J. Christopher.
However, the man was kidnapped, taken across the border to the United
States, and told never to return or he would be tarred and feathered.
The police took up the matter and a number of people were arrested, men
from the War Vets of Saskatchewan, a member of the Saskatchewan
Provincial Police, and others. Needless to say, no convictions were
carried out and the case went into limbo. Of course the "red scare" was
levelled against the OBU and the companies proceeded to lay off some 50
miners who supposedly paid membership fees to it.
It was not until around 1930 that they tried
again to get a union.
As the Depression deepened, conditions worsened,
and layoffs were frequent. Those who were laid off or fired now had to
go on relief and endure further indignities and hardships.
The miners called upon various labour bodies to
help them, but the reformist people who headed most of the unions didn't
feel like putting time and effort into a campaign which the men could
not pay for, so the appeal of these desperate men and their families at
the Souris coal fields fell on deaf ears. On one occasion it is reported
that a group of miners approached a mine inspector and asked him to find
a union organizer and send him to them. He, of course, ignored their
Midsummer of 1931 saw the miners proceeding to
form an organization of their own. They formed "Men's Committees" in
each of the larger mines. Also a Mines Committee was set up comprised of
The Mines Committee appealed to the Workers Unity
League for help, and an organizer was sent to talk with the men. He
advised them to join a mine union. They finally agreed to approach the
Mine Workers Union of Canada, which had been formed earlier in Alberta.
Accordingly, membership cards were sent them and organization got under
way. This union was affiliated with the WUL.
In August a man named Adams was fired from one of
the mines for organizing the workers of the national groups. The Mines
Committee gathered a delegation to the mine manager and demanded the
reinstatement of this man. The manager refused, and the men walked off
the job. After two and a half days the company reinstated Adams.
With this first victory, organizational work went
ahead rapidly. Sam Scarlett and James Sloan, WUL organizers, were
dispatched to help, and were hailed with great enthusiasm by the miners
and their families. A picnic was organized by the Mines Committee and
1,200 people attended. Sam Scarlett, veteran Communist and union
organizer, spoke at the picnic. Two evenings later a meeting was held in
Estevan Town Hall attended by a thousand people.
The Mine Workers Union announced to the press
that they now had a hundred per cent of the workers signed up, and asked
the mine operators to meet with them to negotiate wages, hours of work,
and living conditions. Six of the smaller mine operators came to the
meeting, but the larger operators refused. After repeated attempts to
negotiate with these operators, the union set a deadline. If no progress
had been made by then, the men would strike. Consequently on September
7th, 1931, 600 miners of the Souris coal fields went out on strike.
The strike affected eight deep-seam mines
operated by the Saskatchewan Coal Operators Association. Scabs were sent
in, but to no avail. The miners were solidly united. The Mine Workers
Union sent some of their best men to help Joe Forkin, Sam Scarlett,
Isidor Minster, and others. Sam Scarlett was able to inspire the miners
and give them courage and determination. The miners loved him, the
operators hated him.
At this time Annie was in Winnipeg helping to
organize the needle trades workers of that city. She was asked to speak
at a mass meeting of the miners at Bienfait on Sunday, September 27th.
This was a remarkable invitation for a mining town to extend to a 35
year old woman in the 1930's. Such an invitation would be made only
because Annie Buller was respected by miners across the country as an
effective and inspiring organizer.
Annie never denied a call for help, and went
without question. She found it an inspiring meeting; the whole town
turned out to hear, and to cheer, this woman who dared to be a union
organizer. She was a fiery orator by now, and her coming to Bienfait
gave great encouragement to the miners, and perhaps most of all to their
wives who were just as determined to win the strike as the men were.
A parade was being planned for Tuesday, September
29th, and a public meeting in the evening. Annie was asked to stay over
and speak at the meeting. This was to acquaint the public with the
issues of the strike, since the press either ignored it or resorted to
slandering the miners. The men felt confident that if the people knew
the truth about their just complaints, and the refusal of the companies
to negotiate with them, they would support the strike. All day on Monday
the men and women were busy getting ready for the parade, preparing
posters and banners and means of transportation. Annie was everywhere,
giving encouragement, helping with planning, working on whatever had to
be done. She was with the women making up lunches and fixing the
children's clothing, at the same time encouraging them to be strong and
stand firmly with their menfolk in whatever struggles might come.
The mine owners and town officials were
determined that the parade and meeting would not take place, so they
applied for a squad of RCMP to act along with the local police. They
were all heavily armed. When the miners reached the outskirts of Estevan
the local police and RCMP opened fire with machine guns. Local police
bashed the men with loaded sticks, smashed cars and trucks, turned fire
hoses on the women who had stepped in front of the guns to protect their
men and children.
The miners had no warning that such a thing would
happen. It was a real massacre. Three men were murdered, many were
wounded about 50 in all. When the injured were taken to the local
hospital where Dr. Creighton was in charge, they were turned away. This
man later testified before the Wylie Commission that he had been given
orders (presumably by the town officials and mine owners) not to admit
wounded miners unless they could pay a week in advance. He stated that
the realized there would be some men wounded during the melee, so he
telephoned his secretary and instructed her not to allow anyone into the
hospital unless payment was made to the hospital for a week in advance.
The only exceptions were to be men in uniform, "because the government
pays medical expenses of their own people". All this from a man who had
been collecting $1.25 a month from the miners for a number of years.
There was no other hospital in the area, the
nearest one being in Weyburn some 50 miles away, and it was there the
wounded miners had to be taken. One died on the way. A.E. Smith
described this happening in an article in the Canadian Labor Defender:
"I was told a story of the wounding and death of one of the men. Shot
through the body in several places, he was rushed to the hospital in
Estevan in a dying condition. Entrance was refused him. Prior to his
appearance at the hospital, which is a private affair conducted by a
Doctor Creighton, a girl comrade had run to the hospital. 'Come Doctor',
she cried. 'A wounded man is bleeding to death on the road down there.'
She was told to go to hell, and when she insisted on the attendance of
this doctor, she was thrust out of the office with a kick. The dying man
had to be driven by auto some 57 miles to Weyburn before he could
receive any treatment. He did not last long."
Annie spoke of the men who were murdered: "They
were good union men, loyal workers, who faced death every day when they
went underground men with callouses on their hands who had given the
best years of their lives to building up the industry men who loved
their families men who did not own shares and did not exploit their
fellow men men who died for the Union."
The miners had been using the Ukrainian Labour
Farmer Temple as their union hall, and it was from there the funeral of
the three murdered miners took place. John Weir had arrived in Estevan
as a representative of the Canadian Labour Defence League to help the
miners in whatever way he could, and it was he who conducted the funeral
service. It was a simple, working class service taken from the Handbook
of the Western Federation of Miners. The wives of the men sang the
hymns, many in the Ukrainian language. Everyone in the community came to
the funeral, everyone except the police they stayed away. The men were
buried in the little Bienfait cemetery in a common grave, where later a
monument was erected on the grave by the Ukrainian Labour Temple bearing
the names of the three dead miners Nick Norgan, Pete Markunas, and
Julian Gryshko, along with an inscription "murdered in Estevan September
29, 1931, by the RCMP." The Bienfait authorities later had the letters
"RCMP" chiselled out.
A poem to the memory of these men was composed by
Cecil Boone, simply entitled "Estevan". It goes as follows:
In a little mining
Scarcely noticed on the map
Bourgeois guns were turned on workers
And their life's blood there did sap.
No one dreamed of such a slaughter
In that town of Estevan,
That armed thugs with guns and bullets
Would shoot men with empty hands.
Just a protest from the miners
And boss bullets then did fly,
Caring not who was the target
Or the number that would die.
Blazing forth, nine hundred bullets,
Bodies full of lead did fill,
Murdered three, and wounded twenty
But the Cause they could not kill.
Three more martyrs for the miners,
Three more murders for the boss,
Brutal laws, to crush the workers
Who dare fight in Freedom's cause.
As those miners lay a-dying
In their agony and pain,
Whispered ... "Though we die for freedom
Yet we do not die in vain.
"For we know our class will triumph
When they shall united stand;
They will take the world for labor
And the workers rule the land.
"Then the workers' day of vengeance
Will be proclaimed with each breath;
Labor's cause is right and mighty
And beyond the reach of death".
January 30, 1932, p. 2
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