by David Frank and Donald Macgillivray
With these words Dawn Fraser introduced his collection of verse, Echoes from Labor's War. Hard and bitter words, to be sure, but the 1920s were hard and bitter years in industrial Cape Breton, and the narrative verse of Dawn Fraser provides us with a remarkably accurate picture of the events and feelings of those years of sharp class conflict.
Few people remember Fraser. Few copies of his published works are available and two generations of Cape Bretoners are scarcely aware he ever wrote his telling verses about the history of the industrial community. But in the 1920s Fraser was a popular writer in industrial Cape Breton: his particular qualities matched the situation and the people. The oral tradition was still very much a part of the culture and played an important part in preserving working class traditions and values. Fraser belonged to this tradition of storytelling more than to any literary school. He read his verse on the streets, at local union meetings, at parties and at the massive labour and political meetings at the Savoy and Russell Theatres in Glace Bay. His writings appeared in pamphlets, books, magazines and newspapers. For the Glace Bay labour paper, the Maritime Labor Herald, he contributed not only stories and verse, but also columns of sports news and advice to the lovelorn. Sometimes his outpourings were simply posted on a bulletin board at the main intersection in Glace Bay. For the workers of industrial Cape Breton, the strong and effective use of language—a sharp tongue or a pointed pun—was one of the weapons at hand. Sharing the principles and prejudices of his community, Fraser was able to articulate common feelings and tell a shared story, and he was an effective and popular presence in the industrial community.
Dawn Fraser was born on 1 July 1888 in Oxford, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, and spent his first years in the Antigonish area. At the turn of the century his family joined the throngs of people attracted to the tremendous industrial expansion taking place in Cape Breton, and moved to Glace Bay in 1901 Some time later the family followed another well-travelled Maritime road to New England, where Fraser began to live and imagine the experiences which form the subject of his earliest writings.
Clues scattered throughout his writings tell us he was at times a male nurse and pharmacist in New England, a labourer in the lumber and construction camps of Maine and New Brunswick, a grave digger, circus barker, copy writer and salesman. A self-confessed drifter, drinker and gambler, he soon began to amuse companions with his natural talent for spinning tales in the style of Robert Service. Fraser's love songs, work songs and drinking songs, and his colourful tales of seamen, labourers, cardplayers and hoboes show 'is the excitement and exhilaration of a footloose working class youth on the roam through the Boston States, an experience shared by thousands of Maritimers of Fraser's generation. He later collected these writings as his Rhymes of the Road, and there emerges from them a picture of a free-wheeling and perceptive individual, scornful of society's pretensions and sympathetic to many of its outcasts and victims.
Then came the First World War. The war ended Fraser's years as a drifter and inserted him into a tragedy for which he cared little. He soon found himself at Camp Aldershot, Nova Scotia, followed by a transfer to a Nova Scotia infantry battalion. "The government became interested in my education," recalled Fraser, "and gave me a free course in the art of bayonet fighting." He was less than impressed with this "barbarous talent", but his verse flourished in the camaraderie of the army camp, and he carried off—he claimed—"all the prizes" at army literary entertainments. Small wonder, for his writings catalogued in clever and amusing verse most of the grievances, small and large, of the enlisted man. Fraser mentioned that he had attained the rank of "Assistant Lance-Corporal", so he was well situated to describe the unpalatable short rations, the worthless canteen checks, the Ross rifles and Kitcheners, the curfews and sick parades that made up the world of the rank and file recruit. There was also a host of petty tyrannies, and Fraser's most popular war poem, "The Crime of Johnny Kyle", narrated the history of one particular vendetta between a bullying major and an independent private. In all, Fraser had few kind words for the war or the military. Only the warm winter coats won his approval, prompting a short ode of thanks to Robert Borden.
During his military career, Fraser was part of a small expedition which sailed from the west coast of Canada in December 1918 to participate in the ill-advised Allied effort to quell the Bolshevik Revolution. He spent four months in Siberia, experiencing more of the travails of army life and inventing more adventure yarns and tales, which later made up his Songs of Siberia. Here also he learned something of the suffering and determination of a people in the midst of war and revolution. One of the strongest themes in all Fraser's writing was also prompted by the war: the plight of the war veteran, now returned home to more troubles and tragedies. In "The Applicant" he powerfully evokes the fate of one of many gas victims, his health ruined and reduced to seeking public relief. And in "The Reward" we meet another haunting character, Sergeant. Gray, hobbling door to door, an embarrassment and a bother to those who reaped benefits from the holocaust. The war changed Fraser. No longer the youthful drifter, he had seen and experienced the dreadful tragedy of war and suffering, and he had learned the costly stupidity of existing politics and authority. He had also forged warm friendships with his fellow Nova Scotians in the army, and he had discovered how popular and powerful his literary talent could be in stirring the emotions and articulating the thoughts of his contemporaries.
He left the army not only with the raw materials for his first book of poetry, but also with a new emotional maturity and a heightened humanity. Upon his release in June 1919, he returned to Glace Bay, where he remembered selling papers on the street as a boy. He would remain there for the next 40 years. In casting about for a way to earn his living he took up street sales again, becoming an aluminum wares salesman, packing pots and pans door to door and stopping people on the street to read them a rhyme and sell them a book. In the late 1920s he opened his downtown shop, which featured everything from the latest Boston newspapers to dairy products and picture frames, not to mention the latest commentaries of the proprietor. He quickly became an established figure in the town's colourful collection of characters. His virtues and vices would hardly stand out in the industrial community. Men who appreciated a good stiff drink and a well-told story, laced with dry and penetrating wit, could be found in every blind pig, pit and union hall on the island. Fraser soon found new subjects and themes for his verse in the dramatic events of "labor's war".
Industrial Cape Breton had also changed by the time of the First World War. The years 1917-1926 were a time of increasingly sharp class conflict. They were years of acute industrial crisis as the coal and steel industries, already in decline and badly managed by yet another group of owners, tried in vain to regain the prosperity of the pre-war years. These were also years of cultural crisis for the working class of industrial Cape Breton who, after a generation's experience with large scale industrial capitalism, had developed a strong and militant trade union movement. The intersection of these two crises produced sharp class conflict, and the industrial crisis tended to accelerate and deepen the cultural crisis.
The most basic and dramatic form of the conflict was the continual attempt of the British Empire Steel Corporation from 1921 on to reduce the wages of the coal miners and to destroy the effectiveness of their new union. These policies were the deliberate measures of a corporation which was itself threatened with imminent collapse because of its flimsy financial structure and its poor market prospects. The coal miners and their families, determined finally to achieve considerable improvements in their standard of living and knowing how much they had already surrendered to the demands of industrial capitalism, refused to accept the wage reductions which corporate logic required. The friction of their incompatible aims produced class conflict.
Even a short glance at the 1920s reveals why Fraser started his collection Echoes from Labor's War with "Eddie Crimmins", the unemployed Newfoundlander who died of starvation. Food, or its absence, was an integral element of the conflict. It was a time of undernourished and underfed children, of empty piece cans and barren kitchen cupboards. It was also a time that called forth resistance. As Fraser explained:
Putting up a fight: it was a familiar theme in the 1920s in Cape Breton and in Fraser's verse.
Underlying the miners' protracted resistance in the 1920s was an important cultural foundation which had established among the coal miners a pattern of popular beliefs, assumptions and values. By the end of the First World War there existed in the mining communities of industrial Cape Breton a sturdy and independent working class culture, a way of looking at the world characterized by specific ideas about morality, political economy and the community. It was the strength of this culture which provided the energy for the coal miners' long defence of their communities against corporation and government. Fraser's verse was part of this culture, and its basic elements are major themes in his work.
All working class people who have come of age in industrial Cape Breton are early aware that their knowledge of their situation owes far more to their own experience and the teachings of their elders than it does to the system of formal education to which they are subjected. The local school system taught Cape Bretoners how to read and to a certain extent determined what they should read. But the storytellers, the parents, neighbours and friends, were the real custodians of the working class culture of Cape Breton, and it was they who transmitted the values and ideals of that tradition. In one of his earlier efforts, "Out of My House", Fraser introduces us to a wise father, deeply committed to working class principles and bent on teaching them to his son. The father angrily chases a Boy Scout recruiter from the house, showing his firm opposition to militarism in all its forms. The poem announces one of the major themes in Fraser's verse and in the emerging working class culture, namely the end of working class deference and the assertion of an independent working class viewpoint.
Another of Fraser's memorable characters similarly draws on the experience of both war and industrial conflict to announce an independent outlook. The "Widow in the Ward", lying on her deathbed, retells the story of how she lost two sons: one to the foreign war and another to the industrial strife. Her understanding went far beyond forgiveness, and she hurled her condemnation at a world which had brought her this double tragedy. The working class mother and the trade unionist father stand as symbols of the emergence of an autonomous working class viewpoint.
The tradition of deference was a deep-rooted cultural one, not easily overcome. Industrialization in Cape Breton in the 19th century had brought about the establishment of a new industrial culture to supplant the pre-industrial folkways of a farming and fishing population. The new culture stressed hard work and self-reliance and promised independence and self-fulfillment through faithful and regular toil. Modernizers like the father and son Richard and Richard H. Brown, managers of the General Mining Association, and Robert Drummond, grand secretary of the Provincial Workmen's Association, campaigned vigorously for the establishment of these values against the claims of informal schedules, frequent off-days, disrespect for their betters and undisciplined bouts of rowdiness or drinking. By the 1890s their campaign was to a large degree successful, though when Drummond boasted at the turn of the century of the transformation of the coal miner from the rough, rude and regardless creature of yore into the steady, sober, reliable and faithful employee of the present, one suspects he was still lobbying for the complete achievement of this change.
The rapid expansion of the coal industry and the arrival of large scale industrial capitalism in Cape Breton in the 1890s generated new tensions. Many coal miners began to think that in order to genuinely achieve those ideals of self-fulfillment and satisfy the claims of individual worth and morality, more effective collective action was necessary. A new cultural conflict emerged, taking the form of disputes between "loyalists" who preached the partnership and harmony of labour and capital, and "rebels" who saw an imbalance, if not direct antagonism, in the relations of labour and capital. The "rebels" campaigned for a more militant and aggressive trade unionism than the leaders of the PWA offered. Where the "loyalists" placed little emphasis on improved wages and living conditions, arguing that for the good of the coal industry the coal miners had to practice restraint in such demands, the "rebels" began to demand priority for these claims, even to the extent of forcing the coal operators to sacrifice some of their profits.
This cultural conflict was the source of the struggle which raged within the PWA from the late 1890s onwards. Ultimately it resulted in the defection of the "rebels" to the United Mine Workers of America, the long and bitter 1909 strike and the reunification of all the coal miners in one union in 1917. By the 1920s there was general agreement among the coal miners that their claims for a better standard of living, what they called a "living wage", should be the first charge on the earnings of the coal industry. The broad acceptance of the "rebel" outlook in the 1920s marked the final abandonment of the old spirit of deference.
The end of the First World War revealed growing class conflict in industrial Cape Breton. This was the golden age of independent labour politics in Nova Scotia and Fraser applauded vigorously as labour candidates won election to town councils and to the provincial legislature. In 1920 Cape Breton sent four labour MLAs to Halifax and Fraser celebrated the advantages of independent labour politics in "To Forman Waye", a tribute to the most effective member. But politics was simply one manifestation of the changes then occurring in industrial Cape Breton. Fraser portrayed the transformation of labour relations at length in "The Case of Jim McLachlan", his most popular poem of the 1920s. This long poem gives an imaginative reconstruction of the mounting conflict between the coal miners, with their demands for better wages and a larger share of what they produced, and the British Empire Steel Corporation, which insisted on low wages, less work and less wages. Fraser introduces us to some of the leading personalities of the time, including Jim McLachlan, the fiery union secretary-treasurer, and "Roy the Wolf", Besco President Roy M. Wolvin, and he describes many of the actual confrontations and events of the 1920s.
In 1922 Besco attempted to impose a wage reduction of about one-third on its 12,000 coal miners, and the miners' resistance to this demand caused the first major strike of the 1920s. To win a settlement the coal miners used several effective tactics, including the restriction of output by one-third and the enforcement of a 100 per cent strike, in which all workers left the mines. In the wake of this confrontation, the corporation renewed its efforts to weaken the union. The spring of 1923 brought a rampaging provincial police force into industrial Cape Breton, seeking some way to stamp out the apparent red menace which was growing under the influence of the Workers' Party of Canada and the Maritime Labor Herald. Fraser narrated the comic opera escapades with relish, printing the adventures in the press as the events unfolded. The summer of 1923 was a dramatic one. The Sydney steel workers went on strike against Besco at the end of June in an attempt to win union recognition. The provincial police were again sent to Cape Breton and ran riot on Victoria Road on 1 July. They were soon joined by federal troops. The coal miners came out on strike to support the steelworkers and to protest the renewed use of armed force in the industrial area.
For their part in promoting the sympathetic strike the miners' president Dan Livingstone and secretary-treasurer J.B. McLachlan were arrested and jailed. Shortly afterward, the international union, under the leadership of John L. Lewis, deposed the entire union executive and turned the union's charter to the wall. The arrest, trial and conviction of McLachlan for seditious libel provided a host of lessons about the role of the state and the courts in industrial conflict. As Fraser pointed out in "Away False Teachings of My Youth", the basic legal decision in McLachlan's case was that although what he had said might be true, his words were calculated to stir up unrest and therefore he was guilty as charged.
Fraser also articulated the community's hostility towards the repeated invasions of military and police forces. The provincial police, or "Armstrong's Army", were not inaccurately seen as a motley, hastily recruited crew. The unpopularity of the troops was compounded by the peculiarities of the Militia Act, which until 1924 provided that the besieged communities themselves must pay the cost of the military forces. When Glace Bay was billed for the summer invasion of 1923, the town's mayor, Dan Willie Morrison, refused to pay. Fraser expressed the community's feelings on the front page of the Maritime Labor Herald with his "Send the Bill to Besco".
One of the remarkable features of class conflict in the coal mining communities was the close identity between class and community interest. Unlike the most evident contemporary parallel, the Winnipeg General Strike, where a violent rift developed between the strikers with their Strike Committee and the middle class with their Committee of One Thousand, in the mining towns the entire community rallied to the miners' cause. The union and the town shared jointly many of the special functions made necessary by the crisis: the appointment of special police, the collection and distribution of relief, the petitioning of provincial and federal governments for the withdrawal of troops and achievement of a fair settlement. This feature was largely a product of the unique social structure of the mining towns: they were very homogeneous working class communities, sharing common experiences, a common employer and often close kinship and ethnicities. The middle class counter-community was much weaker than in a metropolis like Winnipeg, and indeed much of it was centered in Sydney rather than in the mining towns themselves. By the 1920s the larger mining towns were far from being company towns or small colliery settlements clustered around the pithead. The towns no longer elected company officials or middle class figures as mayors and councilors; instead they elected labour candidates, who engaged in protracted disputes with the coal company over taxes and assessments and services, and supported the union in times of crisis.
The establishment of working class hegemony over the community in Glace Bay was reflected in the writings of Dawn Fraser, who , along with his labour verse, could also pen a pamphlet on behalf of civic progress. In it Fraser attempted to correct the misleading violent image Glace Bay seemed to have acquired in the national press, an image which saw the main streets of the town lined with bar-rooms from which drunken men stumbled to fight and stain the area with blood. Fraser himself was once asked if it were true that people were commonly killed every pay night at Senator's Corner and the bodies thrown off the cliff at Table Head. Similarly, a staunch middle class figure and civic booster like Stuart McCawley, once an enthusiastic supporter of the British Empire Steel Corporation, could articulate the common hostility to irresponsible outside operators in a pamphlet written at the time of the 1925 strike. The interweaving of community and class in the 1920s provided one more example of the flourishing of a vigorous and independent working class culture.
Another important theme in Dawn Fraser's labour verse is the assertion of an ideology of labour reform. The traditional ideology of labour reform in Canada, as elsewhere in early industrial societies, was "producer ideology", a populist critique of the new industrial order which asserted the ideal of harmony between the truly productive classes of the nation. Producer ideology claimed that labour alone was the source of value, capital being only congealed labour, and this outlook had harsh words for any powerful private interests which would try to extort value from the producers by unfair manipulation of the industrial system. Producer ideology saw no direct exploitation of labour by capital, but rather saw labour and capital as the two legitimate and interdependent partners in industrial life. Such, for instance, was the enduring outlook of the Provincial Workmen's Association when it emerged in Nova Scotia in the late 19th century.
But this ideology could not survive as a single piece the rapid transformation of industrial capitalism in Canada after the 1880s. The two ostensible partners, it was soon discovered, enjoyed grossly unequal bargaining power in their relationship. Reformers began to believe that it was the employers themselves, increasingly large and powerful and usually far removed from the actual process of production, who were responsible for the poverty and hardship of the working class. But although the logic and assumptions of producer ideology were torn apart, some features which were applicable to the new stage of industrial capitalism did survive. The belief in labour as the true source of value persisted, as did the populist assertion of the rights of the community against the powerful monopolies. Fraser's verse expressed this traditional outlook, but also reflected the ways it had been changed and enriched by new developments and perceptions.
Fraser articulated the old aversion to idleness in an aptly named verse, "The Parasites", which is introduced by one of his most quoted comments. The nature of the coal industry itself, where peril and hardship were the price of supplying a basic industrial raw material, encouraged the idea that miners were a vital producing class on which others depended; their claims for fairness and justice frequently took this form. The nature of the dividend system, by which people collected profits from the coal industry not because they did productive work in it but because they owned it through their stocks and bonds, also invited this kind of criticism. It was not difficult for labour spokesmen to prove that, as Fraser put it, "Roy the Wolf and all his clan/ Were a lot of idle, thieving knaves," who were bent on defrauding the public, pillaging the coal industry and robbing the workers. The idea of class partnership found little footing in the swampy land of watered stocks and idle assets. Besco's apparent betrayal of the legitimate and responsible functions of capital encouraged demands that capital be better policed, administered by a public agency or taken over by the workers themselves. The theme that the coal resources belonged by the kindness of God and nature to the people of the area was a popular one among the coal miners of the 1920s, and they deplored the existence of large companies which, by their sheer size and by the weight of their political influence, could assume control of the natural resources and use them for their private profit. Beginning in 1918, when it was adopted as official policy by the miners' union, the coal miners vigorously advocated nationalization of the coal industry.
Where did all this injustice in industrial society come from? In the first few pages of "The Case of Jim McLachlan", a tale supposedly told to children by an old man in the year 1994, Fraser explained that the earth had become "a rich man's institution" where rules and laws guaranteed profit and privilege for an idle capitalist class. The solution, as Fraser saw it, was class conscious political action to bring in new laws and inaugurate a new social and moral order. Fraser himself stands at the intersection of the old populist producer-oriented critique of industrialism and the emerging socialist critique of industrial capitalism. The traditional ideology accounts for the great tenacity of the "producer", "robbery" and "monopoly" themes in his verse; the socialist influence gives us his view of the problem as one infecting a whole social system, sanctioned by law and requiring political solutions. Fraser's ability to fuse these two outlooks was not unique; indeed it was probably typical of his generation of labour reformers. This fusion of traditional and new approaches gave continuity to a popular intellectual tradition, giving the socialist idea considerable support as a logical evolution of traditional approaches to the problems of industrial society.
The spread of radicalism among the coal miners in the 1920s, which state and corporation so deplored, represented an acceleration and deepening of the longstanding cultural crisis. Many individuals, Fraser included, became "reds", attended "red" events and supported "red" leaders, but it would be misleading to claim that the majority of the miners became committed communists. The "red" phase was too brief and transitory to develop an entirely new radical culture. Nevertheless, the crisis of the 1920s did strengthen and maintain the miners' "rebel" outlook and their populist critique of industrial capitalism. These remained the basic elements of working class culture in industrial Cape Breton for more than a generation. Only since the 1940s, with the general erosion of an independent working class culture throughout the capitalist world, has the culture which Fraser articulated begun to collapse.
The winter of 1924-1925 was the bleakest episode of the 1920s. Low wages and little work meant near-starvation for the miners' families. It is to this hard winter that "Eddie Crimmins" belonged. Fraser himself remembered it as one of the few genuinely hungry periods in his life. Like hundreds of other single young men, Fraser fled the industrial area, riding the rails west in search of food and work. Unfortunately we lack a narrative account from Fraser of the hardship and tragedy of the winter and spring of 1925, the long five months' strike which culminated in the battle of Waterford Lake on June 11 with the death of William Davis and the wounding of several more miners, followed by the looting and burning of the company stores and the return of the Canadian Army. In the summer of 1925 the Liberal government was swept out of power and the corporation was finally forced to settle with the coal miners. Fraser returned to the mining community. And while middle class poets like McCawley now tried to drum up enthusiasm for yet another Royal Commission, Fraser had the last word on Besco. During the 1925 strike the expression "standing the gaff" had become a defiant rallying cry among the coal miners. Now, when Besco at last collapsed financially in 1926, the phrase again returned to haunt the corporation in Fraser's "Cape Breton's Curse, Adieu, Adieu".
After the 1920s Fraser continued to write and publish until the early 1950s, and he remained a well known personality in Glace Bay. Like the rest of the working population, much of his time was taken up with the problem of earning a living. His writings brought little income, and he made ends meet variously as a salesman, travelling the breadth of the island, or as a picture framer. For a short spell he even had a posting with the federal civil service and for a long time he operated his small shop at Senator's Corner. Here he would post his latest literary and political comments on a bulletin board for the passersby, and the ensuing discussions and debates were a local attraction.
Politics also remained important to Fraser. In 1933, much to the distress of IS. Woodsworth, he proclaimed himself a candidate for the newly formed CCF and ran in the provincial election. He later was an important force in building local support for the CCF and during the 1940s was campaign manager for Clarie Gillis, the area's first CCF MP. He continued to hawk his literary wares during this time, but his writing dwindled in volume and intensity after Echoes from Labor's War. Perhaps this was only one more measure of the way his literary career reflected the shifting mood and spirit of the working class community, for the labour struggles of the 1930s and 1940s never generated the same drama and energy as those of the 1920s.
Eventually Fraser's health failed and he was deemed eligible for the War Veterans' Allowance in 1956. During the last decade of his life he made many long visits to Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax. He died there in June 1968 and his brief obituary made no mention of his writing. But Dawn Fraser's verse, we believe, does deserve to be remembered and read, and this small collection will help serve that purpose. Literary historians have paid too much attention to the "official" poets in our history and have ignored the work of the popular local poets like Fraser, who belong to an entirely different tradition. One of the few critics to understand this was W.A. Deacon, who in 1927 pointed out that apart from the "enormous body of intellectualized poetry" spawned by our "academic-national" poets, there also existed a vigorous tradition of popular local poetry which continued in Canadian culture "the great tradition of the minstrels". This tradition had only a few basic rules:
"Ignored—indeed, unsuspected—by the literary intellectuals, an army of such poets exists today in Canada, by their labours emphasizing the fact that the realm of poetry is not a closed preserve for the college-bred; but belongs equally to the humblest bard who cares to enter it.... In thousands of villages and hamlets the local poet is as familiar a figure as the postmaster." Deacon warns us that "to continue to ignore them is as impossible as it is unwise....If they are hard to classify, that is a problem for criticism; and the originality of a literary figure was never yet sufficient cause for ignoring him."
Fraser belonged to none of the orthodox schools of poetry in the Maritimes, neither the academic circles around the universities in Halifax and Fredericton, nor the congenial romantics who banded together as the Song Fishermen. He was a loner who rarely thought of himself as a literary man, and he tended to regard poetry more as a vice than a vocation. He could on occasion identify himself rightly with the tradition of Byron, Shelley and Whitman, but in his heart Fraser probably felt most at home with the anonymous or little known workingmen's poets who gave Cape Bretoners popular songs like "The Yahie Miners" and "The Honest Workingman" and contributed topical rhyme and commentary to the newspapers, streetcorners and meeting halls of their day. Part of this tradition, Fraser's writing was animated by ideals of morality, by a sense of class and community, and by an aspiration for social and economic reform. His writing reflected the concerns of working class culture in industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s, and at the same time it helped contribute to the coal miners' resistance to the demands of industrial capitalism. And his writings, above all, give us an authentic glimpse of the events, ideas and culture of the 1920s in industrial Cape Breton.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All