Murdered by RCMP: The Estevan Massacre of Striking Miners
Police at all levels have been deployed to exert often extreme violence against working people during organizing efforts, unionization drives, and/or strikes. In these situations the veneer of police neutrality easily slips away and the police are revealed as little more than an armed union busting or strike breaking force of municipal, provincial, and federal governments. They are readily available to do the bidding of capital in securing business interests and disciplining the working classes to obey states and capital going forward. This character of policing has been fully on display throughout the history of the Canadian state. That examples of police, especially the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (and its predecessors), injuring workers during strikes in Canada are numerous is quite telling. Even more so is the fact that police have used lethal force killing workers during several strikes in Canadian state history.
The Estevan Massacre was one such case of the RCMP killing workers for simply organizing to improve their conditions of work and life. On September 29, 1931, in the town of Estevan, Saskatchewan, RCMP attacked a parade of striking workers from the Bienfait coalfields, their family members, and supporters. The police killed three miners, shooting them down in cold blood. The police mobilization against the parade came at the behest of mine operators and local business and political elites. The Estevan Masscare and its aftermath saw RCMP officers unleash what historians have called a reign of “police terror” against mine workers, their families, and their communities (Endicott 2002).
Here the direct connection between capital and the police is unequivocal and undeniable. During the 1931 strike against coal bosses in Bienfait, Saskatchewan by the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada (MWUC) the RCMP showed their full allegiance to capitalist interests and deployed lethal force against a peaceful parade of miners and supporters. In the days and weeks after the three young miners were shot and killed by RCMP, the police force proceeded to hunt down wounded marchers and union leaders who were arrested and treated like criminals rather than victims of an egregious assault and extreme state violence.
The Bienfait miners were merely seeking the basic necessity, and right, of forming a union of their choosing. Their 30 day strike to gain union recognition would ultimately fail—in large part because of the deployment of RCMP police violence on behalf of mine company interests and mine owners against the miners. In this, the RCMP once again revealed, most forcefully, and lethally, their unflinching commitment, service, and sense of duty to corporate interests and outcomes and against the needs of exploited and abused civilian communities.
In one of the rare cases of political honesty in the history of the Canadian state, the inscription on the headstone of the three dead miners reads, simply and poignantly, “Murdered by RCMP.”
What the RCMP Killed to Uphold
Conditions in the mines of Saskatchewan in the 1930s were unhealthy and dangerous. So too were the conditions of living in the company-run mining towns of the province. In 1931 more than 600 men and boys worked in the underground mines of the Souris coalfields in southeastern Saskatchewan (Dishaw 2006).
Working conditions in the mines were, not surprisingly, awful and threatened miners lives and well being. Work days underground were long and arduous. Miners worked ten hour days in tight coal seams in which the men could not even stand upright. The mines had inadequate ventilation and smoke from blasting lingered as an underground fog. So-called “black damp,” or high concentrations of carbon dioxide exited in many mines and caused workers to become quite ill on a regular basis. The Crescent Mine and Eastern Collieries were notorious for water collection upwards of one to two feet in work areas. At Western Dominion Collieries damaged or rotted timbers were routinely overlooked by management and not replaced resulting in frequent roof cave-ins (Dishaw 2006). In smoke and dust filled environments workers shoveled coal for paltry amounts of around 25 cents per ton.
For all of this miserable and dangerous work under brutal conditions, miners were paid 25 cents for each ton of coal that they dug, loaded on coal cars by hand, and pushed to the main shaft. The experienced miner working all out over the ten-hour shift would earn $1.60. At the same time dockage for rocks, clay, and small-sized coal reduced the take-home pay. In addition, miners were required to do extra work, including laying track, timbering, pumping water, and clearing up roof falls. This work was unpaid. Incredibly, despite the fact that wages in Saskatchewan were 50 percent below those paid in Alberta and British Columbia, the Bienfait mining bosses imposed massive wages cuts in 1931 (Dishaw 2006).
If working conditions were awful, there was little comfort or refuge to be had under the condition of life that existed in the mining towns. Company houses and bunkhouses were no more than tar paper shacks without insulation for the hard Saskatchewan seasons. Most mines lacked shower facilities. There was no indoor plumbing and the shelters were infested with cockroaches, bedbugs, and lice (Dishaw 2006). Workers had to buy their essential from company stores which siphoned back their wages in exorbitant prices which put miners in debt to the bosses.
Workers, in the absence of union organization, were fired at will by pit bosses, blacklisted by owners, and denied work for noting more than appearing to express concerns for their health and safety (Endicott 2002, 4). As was the case in other industries across Canada, workers and community members from recent migrant backgrounds were deported on flimsy grounds at the whim of bosses and managers (with police readily serving as deportation officers on behalf of capital). The reasons for arrest and/or deportation could be, and were, for as little as distributing literature or attending meetings. In many cases all it took for the government to deport someone was being labeled communist by an anonymous accuser (Endicott 2002, 4). Typically, as had been the case for decades in Canada, excuses for deportation were often explicitly anti-communist in nature. That is, they were directly geared toward the protection of capitalism in general and the interests of specific capitalists in specific struggles.
In an attempt to build public support for the strike and the unions, the strike committee decided to hold a parade from the coalfields to Estevan on Tuesday, September 27, 1931. The day was to end with a public meeting at Estevan’s town hall. The parade was initiated as part of the broader campaign to pressure coal operators to simply begin negotiations on improved working conditions. The march would pick up people at collieries along the way and was set to arrive in Estevan around 3:00 PM (Endicott 2002, 90). This should not have been a controversial plan or event.
As history tells us of course the parade would never reach its destination and would end in what has been called a massacre and police murder of three miners. More than 20 people would also be wounded by the RCMP.
This was what a member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly for Estevan would call, 60 years later, “senseless murder in the name of law and order” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 87). The police were anxious to show their fealty to the mine operators, and capitalist property relations in the country, and in their haste to show their good service to the mine bosses carried out a public atrocity (not the first or last the RCMP would inflict on the working class in Canada).
None other than RCMP Commissioner, General J.H. MacBrien sent a telegram to Ottawa providing a dishonest and overblown falsification of the events of Estevan. In his fictitious and slanderous account, 500 miners carrying red flags and armed with clubs rioted against an overpowered and desperate RCMP force. As the strikers destroyed property and opened fire on officers (with their clubs?), injuring eight, the police had no option but to return fire with unfortunate, but unavoidable consequences according to the Commissioner’s tale.
To ensure that capitalist order was restored, though, RCMP Commissioner MacBrien dispatched a special rail car to Estevan with 40 more officers armed with rifles and machine guns. Clearly there was no compunction about deploying military force to protect capital from unions. So much for the neutral arbitrator state that does not take sides which animates too much of public and criminological discourse.
Civilian observers, including a staff reporter from the Regina Leader Post, Chris Higgenbotham, reporting from the scene, gave a dramatically different account from that of the propagandist Commissioner of the RCMP. Observers suggested the parade was straightforward and peaceful. Miners and their families started out walking in what appeared little more than an Easter parade. There was reportedly much laughing and chatting. Children left school to stand on the street and wave.
The parade was a real show of broad support for the miners. It included 63 cars and trucks (Endicott 2002, 89). This, of course, posed a threat to the mine companies and their efforts to break the organizing efforts.
No police were posted at the outskirts of Estevan to warn the parade members not to proceed further. In town, RCMP officers had formed a line in front of the new courthouse and the war memorial (Endicott 2002, 92). Mine operator C.C. Morfit had expressed a wish for gunfire and had pressed the RCMP to act with force against the striking workers. At the courthouse in Estevan, police had blocked the way. As the procession approached the police blockade police took at them with riding crops and batons (Endicott 2002, 89). Police, as was pre-planned, brought a fire truck to the street and, attaching the hose to a hydrant, began spraying the paraders. In response to this a miner, Nick Nargan, tried to chop the fire hose with an axe from a nearby house. It was then, while threatening nothing more than a fire hose (but property to be sure) that Estevan Police Chief McCuthceon shot the worker in the heart with his police pistol, killing him.
As the police violence escalated, marchers returned the challenge, some picking up rocks and iron from the dump nearby. The 24 Mounties opened fire indiscriminately on the crowd almost immediately. More police tellingly stationed at the Truax-Traer mine to protect capital arrived in Estevan and added fire from their rifles killing young worker Julian Gryshko and injuring dozens of others. Marchers retreated in the face of heavy fire and, that quickly, it was over.
It was at this point, in the immediate aftermath of the RCMP shooting of marchers, that some of the most despicable actions of the town elites were carried out against the community. Injured miners were carried by their fellow workers to Dr. Creighton’s hospital. There they were cursed at and told that they would not be admitted to the hospital unless they paid a week’s deposit in advance. The lesson of a private health care system within a class society. Desperate, strike committee member Jim McLean got a car together and took the two most severely injured miners to Weyburn General Hospital which was 50 miles away. The delay in provision of medical services proved fatal in consequence. Peter Markunas, 28, shot in the abdomen, died of his wound two days later following an emergency operation. The other miner, Steve Baryluk, a 53 year old father of nine children survived but required a long recovery before returning to work. Incredibly, the RCMP tried to track down and arrest McLean during his frantic attempt to save the two injured men.
The primary intention of the miners and their supporters was simply to hold a meeting to discuss and publicize their recently formulated list of demands. They had already booked the Estevan town hall for the purpose of this meeting. To bring greater public attention and support to their concerns they decided to hold a colorful parade with banners expressing their numerous grievances publicly.
The union organized a six day mourning period for the young murdered miners in open defiance of the coal bosses’ order to immediately reopen the mines. The men’s coffins were placed in the Labour Temple Red Hall for public viewing. At least 1500 people took part in the funeral procession. Banners held aloft offered such assessments as: “They fought for bread; they got bullets instead” and “Murdered by the bosses’ hired police thugs” (Endicott 2002, 96–97). Clearly the miners understood, or were at least more honest about, what had happened better than the police, local officials, and mainstream media. Gryshko and Markunas left behind young wives.
Political Context of the Canadian State
The police actions at Estevan in support of capital were emblematic of political policing in Canadian history. At the same time they occurred in a period, during the Great Depression, in which police were particularly virulent in their efforts to uphold the interests of economic and political powerholders. This was a decade, in the 1930s, in which hundreds of workers were severely brutalized by police and many were killed by police in Canada simply for asserting the basic needs and rights of workers for sustenance and lives with dignity.
The ruling government of R.B. Bennett was a notorious one, its hostility to working people reaching legendary proportions. Indeed, the Bennett government is now regarded as one of the worst governments in the dubious and shameful history of Canadian governments. Bennett infamously diagnosed the cause of social dissatisfaction and unrest not as depression, unemployment, poverty, and economic desperation but rather to foreign agitators and “Reds.” In a notorious address he proclaimed that the appropriate response to protest was “an iron heel” (see Endicott 2002, 35). Only a few years after the Estevan masscare, in 1935 in Regina, the police forces would again assault workers with lethal force, using military weaponry to put down a public meeting about conditions of unemployed workers, including a mass movement of relief camp workers who sought an audience with Bennett at which to raise their grievances against the federal government. The so-called Regina Riot, a police riot that saw numerous civilians injured and arrested and left one worker killed by police. More than a riot, the police attack on unemployed workers and supporters in Regina saw military maneuvers deployed against the unemployed who were surrounded in the local arena by mobile machine gun units, with food and water withheld, in an attempt to starve them into submission.
In Saskatchewan in the early 1930s there was an all out state program of surveillance and counterintelligence used against the Bienfait mine workers. The government deployed spies and infiltrators to break union organizing and to assist capital in the struggle against unions in various industries. Police spies and informants surveilled several meetings of mine workers prior to the Estevan parade and their reports misrepresented the mood and intentions of the workers and their families.
The police were, perhaps unintentionally, misled by informers to believe that the workers were going to shut down the strip mine and they, as uninterested, neutral arbitrators who would never interfere in the workings of the market, deployed a large force of officers to ensure that capital would not be negatively impacted by exploited workers. The miners, in fact, never actually intended, or even contemplated, a move on the mine (Endicott 2002, 90).
The RCMP supported and perpetuated a myth of communist agitators and riot planners to obscure the fact that the events of “Black Tuesday” were due solely to the vicious actions of police and their obedience to capitalist interests in the area. And this is a fact the national state force actively sought to cover up and keep from becoming a focus of attention and criticism by playing a fear card of moral panic over communism. Indeed, the RCMP placed the contents of their entire file on the strike under the label “Sam Scarlett, communist agitator” (Endicott 2002, 7).
Even some local RCMP recognized the red scare as an anti-union ploy under the guise of anti-communist considerations. As Detective Sergeant J.G. Metcalfe of Estevan RCMP stated in 1931:
“It appears to me that the moment a man submits himself to be appointed on a Committee or some position in a Union, and he has nerve enough to approach the Owners on behalf of the workers, he is immediately branded a Red. I have not yet interviewed the Owner or Manager of a mine in regard to the red element, that has not given me the names of all of the men on the Pit Committee and the names of some official of the Union.” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 95)
The red scare propaganda was also played up in the corporate press. Proclaimed the Mercury on October 1, 1931: “Red propaganda is busy…Unless it is hit, and hit hard, right now, there will be troublous times” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 95). Never mind that the police had already hit the workers hard. And never mind the troublous times already experienced by mine workers and their families.
The miners were outraged at the red scare tactics. As Bienfait miner Alex Konopaki said decades after the massacre: “We were blacklisted. Why? They called us Bolsheviks, we backed up the labour class. We belonged to labour organizations” (quoted in Rohatyn 1979).
The makeup of the local government also played a role. As was the case in resource towns in Canada town councils were dominated by local business people and representatives of capital. They typically acted to ensure conditions favorable to business owners and against the interests of workers. Such was the case in the killing of Ginger Goodwin as well as the case of the killings of workers during the Winnipeg General Strike
Mayor Bannatyne and the town council of Estevan, composed entirely of business people and professionals (in private and public sectors), was determined not to let the miners state their concerns openly in Estevan (Endicott 2002, 90). They even convened an emergency meeting of the town council for 10:30 AM the morning of Tuesday, September 29. The council prepared and passed a motion against the miners. It proclaimed that “no public demonstration or parade be allowed in any public place in the Town of Estevan by strikers or operators and that the chief of police and Inspector Moorehead be placed in charge to prevent any such public demonstration or parade” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 90). The motion against the workers was prepared by councilors James Parkinson (a mine operator) and W.D. Niblett (a mine foreman). In most situations this would be recognized unambiguously as a clear conflict of interest, if not shameful self-promotion using public resources and offices, yet in this case the council clearly had no shame. Another resolution passed by the council held “that the Town Hall shall not be rented to either operators or strikers for the purpose of holding any public meetings and that all parties be so notified” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 90). Notification to the mine companies should not have posed much of a problem given that they had representation on the council that passed the resolutions against the mine workers (while the miners, of course, had none). Following the emergency meeting, the chief of police, McCutcheon, requested help from RCMP Inspector Moorehead to “prohibit such parade or meeting in the Town Hall; and the carrying of banners” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 91). Incredibly the mayor ordered Reverend Gordon Tolton of Stirling Baptist Church to remove signs supporting the miners from the lawn of his church (Endicott 2002, 91).
The fake, and quite cynical, “impartiality” of the motions shows clearly the bold faced hypocrisy of the state. The motions also included prohibitions against strikers and operators even though operators never had any intention of doing any of the prohibited acts—and the target was solely the miners. This is quite like the situation regarding current legislation against panhandling or sleeping in parks that is legislated against rich and poor alike. But, of course the rich are not likely to panhandle or be homeless and will never be targeted by the legislation in question while the poor and homeless may be subjected to it every day.
Significantly the message sent by telegram from the council to the union did not even mention that police would be present to enforce the last minute resolution. As well, the union intended to drive through town (rather than hold a foot parade) on the provincial highway and the town council did not have jurisdiction over the provincial highway. They had no reason to believe police would intervene to act on a town council edict on a road over which the council had no jurisdiction. In an incredibly cynical attempt to change history, after the massacre the town clerk sent a telegram with the missing information about the orders to police added in.
In the current period police agencies make much hay, and money, out of fear based promotion of so-called anti-terror policies, practices, and surveillance equipment. In the days, weeks, and months following the Estevan massacre the police carried out a campaign of what can only be called terrorism against the local working class, particularly in the mining center of Bienfait.
The day following the massacre 90 Mounties, fully armed and led by inspectors Moorehead and Rivett-Carnac swarmed the small village of 500 people and engaged in overt acts of intimidation (Endicott 2002, 95). Stunningly, machine guns were placed out in strategic places around town, including at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator, on the porch of the King Edward Hotel, and across from the Ukrainian Labour Temple. This is an image not regularly presented or reflected upon in Canadian history books or ideological pieces about the peaceful and democratic character of Canadian government.
Armed police officers broke into and searched homes in the village and mining camps seeking out injured miners and making arrests. The rooming house where visiting organizers and supporters had stayed was searched. Armed patrols were run throughout the area on an ongoing basis day and night. This could only be properly described as an atmosphere of state terror (Endicott 2002, 96).
Aftermath: Continuing Police Terror
A Royal Commission opened in Estevan on October 5, 1931. The miners saw it as an opportunity to air their concerns to a public audience (Endicott 2002, 99). In their view they would go on to expose the greed and lawlessness of the owners, local officials, and RCMP. The commissioner was District Court Judge E.R. Wylie and legal counsel for the commission was W.J. Perkins the local agent of the attorney general and a member of the Estevan Conservative Association (a pro-owner, pro-capitalist organization). The enactment of the commission would result in no let up in police attacks on miners, their families, and supporters. Clearly the commission sent no single to the police that their activities might be inappropriate.
During the commission period RCMP Inspector Moorhead, on direction from village overseer A.H. Graham and mine manager H.M. Freeman, sent mine constables to raid the boarding house where they turned seven men out of their beds in the middle of the night, arrested them, and charged them with vagrancy. The suspected unionists were held in jail for four days without bail before being released. The morning after the boarding house arrests the police arrested WUL organizer James Bryson at the union hall.
Two days after the night raid Inspector Moorhead led 40 armed officers to Bienfait to intimidate and harass strikers who were considering a tentative agreement to end the strike. He went so far as to enter the union hall and offer a veiled threat of violence to the workers there. Moorhead later amassed a large force of officers at the mine entrance on the day that work was to restart. Miners reported that the feeling was like a slave camp (Endicott 2002, 101). And the slave patrols were, much as they were in the southern US, government forces acting for capital—in this case the cherished RCMP.
These were unambiguously illegal, and entirely business driven, actions by the police. Their sole purpose was to harass and intimidate miners and unionists, and disrupt organizing on behalf of capital. Again the stories of state neutrality and police service as community safety are shown to be completely false. Moorhead and his officers manipulated and abused law to serve the private financial interests of mine owners.
RCMP Inspector Moorhead was a rather despicable character who put fully on display the racism and anti-working class bias that were bedrocks of RCMP culture and perspective throughout their history to that point. Moorhead was particularly hostile to so-called foreign born miners. He claimed that the Bienfait organizers “consisted largely of Foreigners as very few English-speaking people took part” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). He even called for “discriminate deportation of the radical foreign element” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). In his view, “until this method is put into effect there is sure to be continual trouble, possibly of a more serious nature” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). Tellingly, trouble for Endicott did not include the life threatening working conditions, child labor, low pay, and miserable living environments that the miners and their families were forced to endure in the mines and company work camps. Trouble, in his view did not include the arbitrary and abusive actions of management over workers.
One effect of the RCMP attack less remarked upon has been the silencing of militant voices and perspectives on organizing in the coalfields and a rewriting of the history of working class struggles both in the local area and in the Canadian state context more broadly.
The important and courageous part played by the Workers’ Unity League and Mine Workers’ Union of Canada in defending workers’ interests for job security, better working conditions, health and safety, and improved pay has been disparaged or distorted in the interests of asserting narratives less critical of the police and bosses.
The age at which boys could work in the mines was not raised until after 1944. The RCMP attack on and murder of the Estevan Three helped delay this change for 13 years. This derailment of this particular union demand provided an exploitation bonus for employers but was, of course, disastrous for young workers.
The RCMP in service of the mine companies killed three young miners and wounded many others. They then used their force and privilege to track down and arrest other miners and supporters, particularly going after supposed leaders of the unionization drives.
Police, as they have throughout Canadian history, played important, indeed pivotal, repressive roles in an all out assault on working people defending their lives against capital. At Estevan the assault on miners and their organizing efforts was on behalf of ownership. At the same time it expressed Conservative government interests, perspectives, and priorities to ensure accumulation and profitability within the Canadian context but also to discipline and restrain workers within a period of depression and unrest. The violence of the state was accompanied culturally through over racism and xenophobia and patriotic jingoism and militarism within a context of Red scare fear mongering. All of which are characteristic bulwarks of RCMP history.
Dishaw, Garnet. 2006. “Estevan Coal Strike.” Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Regina: University of Regina
Endicott, Stephen L. 2002. Bienfait: The Saskatchewan Miners’ Struggle of ’31. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Rohatyn, Michelle. 1979. Taped Interviews with Miners.