Category Archives: Labor

A Victim of Power (Corp) and Police: The La Presse Conflict and the Suffocation of Michele Gauthier (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

A Victim of Power (Corp) and Police: The La Presse Conflict and the Suffocation of Michele Gauthier

On November 2, 1971, some 2000 people crowded inside and outside the church at Ste-Rosalle, their fists raised in the air in a silent and sombre but striking show of defiance and solidarity, They had gathered together in the rural area, a small village near St-Hyacinthe, some 45 miles southeast of Montreal, to pay respect to a fallen comrade. Her name was Michele Gauthier and she had been killed by police in the service of a government set on protecting a major corporate partner, the La Presse newspaper recently purchased by key capitalist power broker Paul Desmarais, head of the aptly named Power Corp.

Michele Gauthier was a young college student at CEGEP Vieux-Montreal. An activist and self identified feminist and Leftist, she had been killed by police during a vicious police attack on a demonstration in support of locked out La Presse workers the previous Friday night. During a sustained assault on marchers police fired off rounds of tear gas. Michele Gauthier suffocated from the stifling gas. A brutal and awful way to die.

The police killing of this young college student and activist played a radicalizing role among the broad Quebec working class unlike any seen in other cases of police violence in Canadian history. It would lead many to completely change their view of police and the laws—from being seen as neutral arbitrators of social consensus to violent, interested, upholders of class inequality, exploitation, and fundamental injustice.

This would spur a radicalized willingness to confront, even to break, laws that were now revealed as illegitimate and unjust. It would contribute to a breakthrough against the socialization that teaches conformity, respect for police, and the lowering of expectations to what elites deem to be reasonable or respectable.

Less than a year later it would erupt in the form of a general strike, and a broader insurrection, in Quebec. Only a few years later a second general strike would be launched across Canada on the basis of solidarity, infrastructures, and lessons learned in Quebec.


Aptly Named: Power Corporation, Paul Desmarais, and La Presse

The La Presse strike has its roots in the actions of a notorious and centrally important figure of the Canadian power elite. That is one Paul Desmarais, political funder and Svengali of numerous Canadian parliamentarians of various stripes, including Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Paul Martin Jr. At the heart of this power elite nexus is the institution of Power Corporation, the political economic juggernaut run by Desmarais over decades.

Desmarais merged his Trans-Canada Corporation Fund with Power Corporation (the holding company of the Peter Nesbitt Thompson group) and grew it. Power already had a history of union busting, vicious bargaining, and intensification of exploitation (profitability) (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93).

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa was a Power director (along with Prime Minister to be Paul Martin Jr.). At least 10 members of the Quebec government’s General Council of Industry were linked to the corporation. Power Corporation Secretary Claude Frenette was former president of the Quebec federal Liberals (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93). Power was believed to a be a main financial backer for the Liberal Party (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 93). They also maintained strong connections with the Quebec Conservatives. This included connections between Desmarais and future Premier David Johnson (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 94).

Power had secured the largest private media monopoly in Quebec, owning three other daily papers (in Sherbrooke, Granby, and Trois-Rivieres, the three largest weeklies in Montreal, two Sunday papers, 12 other reciprocal weekly papers, and 10 radio and television stations. They controlled ideological production in Quebec for French language media.  Onyx Films, a film company owned by Power, actually made films for the RCMP, an interesting wrinkle in power elite relations.


The Lockout and Strike at La Presse

Desmarais bought the La Presse newspaper only a short time before the strike of 1971 and his politically motivated actions were largely responsible for it. A strong Rightist and herald of  muscular capitalism (neoliberalism), Desmarais sought immediately to turn the paper into a propaganda vehicle for nationalist (federalist) and hyper-capitalist ideology. He targeted journalists who disagreed with or would not capitulate to his mission.

Desmarais sought to provoke an illegal strike of journalists by locking out typographical workers. Knowing the Leftist and unionized journalists would not cross the picket line, Desmarais planned to then fire them. In the words of Alan Hetitage of the International Typographers Union: “I don’t think they were after us. They wanted the journalists. If we had put up a picket line we would have been dead because the journalists would have respected it and lost their jobs” (quoted in Sweetman 2004). The typesetters strategically chose not picket—thus not playing into a setting of a trap for the journalists.

After five months of being locked out the union movement held a mass demonstration, a solidarity strike of sorts, to show support for the locked out La Presse workers on October 29, 1971. The company and government moved to attack the workers with legislation. The union organizers were accused of promoting violence simply for striking. At one point workers keenly created a vehicle blockade of the building, parking their cars around its perimeter. This borrowed a famous tactic that had been successful during the 1945 strike by United Auto Workers (UAW) members against Ford in Windsor, Ontario.

The company tried to divide and conquer labor by blaming outside agitators from US unions for provocations and the delay in settlement. Workers turned to labor federations to build boycott campaigns of the newspaper and advertisers (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The company managed to win an injunction prohibiting more than eight people from gathering near the building at the same time.

Notably La Presse implemented intrusive security, surveillance measures, including microphones to capture conversations among workers and closed circuit television. Thus they innovated measures of labor process management that have now become widespread.

The day after the mass demonstration, on October 30, the reactionary Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau re-introduced a ridiculous and one-sided pro-company anti-demonstration law for the city in consultation with Liberal (neoliberal) provincial Premier Robert Bourassa. This draconian piece of anti-democratic and class-biased legislation had already been declared illegal by Quebec’s Superior Court. Drapeau decided, after consultation with Bourassa, that the bylaw could still be legal because the court decision was under appeal (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 97). In announcing the re-introduction Mayor Drapeau refused to answer questions from the press.

The Drapeau government put a ban of more than eight workers gathering near the La Presse facilities. As part of the repressive government defense of their corporate sponsors a no-protest zone of fifty blocks around the La Presse building was established in law. It was to be a “forbidden zone” within the city itself. A clear provocation.

Union leaders declared the ban illegitimate. They would march. And with purpose.


The March

Beginning at Square Saint Louis a crowd of more than 15,000 workers showed up in a show of defiance set to march against the corporation and governments at various levels. Public attention on the planned march spread well beyond Montreal (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 97). Public interest and concern were piqued by outrage over the anti-democratic protest ban which was seen clearly as a gift by the government to their corporate allies.

On the day of the march, organizers sought to avoid confrontations and violence by staying along Dorchester Street, the dividing line between the “free city” and the “forbidden city” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The march began along St. Denis.

They headed toward La Presse headquarters. Picking up parts of the pavement as they marched the demonstrators were confronted by a police barricade outside the La Presse building at Craig Street.

On Dorchester, the police had other plans. As they proceeded the demonstrators found their route blocked by hundreds of riot police and several city buses. This left them no option but to continue on St. Denis into Viger Square. Police had set a trap something akin to what today is called a kettle. At Viger Square a cul-de-sac was formed by a police barricade right in front of police headquarters at Craig and Gosford streets (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98).

The trade union leaders even offered themselves up for arrest in the manner of symbolic protest and civil disobedience. Instead, after only 15 minutes, police charged the crowd.

Police, protecting La Presse, moved violently against the assembled workers and supporters. One account describes police actions against the protesters as “sadistic” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). People were clubbed indiscriminately. Police sued their three foot long clubs on any and all that they chose or encountered. Neither size nor age offered deterrents against them. The police riot squad was deployed against the marchers. More than 100 Montreal police officers took part in the attack. There were around 60 arrests and around 300 demonstrators suffered various injuries, in addition to the death if Michele Gauthier. Police tracked people down at the local hospital, beating people who sought medical assistance. Tear gas was fired wildly into the streets. It was this mass deployment of  tear gas that would kill Michele Gauthier, suffocating her.

The police violence and the killing of Michele Gauthier radicalized the union movement. The union leaders held a press conference the next day. At it they declared their illusions about society shattered. The police they said had behaved in an “inhuman” fashion. They took to calling the police “Drapeau’s Gestapo” and “two-legged dogs” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The Montreal Policemen’s Brotherhood was read out of the trade union movement, where it never should have been in the first place.

Yvon Charbonneau said the murderous actions of the police were proof of the “collusion of the political and economic powers” directed against the working class by this power elite. The result of the police assault was, he said, that the public “has received an accelerated lesson in history” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99). It was an important lesson in sociology and criminology too. In that act of brutality the mask of liberal democracy slipped and the police, and the state they are the front line for, were revealed as an institution of bare class power, not an agency of social protection and service.

This was a significant shift, coming in the context of the assault on social resistance undertaken by the federal and provincial governments under the pretext of the October Crisis and the actions of the urban guerilla FLQ. At that time Prime Minister Trudeau had deployed the army to occupy Quebec and hundreds of union and Leftist activists were arrested—despite having nothing to do with the FLQ and its actions.

During the march, notably, nationalist slogans and placards were greatly outnumbered by anti-capitalist ones, such as “Capitalism equals unemployment, socialism equals work [in French]” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98). The makeup of the crowd was markedly blue collar. Many had not attended protest marches previously (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 98).


The Funeral

At her funeral on November 2, Michele Gauthier’s pall bearers included Marcel Pepin, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, Louis Laberge of the Quebec Federation of Labour, Yvon Charbonneau of the Quebec Teachers Corporation, a student from her CEGEP Vieux-Montreal, a member of the Front de Liberation des Femmes, and a press worker representing the locked workers at La Presse (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107).

For observers and commentators at the time, the thousands who attended the funeral and most of the people who they represented in their organizational capacities viewed Michele Gauthier unambiguously as a martyr (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107). She was remembered as a committed and serious activist in women’s liberation and Left wing politics.

In the Quotidien Populaire, the daily paper of the locked out La Presse workers, she was given a full page “In Memoriam.” In it her husband Michel offered a powerful testament:

“A victim of violence jointly and deliberately planned by the economic powers and the political powers, this frail young woman lost her life because she dared protest peacefully against those who treat workers like cattle. I dare to hope that this terrible event will help us understand the necessity of uniting in the face of a more and more oppressive power, and to fight for the ideal which animated Michele: a Quebec where liberty, justice and equality reign.” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107)


Government Inhumanity

The response of the provincial government was particularly despicable, showing starkly the ruling Quebec Liberal’s unflinching, and unconscionable, support for the employers. When Gauthier’s death was raised in Quebec’s National Assembly, the Liberal caucus responded with derisive laughs and hoots. This in response to a police killing of a young student standing with locked out workers being mistreated by an aggressive employer. Liberal Party Whip Louis-Philippe Lacroix went further in asserting the government’s dedication to its corporate masters by calling for an investigation, not of the police or even La Presse) but of the labor leadership (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107).

Montreal’s legendary, and infamous, mayor, Jean Drapeau, added his own offensive and insensitive take on events and the actions of his own police force. He stated obnoxiously and contemptibly: “It’s dishonest to say somebody died because of the events Friday night. Nobody died at the demonstration. Madame Gauthier could just as well have lost her life at the Santa Claus parade” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 107). Yet there was no word from the mayor on how many times or why Santa Claus parade goers have been subjected to bombardment by massive quantities of tear gas.


Organized Resistance

Organized labor in Quebec came out of the La Presse battle with a unity not previously seen. As Sweetman suggests: “It’s often said that few things are more radicalizing than the end of a police baton, and on Oct. 29, 1971, the end of the baton—clearly and deliberately wielded by the state—was felt by the entire working class of Quebec” (2004).

The La Presse strike and the various solidarity actions showed a militant and unified model for tactical social action. It suggested  Common Front that could bring together diverse workers and overcome divided and competitive craft union models as existed at La Presse before the lockout and strike.

The QFL and CNTU, the two main labor federations ended their rivalry and with the Quebec Teachers Corporation formed a Common Front. Notably, newly recognizing their real social basis they called on all progressive forces—political groups, students, unorganized workers, unemployed people, welfare recipients—to join together in a now apparent shared goal—the overthrow of capitalism ad the development of socialism (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99).

Laberge considered the growing militance and push for socialism as the “great national battle” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 102). Cooperation and pursuit of reforms, which had dominated labor movements in Quebec, were now revealed to be a certain dead end. And this went beyond nationalism to seek a coalition with English Canadian workers against experiences of exploitation and oligarchy that were shared in common.

This Common Front model and the militant direction opened to workers through the strike raised important possibilities for working class organizing and for claims on workers power—even workers control. Such a Common Front could mobilize and support and defend hundreds of thousands of workers. It could provide strength against employers—not only private capital, but the state.

Organization is key. As Laberge would state:

“It would be illusory to dream of some revolutionary cataclysm. Some people believe in effect that the collective consciousness of exploitation will unleash an irresistible liberation movement and all we have to do is to let ourselves be carried along with it. I don’t believe miracles happen by themselves. We have to organize efficiently, starting with often humble and discreet tasks.” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 106)


CNTU members were provided a militant study guide: “Ne comptons que sur non propres moyen” (“Let us count only on our own resources).

The La Presse strike and the solid actions of organized labor, especially during the police assault of October 29, showed the divisions between the working class Left and the Quebec nationalist Parti Quebecquois (PQ). After the police assault PQ leader, and legend, Rene Levesque incredibly had denounced the labor leaders as fanatics. In his words, he would “rather live in a South American banana republic” than in a Quebec influenced by the “ranting and raving of labour leaders” (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 112).

Before the QFL convention of November 1971 the PQ’s National Council did try to manage some reconciliation, offering a “mini manifesto” expressing support for labor’s goals of democratic restructuring of the economic and social systems. But Levesque silenced Robert Burns, a former CNTU lawyer who sat as PQ member of the National Assembly for Maisonneuve , telling him to leave the party if he did not like it. Burns, for his part, had said that the PQ was acting like little more than the progressive wing of the Liberal Party.

Anglo social democrats and unionists offered chauvinistic and divisive assessments. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) head Donald McDonald reinforced Trudeau’s view, suggesting that the strikes in Quebec were not strikes but revolutions and sided with his state and corporate bosses in suggesting that they needed to be put down.

Having gained essential experiences in organizing and confidence in their actions, the workers’ movements in Quebec wold provide the impetus for struggles that would be among the most significant of the last half of the twentieth century, not only in Quebec or Canada but in North America. Quebec workers provided the inspiration and organizing force behind the largest general strike in North American history in 1976. The Canada-wide general strike of that year was launched against wage controls promoted by the federal Liberal government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau (yes, the father of that guy). More than 1.2 million workers across Canada took part in the general strike. That strike provided an example of working class solidarity across assumed barriers of language and culture. It provided an important counter to Anglo chauvinism and nationalism alike.


General Unrest

Throughout the year of 1971, social struggles, class struggles, would build and grow. New levels of labor militancy and direct action would spark and spread. October of 1971 would gain the title of Quebec’s “Blue Collar” crisis (Palmer 2009, 362).

Growing and high unemployment, continuing poverty, and job losses in even higher tech sectors with supposedly greater job security contributed to widespread unrest in the province, not only in Montreal. The crisis for capital and the state would  provide a revitalization of labor. Rural protests targeted the corporate monopolies in the resource industries, often the sole major employers in the towns (Palmer 2009, 362).

In Cadillac, a small town between Val d’Or and Rouyn, about three-quarters of the town took part in a week long highway blockade to stop the shutdown of the molybdenite mine that they viewed as theirs, not capital’s (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 103). In Manneville, about 400 miles northwest of Montreal, the townsfolk fought against riot police who had been transported in to repress protests over woodcutting rights (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 103). The whole town at Mont-Laurier mobilized against wood plant shutdowns throughout 1971. In Shawinigan, home of federal cabinet minister, and future Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chretien, there were numerous demonstrations.

Residents of Cabano blockaded railways and blew up bridges used by KC Irving after the company failed to live up to promises to build a plant and increase jobs in the area (Palmer 2009, 362). They even threatened to set fire to the company’s existing facilities.

In Sept-Iles, two thousand steelworkers and 1500 machinists walked out of the American owned companies (Palmer 2009, 362). One journalist, Malcolm Reid, reported on the Sept-Iles uprisings as follows: “They don’t read much Trotsky in Sept-Iles. But the workers of this iron port way out east on the St. Lawrence put themselves at the head of the May revolt in Quebec with something that looked like what Trotsky called ‘dual power’” (quoted in Plamer 2009, 362). This is a remarkable claim, suggesting that workers were devising and developing new forms of self-directed, self-governing activity outside of, beyond, and against the formal apparatuses of state and capital. These were manifestations of working class self-determination in formation.


Common Front

The shared experiences of state repression and recognition that the state was willing to take the lives of people standing for social justice and to respond to such atrocity with no remorse, steeled the labor movement. It would encourage a further coming together in solidarity that would see a Common Front developed over and against previous divisions within the labor movement and between its various groupings.

Many familiar with Canadian labor history will know of, at least in some general detail, the Quebec Common Front and the General Strike of 1972. Involving more than 300,000 workers, it was, up to that point, the largest general strike in Canada. Infamously union leaders, including Louis Labarge, Marcel Pepin, and Yvon Charbonneau were arrested and sentenced to a year in jail for urging striking workers to break state injunctions against them.

The Common Front was formalized politically at a mass rally at the Montreal Forum, famed home of the legendary Montreal Canadiens hockey team, only four days after the police assault on the La Presse demonstration. Around 14,000 people turned out on only 24 hours notice for a militant and affirmative show of solidarity and resolve (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99). The meeting was chaired by Michel Chartrand and Louis Laberge, Yvonne Charbonneau, and radical lawyer Robert Lemieux. Much of the Quebec trade union leadership participated.

Michele Gauthier’s memory was a present and vital part of the evening. Referencing the assault by police and ensuing street battle only a few nights previous, Louis Laberge declared from the podium:

“We give serious warning to the wealthy and to the established powers that this first victim might be followed by others, but in future the victims won’t only be on our side” (quoted in Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 100).


Speakers one after the other called out and condemned the governments of Trudeau (federal), Bourassa (provincial), and Drapeau (Municipal). They identified the struggle as a battle against “the wealthy, propertied capitalists” and for “democracy, social and economic justice, liberty and equality (Chodos and Aud der Maur 1972, 99-100). These were distinctly and emphatically declarations of class war—on the other side, the side of the exploited against the exploiters (Chodos and Auf der Maur 1972, 99).


Mass Direct Action

In response to the state jailing of the union members in an attempt to break the strike, workers upped the ante. Several towns on the North Shore were operated by and defended by workers (including Joliette, Sept-Iles, Sorel, and Thetford). Numerous factories in the towns became worker run organizations for the period of the strike. This signalled a potential move from a strike to workers control of industry. It posed the prospect of revolution in real terms. Several television stations were taken over by workers and 22 radio stations were controlled by workers. Anti-union newspapers were simply forced to stop publishing over that period. Entire towns came under workers control.

When news of the jailing of Laberge, Pepin, and Charbonneau reached Sept-Iles, a community on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, unionized workers left their jobs and initiated something of an insurrection. They blocked the only road leading into town, they closed the airport, they took over the local radio station (CKCN). Within hours their town was truly their town.

In response, the local bourgeoisie organized a vigilante group to inflict violence on the workers and to seize back the property they believed to be theirs (as capital believes all property to be as their natural right). The name of their vigilante group was a priceless statement of bourgeois law and morality. The Comite des Citoyens Respecteux de la Loi et de ‘lOrdre was headed up by the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

A statement released on behalf of 6500 union workers in Sept-Iles stated: “We have finished with respecting laws that crush people, laws that are defined by the traditional elite” (Gellner 1974, 170). The bourgeoisie was more focused on property and its typical disparagement of workers. In their statement they explained themselves:

“Goons, drunkards, loudmouths  and revolutionaries were taking over our town and were sabotaging our homes, hurting our businesses and breaking up our property. It was time for us to take affairs in our own hands and end the reign of terror.” (Gellner 1974, 169, emphasis added).

Of course, the real issue was that the police force that had always taken care of these things for the property owners and business elites were frightened into inaction for once. So the usual customary, legal and “respectable” means of the state, usually reliably available to capital was, in this instance, not available. And as a result its real social function was once again put on proper display.

The general strike was successful in winning several concessions from employers or from government. The arrested and sentenced union leaders had their sentences reduced, to four months from one year. Even more, bosses were put on the defensive, unable to carry out their preferred or desired austerity plans against the working class.

Some politicians and bosses might have come to believe that revolutionary syndicalism might have been put in the grave alongside the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. The La Presse strike of 1971 showed that revolutionary syndicalism still existed or had been resurrected in a Canadian context. And it showed that it still provided the most striking model of effective working class resistance, even in a distinct economic, political, and cultural context.

Said jailed CNTU President Marcel Pepin in 1972:

“Not since the days of the Industrial Workers of the World, since the days of Joe Hill and the battle for the eight-hour day, has a North American union movement been so dedicated to the tradition of revolutionary syndicalism.” – Marcel Pepin (jailed President of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, 1972)


The Common Front was so widespread that police were put into the position of acknowledging, against their own preferences, that they could neither contain it not put it down. Instead they were, again and again, in setting after setting, compelled to stand back. They understood that they would lose any decisive clash in that context of united workers power. And this is a crucial lesson to be held throughout.

It confirmed the claim pressed by syndicalists historically of the power of the general strike. A mass mobilization of the organized working class committed to militant action and self defense can sideline the police and their repressive force. This is the lesson of class struggle and revolutionary syndicalism.

Yet while many will know something of the Common Front and 1972 general strike, few if any will recall or know anything about the catalyst for the uprising of May 1972. That is the 1971 strike at the La Presse newspaper and the police violence against striking workers that left a young feminist and Leftist student, Michele Gauthier, dead at the hands of Montreal police.




The La Presse conflict would become one of the signal events in labor history in Quebec and in Canada. Yet it is largely forgotten outside of Quebec. And the name Michele Gauthier, and the causes  for which she stood, has been largely lost to history. This is an effect of power. We are too often left unaware of the humble heroes who, without fame or attention, put themselves on the line to stand for social justice and a better world against forces of control and domination, exploitation and repression.

This silencing allows power to tell its own particular story about our society and its true character. In Canada, the overlooking, the too easy forgetting, the silencing of the screams of pain, the muffled gasps, of regular people striving for a better world, has allowed state and capital, politicians and police, bosses and brigands to pose the country’ history as one of peace and progress rather than regressive and repressive violence. It allows power to paint a picture of a social consensus that has never existed and is only an image imposed by force.

Michele Gauthier’s sacrifice and her commitment, her active pursuit of solidarity and search for a better world must not be left to history. It must return as a part of the present of social justice and struggles against the everyday violence of power. She helped to galvanize a movement and forge commitments which posed revolutionary alternatives as real world prospects. She contributed to a development of working class solidarity and unity that seemed unlikely only months before.

This is of growing importance today in a period in which forces of reaction and outright fascism and ruling class brutality are on the upswing and growing. It is absolutely crucial as the exploited and oppressed look for examples of winning strategies and tactics and new ways of envisioning social alternatives to the dominant structures of power and domination, dispossession and accumulation. And as people in struggle debate the nature of the state and the nature of resistance and protests and seek to affirm the legitimacy and necessity of community self defense and militant collective direct action.


Further Reading

Chodos, Robert and Nick Auf der Maur. 1972. Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972. Toronto: James Lewis and Samuel, Publishers

Palmer, Bryan D. 2009. Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Sweetman, George. 2004. “General Strike: The 1972 Rebellion in Quebec.” North-Eastern Anarchist 9.



Breaking the General Strike: The Mounties Kill Strikers Mike Sokowolski and Mike Schezerbanowicz in Winnipeg (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

The Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919 stands as perhaps the signal moment of working class resistance and open class conflict in the industrial Canadian context. It remains a still resonant example of working class militance, organization, resolve, solidarity, and vision. It stands too as an unmistakeable symbol of the violence, repression, and racism at the core of the Canadian state. The Winnipeg General Strike offers a clear reminder of the state connection with and willingness to act in support of capital, and to do so using all means in its monopoly of violence. It also shows the racism of the Canadian state and its willingness to divide and conquer workers on the basis of ethnic background and/or national origin. Finally it shows the readiness of the state, and its major cultural symbol (the RCMP in its earlier incarnation as the Northwest Mounted Police), to kill. Labor historian Edward Seymour describes the reaction to the strike by government authorities at all levels as simply “vicious” (1976, 19).


Class Rule in Winnipeg

Labor historian David Bercuson suggests that business in Winnipeg was anti-union from the start, with unions viewed as an impediment to the climate in which business and investment could grow and prosper in the emerging industrial center (1975, 1–2). While this was certainly true of virtually all other cities, Bercuson argues that what was somewhat unique in Winnipeg was the extent to which the city was run by business associations and the particular costs of trade with national and international markets given the city’s isolation and distance and the associated higher transportation costs compared with say Toronto or Montreal. This great distance from both supply sources and markets impelled an obsession with keeping costs (labor particularly) unsustainably low (Bercuson 1975, 2).

In addition to these factors, Bercuson adds another, more curious one. This, he says, was the history of Social Darwinism prevalent among the ruling elite in Winnipeg. He notes that many of Winnipeg’s industrial and political leaders were nouveaux riches who had humble beginnings but had made it rich in the growing boom town. They took their success as a sign of personal strength, even superiority, and saw this as a sign that they were natural, and legitimate, leaders. The self-made man could not sympathize with those who, because of personal weakness, needed to organize collectively with others (Bercuson 1975, 2).

Winnipeg had experienced many, often bitter, strikes in the first decades of the twentieth century. Workers sought recognition of unions and collective agreements while bosses were largely successful in keeping unions out of workplaces. Throughout, local government dominated by businesspeople, invariably sided with employers and owners.



The War Economy and Class Struggle

Economic pressures and political dissatisfaction contributed to growing tensions between labor and management by 1918, the last year of the war. While workers were making the sacrifices of the war, employees did not want to share any of the benefits of economic gains within the war economy.

Bercuson suggests that inflation during the war period played, in his view, the most important part in stoking industrial conflict over the war years and in the period immediately following the end of the war (1975, 4). Inflation meant that those workers outside of the war industries and munitions manufacturing especially who could not achieve significant wage gains were faced with declining standards of living and rising costs (Bercuson 1975, 4). In Winnipeg, few workers worked in the arms industries so most were faced with declining living standards throughout the war years and beyond.

At the same time, labor shortages among skilled workers in particular meant that conditions for union organizing were favorable. This was also fueled by general anger among workers over conscription, the compulsory military service program initiated by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917. Indeed the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) came to advocate a national general strike against conscription in 1917 (Bercuson 1975, 5). While the planned general strike did not come off, it planted the notion of the tactic of mass opposition to government and capital in the general intellect of workers across the country.

This was a period before full legal standing and recognition for unions and employers could routinely seek and receive court injunctions against picketing during strikes. This allowed bosses to bring in scabs and continue production contributing mightily to the regular defeat of strikes. In Winnipeg in 1917 alone, three strikes had been defeated in this very manner (Bercuson 1975, 6).


The 1918 “General Strike”

In April 1918, strikes of three unions of civic employees generated discussions of sympathy strikes of all civic workers (Bercuson 1975, 6).  When the unions reached a tentative agreement with a committee including the mayor and members of council, the city council, through Alderman F.O. Fowler sought to add an amendment that city employees take a no strike pledge for the future. The “Fowler Amendment” looked to take away city workers’ right to strike and was supported by the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Free Press. It was vehemently opposed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (Bercuson 1975, 6).

In response to the Fowler Amendment, city firefighters stopped work the very next day. Ten days later, 13 trades, amounting to 7000 workers, had joined in the work stoppage. Water, fire, light and power, telephone, railway maintenance, and public transportation were impacted (Bercuson 1975, 7).

The Board of Trade futilely tried to keep operations running by supplying scabs. Desperate, and facing growing momentum for workers and a rising movement the city government turned to a new private grouping to negotiate with the unions. This Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred came to an agreement with the workers that was almost the same as the initial one of May 13, 1918. This new agreement was accepted by a somewhat chastened city council and the strike ended on May 24. According to Bercuson the “workers’ victory was almost complete” (1975, 7).

The conclusions of this 1918 general strike were unmistakeable. The general strike had won the day in a context in which unions acting alone were always losing. It was only this combined and coordinated power that had allowed the workers to win, let alone to win so convincingly. It was well recognized that each union acting on its own would have been defeated (Bercuson 1975, 7). Another outcome was to radicalize workers who now saw greater possibilities for gains and were not as willing to accept less. The employers had the government and courts on their side and could use them. Yet workers united in a general strike could defeat even that combined force of elites.

This was further reinforced when a hoped for general strike in support of the Metal Trades Council in July of 1918 did not materialize and the metal workers were defeated. And this even as the Metal Trades Council had achieved a combination of unions in the industry. The civic workers had gained support of workers in all industries.

In recognition of this fact, in December 1918 the Trades ad Labour Council passed a motion that gave it the power to call out on strike every union member in the city based on a straight majority of all the city’s union members (Bercuson 1975, 8). This mechanism would come into effect only a few months later.


A Radical Period and the Rise of the One Big Union

The end of the war brought new and renewed hopes that the sacrifices made by so many would be rewarded with a new social foundation of justice and improved social equality. Yet the hopes of most were soon dashed by governments that sought a return to the pre-war status quo. This led to growing discontent and resentment. Not only among industrial workers but among a cross section of Canadian residents, including returning veterans who felt cheated and lied to.

Another factor of inestimable significance in this context was the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe in the post-war period. Revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany and Hungary in 1918 suggested that real social change was no pipe dream and could be had for those willing to fight for it. There was no need simply to wait or be patient. Waiting was now seen as a chump’s game, a boss’s dream.

At a Western Labour Conference held in Calgary on March 16, 1919, participants moved for secession from the conservative, craft dominated TLC. They called for a new national labor body organized on industrial lines, rather than by each craft within an industry. The new grouping would be called the OBU, the One Big Union. In structure and approach it resembled syndicalist organizing as in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The OBU was an explicitly radical formation, not anarchist, supportive of the Bolshevik revolution and influenced by Marxism.

They sought a referendum to see if Canadian workers supported a national general strike beginning on June 1 in demand of the 30 hour work week (Bercuson 1975, 12). The OBU was formally launched during the first week of June at a founding convention in Calgary. At that point the Winnipeg General Strike was into its third week. The OBU provided the nightmare figure for government and employers in Winnipeg even though it had played no direct part in the strike to that point.


The Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike was founded in conflicts in the metal and building trades during April and May of 1919. Lack of progress in making gains in wages, for the buildings trades, and union recognition, for the metals trade, led to a call for a general strike vote under the Trades Council motion of December 1918. Facing a stalemate the Building Trades Council called for a strike of their members for May 1, Mayday, 1919.

The Metal Trades Council, a grouping of craft unions representing workers in contract shops, auto repair, etc. had waged and lost nasty strikes in 1906, 1917, and 1918 (Bercuson 1975, 14). In 1919 they again pressed their attempt for higher wages and the 44 hour work week but were rebuffed by contract shop owners who felt every reason to be confident they could win against yet another union effort. The contractors had benefitted from use of injunctions and had deployed professional strikebreaking firms against the metal workers in the past (Bercuson 1975, 14). The recalcitrant metal works companies were Darwin Bridge, Vulcan Ironworks, and the Manitoba Bridge Company. The MTC sought a nine hour work day and full recognition for unions. On May 2, 1919, the metal workers responded to employers’ intransigence, especially that of the big employers, with a third strike in three years. They sought a shorter work week, wage parity with workers in the railway shops, and union recognition (Bercuson 1975, 15).

At this point the broader union movement in the city was ready for action in defense of their interests. Three trades were on or facing strike action. Others had recently concluded nasty negotiations and were left angered by the process. During the weekly Trade Council meeting of May 6, it was reported that a visiting worker of German origin, attending metal trades shops on behalf of his local, had been arrested. Upon release he spoke to the meeting of government backing employers (Bercuson 1975, 16). The Trades Council meeting decided to poll every union member in the city on their support for a general strike with a decision to be taken at the meeting of May 13. The results of the voting would show more than 11,000 workers in support of the general strike while only a tiny number of 500 were opposed (Bercuson 1975, 17). Thursday, May 15 at 11 AM was decided upon as the start time for the strike.

A Strike Committee was formed that would include three delegates from each of the unions represented on the Trades Council. They would act as the representative body for future negotiations during the strike.

The situation in the metal trades was dire as employers refused even the slightest hint of compromise. Efforts by Premier Tobias Norris and Mayor Charles Frederick Gray to avoid the strike were unsuccessful. A last ditch effort of May 14 by Gray, Norris, and the provincial attorney-general also failed.

At 11 AM on May 15, 1919, Winnipeg was on strike. The response to the call was near total. Within the first day more than 22,000 workers were out on strike (Bercuson 1975, 17–18). Participation by workers was unanimous in 94 of 96 unions involved in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18). As Bercuson illustrates:


“Firemen left their stations, telephones were shut down, the city’s electrical workers left turbines and transmission equipment unattended; telegraphers and others responsible for keeping a modern city in touch with the world refused to work. At the waterworks a skeleton staff remained behind at the request of the Trades Council to provide a meagre thirty pounds pressure, sufficient for single-story dwellings. Commercial establishments of every sort, from moving-picture houses to restaurants were closed.” (1975, 18)


In British Columbia 60,000 workers walked out in sympathy strikes. Alberta railway shop workers walked out. Support was also strong in Ontario with 15,000 workers going on strike (Seymour 1976, 19).

To understand the participation of workers requires appreciation of the decades of bitter struggle preceding it and the sense among workers that there was no alternative option. This was a context of open class war and bitter hostility between labor and capital. Yet only one side was ready and prepared to use force.

Most strikers did not see themselves as a revolutionary force. For their part the strike leaders took a cautious approach, refusing even to condone peaceful pickets (Bercuson 1975, 20). To allow for distribution of essentials like milk and food the Strike Committee took the advice of J.W. Carruthers, owner of the Crescent Creamery Company, and issued cards to delivery workers informing the public that those doing bread and milk deliveries were not scabs (Bercuson 1975, 20–21). The Strike Committee issued cards stating: “Permitted by authority of Strike Committee” (Bercuson 1975, 21). For local government this was portentous, raising the prospect of workers taking over and managing effectively public services.

The mayor did not want civilians realizing that necessities of life could be provided by a structure outside of the government or its authority. Government did not want to allow the appearance that city administration could be taken over by city workers, who knew how to do the work and did it well, with no need for the government as a middle manager. In an error of strategy the Strike Committee succumbed to a vote of council on May 20 and complied by removing the cards the following day.

Prime Minister Borden, insistent in sending a strong anti-communist message and securing the Canadian state some recognition as a reliable emerging imperialist convoy, would not accept even a settlement that gave the appearance of some success for the striking workers. He would only allow total defeat for the strike or a capitulationist settlement that made clear the workers had been forced to swallow employer demands (Bercuson 1975, 22). Indeed the federal government would play an active and central role in the defeat of the strike. Commissioner A.B. Perry and the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) would be a major player in those government actions against the strike.


Police Force

Concerned that the regular police were not reliably anti-workers, anti-strike forces led by Brigadier-General H.D.B. Ketchen, commanding officer for the Manitoba military district proposed formation of an alternative force of “special police” to replace or add to the regular force (Bercuson 1975, 22). The city at the behest of Ketchen and Citizens’ Committee recruited the special police drawing primarily from anti-strike veterans and middle strata students. The “specials” were actually paid $6 per day, a wage that was higher than that paid to regular police, showing the hypocrisy and political character of the government and employers alike. It also showed the real lack of concern with legitimacy and the ease with which elites jettison such pretensions when their class interests are up against the wall. When the newly recruited special force was around 2000 members, most of the regular force, nearly 240 officers, was fired. From June 10, Winnipeg was under control pf thousands of men who were openly hostile to the strikers and the strike and who were entirely incompetent and untrained. The specials constituted a gang, a thug force, on city payroll. They immediately set about using physical violence to break up even small public meetings of strikers.

The connection of the police to the military and the engagement in social war by government were unmistakeable. A militia composed largely of volunteers was organized with about 5000 volunteers (Seymour 1976, 17). Ketchen coordinated activities of the NWMP and set up a training program for the newly recruited militia. Former officers were brought in to command the militia. The willingness of the federal government to use lethal force against civilians was clear. Ottawa secretly shipped machine guns to Winnipeg under cover of “regimental baggage” among the freight of the demobilizing 27th Battalion (Bercuson 1975, 23). Ketchen also had an armored vehicle made available for forces in the city. An armored car fitted with three machine guns and holding six sharp shooters was ready and available at Fort Osborne Barracks (Bercuson 1975, 23). The NWMP were issued four machine guns mounted on trucks (Bercuson 1975, 23). They had 60 mounted forces ready for quick deployment. Two mobile militia troops with a motorized machine gun section with two guns apiece, mobilized infantry escorts and a company of motorized infantry were also available (Bercuson 1975, 24). Ketchen had at least 800 troop forces available in addition to the specials and other militia members.


There Are No Neutral’s There: State and Capital United against Workers in Winnipeg

Opposition to the strike consisted of the powerful alliance of employers and government. They were supported by Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, an anti-union, anti-strike grouping positioned as the voice of “neutral” residents but which was anything but. The Citizens’ Committee was based on the Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred and included members of the Board of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Association, and the Winnipeg bar (Bercuson 1975, 18). Notable members included elites such as H.B. Lyall, an official with Manitoba Bridge and Board of Trade member; A.L. Crossin, a broker with Oldfield, Kirby, and Gardner, an insurance and loan firm, who was also a member of the Board of Trade; J.E. Botterell a senior partner in Baird and Botterell, a grain and stock brokerage, who was also with the Board of Trade; and Isaac Pitblado, a senior partner of the law firm, Pitblado, Hoskin, and Company, that handled the personal business affairs of the federal Minister of the Interior, Arthur Meighen (Bercuson 1975, 18–19).  The Chair of the Committee was A.K. Godfrey, an executive with the Canadian elevator company who was the president of the Board of Trade in 1917 and 1918.

The Committee supported the employers against the workers and provided thousands of volunteers to scab on the strikers (Bercuson 1975, 18). They also waged an ideological battle against the strikers, branding the union leaders as Bolsheviks. In the words of one striker: “The man who goes out to fight for his master is a brave Briton. The man who comes home to fight for his Mrs. is a bloomin Bolshevik” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 21). With access to secret government conferences they also advised the contract shop owners over the course of the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18).

The Winnipeg General Strike made clear in unquestionable terms the role of the state as an active, forceful supporter of capital rather than a neutral arbitrator. Rather than being disinterested players in disputes, as much criminology and legal studies of the liberal democratic state insist, the state acted in an interested manner on behalf of capital. They actively and consistently took sides. Both the federal and provincial governments immediately intervened on behalf of employers. Striking workers faced the combined efforts and forces of employers and governments. This meant that they faced the legal, political, and military force of the state acting on behalf of the employers they sought to gain concessions from.

Gideon Robertson launched an ideological campaign against the OBU blaming it for trying to foment revolution. He also set a deadline for a forced return to work of post-office workers. Postal workers were ordered back to work under conditions that they sign a pledge not to strike in the future. As the deadline passed the majority of postal workers in Winnipeg were fired and replaced with scab volunteers (Bercuson 1975, 19). The federal government fired 190 postal workers in Winnipeg when they refused to sign the anti-strike pledge. This mechanism of ultimatum and imposed deadline became the preferred means for treating all government employees. It was used against railway mail clerks, provincial telephone employees, firefighters, clerks, and waterworks workers at the city level. Most refused the ultimatums and were fired.

The federal government under Borden was unified in their opposition to the strike and in their commitment to defeat the workers on behalf of capital and the national (bourgeois) interest. They condemned the strike as a revolution. As in other cases like On to Ottawa two decades later the Prime Minister and cabinet expressed a fear that workers would overturn the established (exploitative) order, and pose a real alternative to existing structures of authority. Minister of the Interior, and future Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen saw in Winnipeg the possibility of a single union in Canada with the power to call a single general strike. This was clearly a sign of the immense power of labor if it ever organized jointly and in a united manner.

And working class unity was key. In virtually every lengthy strike there is an attempt by employers and/or government to split the membership. Often this involves targeting some members as militants and blaming them for intransigence. This often happens through efforts to make a minor offer that might satisfy some conservative demands, gaining some member support, while ignoring or overlooking other significant demands. So-called radicals are then posed as being unreasonable or asking for demands that cannot be granted at the expense of the discomfort of other members who have to endure an unnecessarily long strike.

Four weeks into the general strike Senator Robinson made a move to divide strikers and isolate radicals on the strike committee. On June 16 he secured an agreement from the contract shop employers to recognize craft unions in their workplaces. This did not include recognition of the Metal Trades Council. Robertson published this agreement in the newspapers to move public opinion against the strikers. At the same time the Senator ordered the arrests of Strike Committee radicals under dubious circumstances. Unfortunately moderates on the committee fell into Robertson’s trap and began negotiations to end the strike under the June 16 offer conditions (Bercuson 1975, 25).


The Violence of Law: Pernicious Legal Action then and Now

At this point one of the shameful episodes in Canadian state history unfolded. Legislation was introduced in the House of Commons to amend the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of British subjects not born in Canada. On June 6 the federal government had, in only one hour of discussion, passed amendments to the Immigration Act to allow easier arrest and deportation of so-called “enemy aliens.” In another attempt at divide and conquer the government sought to split workers on the basis of ethnicity, heritage, or national origin. The legislation passed three readings without debate in 20 minutes. It was granted approval by Senate and given Royal Assent in under an hour, which was the quickest passage of legislation in the history of Canadian parliament (Seymour 1976, 20).

Amendments were also made to the Criminal Code section on sedition. The infamous Section 98 was passed which made it a crime to belong to an association that had as a purpose the change of government, industry, or economy through use of force or through advocacy or defense of the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). Note that this could punish someone simply for defending the use of direct action or armed struggle. The offense was punishable by a maximum sentence of twenty years. One could be imprisoned for up to 20 years simply for printing, importing, distributing, or selling any material that either advocated or defended the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). The Section 98 was an explicitly anti-communist amendment aimed at criminalizing working class struggle, peoples’ resistance, and anti-capitalism.

Anyone targeted in this way could be subjected to seizure of any property belonging to or even suspected of belonging to such an association. The property could be seized without warrant and forfeited to the Crown if it had simply been shown that a person had attended meeting of such a group, distributed its literature, or spoken publicly in support of it in some way (Seymour 1976, 20). Notably there was a reverse onus in play, counter to legal standards in liberal democracies, such that an accused had to prove they had not acted in defense of such a group rather than, as is regular legal practice, the state carrying the burden of proof.

Significantly, and of great note, these measures are precisely the same as have been restored since 2001 in Liberal and Conservative federal government Anti-Terror Acts. This should be troubling to the contemporary reader.

In the early morning of June 18 several strike leaders and supporters were arrested including some under authority of the newly amended Immigration Act and taken to Stony Mountain penitentiary where they were held while the government worked to deport those it could. The arrested included R.B. Russell, secretary of the MTC, George Armstrong, a streetcar motor person, William Ivens, editor of the Western Labour News and a key spokesperson for labor, A.A. Heaps, a labor representative on Winnipeg Municipal Council, and John Queen, alderperson for Winnipeg’s Ward V (Seymour 1976, 20). The arrests provoked outrage nationally. The MTC in Toronto called for a general strike to release the strike leaders. Miners in Cape Breton wired Ottawa to say: “We pledge ourselves to do all we can to bring about a general strike all over Canada (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20). Meighen sought their immediate deportation. Others, including A.J. Andrews, were concerned this would turn public opinion against the government and it was decided the men would be released on bail if they agreed to participate no longer in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).


Not What They Fought For: Veterans Support the Strike

By this point, however, the flow of events was beyond the grasp of the Strike Committee and other forces were taking center stage. Among them were thousands of World War One veterans who, disillusioned by the lack of improvement in working and social conditions, which they believed they had fought for, after the war, were solidly in support of the strike and its aims. Returned veterans rejected a Citizens’ Committee request to oppose the general strike and the strikers. Quite the contrary, a mass rally of 10,000 ex-soldiers demonstrated at the provincial legislature to demand an immediate settlement to the strike, legislation to protect collective bargaining, and withdrawal of ultimatums to striking public sector workers (Seymour 1976, 19).

As the general strike went on these veterans groupings became more and more vocal and militant (Bercuson 1975, 25). They began organizing lively public demonstrations of support for the general strike. Starting at the end of May they undertook mass parades throughout the streets of downtown Winnipeg, often marching to the legislature, City Hall, or the Headquarters of the Citizens’ Committees (Bercuson 1975, 25). This was an open show of strength, solidarity, and resolve on behalf of the strike and in opposition to the forces of the government, business, and reaction. They also held loud rallies and assemblies in Victoria Park hosting speakers from the Strike Committee and others in support of the Strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).

In response to this reactionary veterans organized counter-demonstrations against the strike. The Mayor came to issue bans on parades on multiple occasions during the strike, bans which more negatively impacted strikers given the size and strength of the pro-strike veterans’ groupings.

In response to the arrests of radical strike leaders and the threats of deportation, and the restarting of street cars, the strike supporting veterans decided on June 20, in a mass rally outside City Hall, to hold a protest the following day.

The next morning, Robertson, Gray, and NWMP Commissioner A.B. Perry met with delegates of the veterans groups to try to avert the demonstration. They could not or would not agree to meet the veterans’ demands of removing the street cars from the streets, settling the strike within four hours, and speaking with the Citizens Committee to convey this (Bercuson 1975, 25). For his part Andrews threatened the veterans with resorting to “other measures” to stop the parade, a clear implication of possible force and violence by police (Bercuson 1975, 26).


Bloody Saturday

As mass crowds gathered across from City Hall in preparation for the march, Acting Police Chief Newton informed Mayor Gray that the force of specials was not prepared to deal with a crowd of that size. Newton agreed with Gray’s assessment that the NWMP be called in and Gray was off to the Mounties’ headquarters to ask Commissioner Perry to intervene. Perry was more than happy to oblige and directed 54 mounted officers and 36 in trucks to take the streets.

By the 2:30 PM parade start time several hundred people had already taken to the streets in an attempt to stop the street cars that had foolishly been driven into the area (which could only be taken as a provocation). Two cars were stopped near City Hall with one taken off its wires and its windows broken

It was at this point that the NWMP arrived on scene and charged the crowd. On multiple runs through the assembled gathering they swung batons on veterans and strikers. The police were met on the second charge with rocks and bottles from the crowd. On a third charge the Mounties brandished cocked revolvers (Bercuson 1975, 27). At 2:35 PM Mayor Gray entered a parapet at City Hall and gave formal reading of the Riot Act. He gave the assembled protesters 30 minutes to leave the streets or face arrests. Before he could even return back inside City Hall he heard the NWMP officers fire into the crowd of civilians.

The order to shoot was given by NWMP Inspector Mead who, perhaps in a moment of panic, had determined to put down the crowd following the second mounted charge. The first shots were fired only moments after Gray had given protesters half an hour to disperse and the shooting by police continued over a terrifying period of several minutes

In the volleys of shots striker Mike Sokowolski was killed instantly, shot in the heart. On the whole around 100 people were injured in the police assault. Striker Mike Schezerbanowicz, shot in the legs, would later die of gangrene resulting from his injuries as inflicted by police gunfire.

Police and the City tried in the aftermath of the police assault to blame protesters for firing a shot but it has been determined that no shots came from the crowd, the only shots came from police. The RNWMP officer in command provided the following account of the assault: “About 120 bullets in all were fired into the crowd of men, women, and children. They were not marching around the streets but standing in front of the City Hall. Many were running away when we fired on them” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20).

Indeed the police claim of initial fire from their targets is a common and ongoing ploy used to justify shooting and killing civilians. It is an excuse that is used falsely in cases right up to the present day. Not a single NWMP officer was hit by any gunfire. Even Inspector Mead acknowledged that he gave the order to fire out of a desperate desire to disperse the crowd, not because he was responding to any shots fired by anyone in the crowd.

As fearful members of the crowd attempted to disperse they were set upon by NWMP officers and specials who took advantage of the situation to brutalize fleeing marchers and take out their animosity toward strikers and the strike. As if this were not enough the state piled on further. General Ketchen released the militia who arrived in the city’s downtown within minutes thanks to auxiliary transport provided by the Citizens’ Committee (Bercuson 1975, 27). The militia brought the militarized machine gun section supported by cavalry. More than 80 marchers were trapped by police and arrested.

By evening the NWMP, militia, and specials had secured several blocks of the downtown area and kept the scene clear until the next day.

After Bloody Saturday Winnipeg was placed under military control. Four days after Bloody Saturday the Strike Committee called off the general strike, effective June 26. After six weeks, the largest General Strike in North America at that time, the strikers had gained none of their demands. Thousands of workers were blacklisted after the strike. Union meetings were banned in Winnipeg (Seymour 1976, 21).

The violent alliance of state and capital had proven too much to overcome, even as the strikers could have won the day had capital not been able to rely on the force of the state.

And this is the key lesson. While many talk of the separation of state and market, the capitalist “free market” or invisible hand of the market, in Canada as elsewhere there has never been a capitalist market without the sustaining power of the armed monopoly of the state. And no such market could even exist without it.


Lessons Learned

The failure of the strikers was in failing to move to a dual power situation in which they would maintain and provide essential services on the basis of their control of labor power and knowledge and capacity of the services in question, outside of government or business. Furthermore, they underestimated or misunderstood the role of government, at all levels, in violently buttressing capital and the state’s willingness to deploy lethal force to maintain capitalist social order. The strikers never seriously considered the necessity of armed defense of the strike and left the military field to police alone. This despite the great support they held among veterans.

The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real material alternative to established state capitalist order. This frightened business and government both. Unfortunately the general strike requires that workers, as those who produce and deliver goods and services, assume some of the roles of economic and social service provision. In doing this in a spirit of solidarity rather than social service or charity, they can show a better way of social organizing and justice. They can also build relationships of solidarity with other civilians that social service and charity providers cannot. This is a basis of mutual aid as the organizing principle for social relations.

As David Bercuson suggests: “The rapid increase of labour’s power in Winnipeg was a shock to the cozy arrangements and alliances that had existed between capital and government for at least four decades” (1975, 29). Unfortunately the strikers failed to understand or assess the role of the state, taking a fatally liberal approach that the state would serve merely as honest brokers or reasonable arbitrators.

As Bercuson notes: “The leaders of the strike urged their followers to hold to a non-violent course so they could avoid open confrontation with the government and its police and military forces. They did not realize that this confrontation actually began at eleven A.M. the morning of May 15” (1975, 29). This was social war but it was only being waged fully by one side, that of capital and its allies in state.

Historian Irving Abella suggests that decades of trauma for the labor movement in Canada followed from the suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike (1975, xii). While the movement had high hopes and solid prospects prior to Winnipeg, the actions of the state and capital left the movement in disarray and started a process of declin

While union membership union membership and organization had expanded quickly during the war, after the state violence in Winnipeg, membership declined dramatically throughout the 1920s with organizations paralyzed and leadership divided against itself (Abella 1975, xii). This decline would not be reversed until the years of the Second World War when labor again made significant gains. And the decline was impelled by the force of the state and the use of police to attack, and kill, working people simply organizing to improve their lives.



Abella, Irving. 1975. “Introduction.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, xi–xv

Bercuson, David. 1975. “The Winnipeg General Strike.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1–32

Seymour, Edward E. 1976. An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour 1800-1974. Canadian Labour Congress: Ottawa



The Regina Police Riot and Killing of On to Ottawa Trekker Nick Schaack (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

There is much to learn in the present period from the social conditions and social and political struggles of the 1930s. It, like today, was a period of economic crisis, austerity, authoritarianism, and repression. The austerity regimes of the last four decades have dismantled much of the social safety net systems of welfare, social housing, unemployment insurance, and educational grants built up through the social struggles, like those of unemployed workers and the On to Ottawa Trek of the 1930s. The result has been a return to conditions of social isolation and regulation, individualization and privatization that characterized state capitalist policy and practices in the period of economic crisis of the 1930s.

One outcome of the period of neoliberal austerity has been the turn away from social welfare systems that view housing, welfare, etc. as social rights available to all on the basis of need (with obvious restrictions in terms of nationalist residency and citizenship) to a neoliberal system that views these as privileges available only to those who prove deserving (typically through their willingness to labor for the state or capital). Another outcome of neoliberalism has been the privatization of social services either in businesses, NGOs, or churches and religious organizations. A further outcome has been the increase in repression and the expansion f repressive institutions, from surveillance to police to prisons to community corrections to regulate and punish especially the poorest and most deprived as well as the increase in repressive force against organizations that challenge and contest the status quo and dominant forces.

These outcomes of the austerity politics of the present share stark similarities with socio-political conditions of the 1930s. The response of the Canadian government to mass unemployment and poverty was repression and regulation in the service of accumulation. In order to secure some shelter, food, and minimal pay, single unemployed workers were placed in labor camps and put to hard labor doing the work of infrastructure building according to the needs of the state and industry.

Notably the work camps were explicit elements of social war and had a specifically military character. On the whole the state response to unemployed workers and the response to organizing and resistance by unemployed workers shows the nature of social war and capitalist regulatory regimes for accumulation within the Canadian context.

This repressive workfare approach very much motivated the Conservative government of R.B, Bennett in the 1930s and motivated much of their response to unemployed workers and the On to Ottawa trekkers. And the Conservative government was fully prepared to use social war means, including lethal military force, to impose workfare discipline on unemployed workers and to break collective resistance movements. In upholding the state capitalist status quo the police in Regina would kill unemployed worker Nick Schaack in what is known, infamously, as the Regina Riot, a military police riot against striking camp workers and their supporters.



No Relief: Forced Labor Camps and the Regulation of the Unemployed

The economic crises of the Great Depression and the mass scale of unemployment left one in nine citizens in Canada relying on relief (Zuehlke 1996). Relief was not provided as a human or civil right but was rather meted out as a combined form of regulation, punishment, and forced labor by the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett. The Bennett Government ordered the Department of National Defence to construct and manage work camps in which single unemployed men were put to work building roads and bridges, digging ditches, and undertaking other public works projects as condition of receiving relief. And that relief came at a rate of twenty cents per day.

In addition the tough, often unsafe and unhealthy work was done in the absence of adequate first aid or medical resources at work sites or in the camps. Furthermore, the work of the camps was not covered under the Workmen’s Compensation Act which offered some protections for workers in cases of job related injuries or illnesses.

Terrible working and living conditions in the militarily managed camps were matched with undemocratic regulation. Unemployed workers in the camps organized committees and representation but these were ignored by the military and government. Unemployed people in the camps were disenfranchised losing what they believed was a right to vote.  All of this prepared grounds for dissatisfaction and unrest against camp management and the government.

The Workers’ Unity League (WUL), active in a range of working class struggles of the day worked to help unemployed workers in the camps form a Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU) in 1933. They would organize a strike over conditions in and management in the camps. In December of 1934 unemployed camp workers abandoned the camps for a mass demonstration against the government in Vancouver, home of Prime Minister Bennett’s constituency office. In response the government offered first policing and then the promise of a government commission to investigate the concerns of camp workers. Purely a ploy to dissipate the movement by the government the promised commission never materialized. A second strike was organized for April 4, 1935. A mass movement by this point more than 1600 striking camp workers travelled to Vancouver (Waiser 2003).

The striking camp workers took forward a range of targeted demands that addressed the many concerns facing workers in the camps. The primary demands included pay and working condition improvements: wages of 50 cents per hour (up from 25 cents) for unskilled work; union wages for skilled work; guarantees of 120 hours of work per month; and Workmen’s Compensation Act coverage for all camp workers. There were also demands over governance and rights for camp workers. These included: recognition by camp management and government of the democratically elected workers’ committees; restoration of the right to vote in elections for camp workers. The strikers also called for the camps to be taken out of the control of the Department of National Defence. Notably the RCWU strikers also called for the rescinding of the notorious Section 98 of the Criminal Code, an explicitly anti-communist provision passed to repress opposition to government initiated as part of the earlier Red Scare and state violence at the time of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.

Public support for the relief camp strikers was massive. Governments at all levels failed to respond instead attempting to pass responsibility from one level to another. Bennett refused to travel to Vancouver to meet with any delegation of workers. He was in hiding. Receiving no adequate response to their initiative and no answer to their demands the strikers determined to take their movement and demands directly to the federal government in Ottawa. Their figurehead would be the outstanding organizer Arthur “Slim” Evans.

On June 3, 1935, hundreds of striking camp workers and unemployed people in Vancouver loaded onto boxcars heading east. What would become known as the “On to Ottawa Trek,” one of the great oppositional movements in working class history in the Canadian state context, was born. The Trek would end less than a month later in an infamous act of police state violence and the murder of an unemployed worker, Nick Schaack


On to Ottawa

The government, and particularly the Department of National Defence, seems to have anticipated winning a war of attrition in which the On to Ottawa Trek would disintegrate as trekkers became bored, tired, hungry, and/or cold, giving rise to feelings of hopelessness and demoralization.

This result never happened much to the growing concern of authorities. The rising support of local residents along the train route lifted the spirits of the trekkers and showed the mutual aid on which working class resistance has always relied for sustenance.

The stop in Golden, British Columbia on June six and seven, 1935 was particularly rejuvenating for the trekkers. It showed the support the organized unemployed had secured. A local farmer Mrs. Sorely formed a committee of the local Workers’ Protective Association and organized area farmers and townsfolk to prepare food and provisions for the arriving strikers. Trekker Ronald Liversedge recalls:

“It was incredible, it was heartwarming, it was beautiful.

The column of men halted, a thunderous cheer arose, and the men broke ranks and rushed over to embrace those quiet smiling, wonderful women of Golden. The little whitehaired woman had, with the aid of our advance committee, mobilized the farmers in that valley of Golden. With only twenty-four hours to work on, they had procured here a calf, there a quarter of beef, there potatoes, there carrots, turnips, onions, all in huge quantities, set all the women to baking bread, collecting cooking utensils, plates and mugs, with the end result which welcomed us on our arrival. All this had been accomplished with an absence of fuss and bother.

The people of Golden knew about us, and our struggles; they knew about the relief camps. Their welcome of us was the welcome of pioneers, heartfelt, deep, and sincere. Golden stood out in the memory of the trekkers as the most restful, tranquil episode of the whole trek.

Quickly the camp workers jumped in to relieve the men and women who had worked so hard to greet us. Squads of cooks, waiters, fire tenders, and water carriers were soon organized, and before long dinner was served. That never-to-be-forgotten meal! The weather was ideal, the outdoor site was superb, and our hosts were salt of the earth.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 149)


That the organized unemployed generally and the On to Ottawa trekkers specifically were viewed by the government through a social war framework is clear in the fact that the Department of National Defence kept steady watch on them. Reports were regularly filed to the National Defence Headquarters.

Notably the trekkers were not engaging in misbehavior or troublemaking. The District Officer Commanding for Military District Thirteen (Alberta and Eastern British Columbia) and the Officer Commanding in Regina both remarked upon the solid discipline, excellent organization, and decent conduct of the trekkers. And, of certain concern to the government if not the military they noted the favorable impression the trekkers made on the general public (Brown 1987, 150–151).

For their part the trekkers stayed on a specific strategic message focusing on their specific grievances and consistently stated demands upon the government rather than broader ideational or propaganda messages for radical social transformation which many of them, as well as their supporters, actually desired. In a leaflet distributed in Calgary the trekkers stayed on point with their focused appeals. It read in part: “We invite all political, economic, cultural and church organizations to give us their support in our just fight for the abolition of the present relief camp system” (quoted in Brown 1987, 154). They stayed true to their message and communicated it to one and all.

Their honesty was matched with a direct action approach. The military and provincial politicians in Alberta became tweaked when trekkers occupied and barricaded themselves inside of a Calgary Relief Office along with the Provincial Relief Officer, A.A. McKenzie, and Dr. Stanley the Conservative MP for Calgary East. The direct action occupation had won the trekkers $600 in meal tickets from municipal authorities on direction from the Alberta government.

McKenzie wrote almost immediately to the federal Labour Minister Gordon in breathless terms warning of a revolutionary tide. In the words of his wire this was placed in military terms:

“Regarding British Columbia single men. A dangerous revolutionary army intimidating and defying provincial and municipal governments by threats and actually holding officials as hostage until demands met. Their success having a far reaching effect that may be difficult to control.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155).

Others in the military were also on alert. The local Officer Commanding reported to Ottawa his concerns following the support picnic on June 9. He warned: “Speaker today said public militant action will be taken by men any time needs no agreed to” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155). This concern of authorities seemed confirmed by the occupation of the Relief Office. His report also stirred government concern about a growing movement that would be bolstered if it ever reached Winnipeg. He reported: “Talk amongst men this is revolutionary movement, large numbers expected to join at Winnipeg and Toronto” (quoted in Brown 1987, 155).

Of real worry to the government was that the Trek was gaining widespread and growing support among the public and much of the mainstream press. Local authorities in Calgary were the ones being chastised for responding in such a panicked fashion to the unemployed. Notably the bugaboo of communism was not frightening the public or turning public opinion against the trekkers whose demands were so straightforward and viewed as legitimate. When the Trek left Calgary it had grown by hundreds of participants including a large group who had come from Edmonton after being cut off of relief for refusing to go to the camps.

The social and political context was one which was perilous for the ruling Conservative Party. The Conservatives had been virtually erased as a political presence in almost every province (Brown 1987, 151). The Bennett government reached levels still among the least popular governments in Canadian history. They were living on borrowed time even if they could not see it themselves.

The federal government came to the decision to stop the trekkers in Saskatchewan while the trekkers were still in Alberta. The success of the trekkers in Calgary and the popular public support they received there convinced the Bennett government that the Trek, far from losing steam and fizzling out, was gaining both momentum and support. In Calgary thousands of dollars were raised for the trekkers and a picnic was held in their honor. And the prospects for a huge boost in support and recognition were looming with arrival in Winnipeg, home of the Winnipeg General Strike and historic hotbed of working class radicalism in the West.


On to Regina

The Trek arrived in Saskatchewan on June 12. They had been preceded by advance teams who had secured accommodations and meal tickets for use at restaurants and made connections with local support groups. Public meetings were held in Swift Current and Moose Jaw, the first stops in the province, to let people know about the trekkers’ demands and aims. The plan for trekkers was to stay no more than two or three days in Regina and then continue east.

The trekkers landed in Regina on June 14, their numbers now swelled to about 1800 with anticipated arrival of hundreds more from a large camp at Dundurn outside of Saskatoon (Brown 1987, 160). The public were solidly behind the trekkers with a large Citizen’s Emergency Relief Committee operating to provide emotional and material support to the movement.

The police and military were watching and in communication with the government about events on the ground. District Officer Commanding, Brigadier Boak, reported on June 14 and June 15 of the broad support shown for the trekkers by both the public and city officials in Regina (Brown 1987, 160).

A mass gathering of 6000 turned up for a public meeting at the exhibition stadium to support the trekkers and hear about their demands and plans. The meeting passed three resolutions. One condemned PM Bennett’s decision to halt the Trek. Another asked for formal protest from the opposition parties against the Conservative government’s decision to send more police to Regina. The final resolution condemned the Conservative MP for Regina, F.N. Turnbull who had suggested that the militia be called in against the trekkers (Brown 1987, 161). The latter point highlights the government’s readiness to deal with the strikers militarily with force.

Slim Evans noted that the Trek was not only interested in in meeting with Bennett. They wanted to educate the public on conditions in the camps and build support for the unemployed on a broader basis. In his words in Regina: “But we’re not in a hurry to go down and see Mr. Bennett. We want to stop at all the cities along the way and tell citizens of the hopelessness of the relief camp situation” (quoted in Brown 1987, 161). And the people very much wanted to hear it.

By the time the trekkers entered Saskatchewan the Bennett government was nearing a crisis level. Deeply unpopular it was losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the public at a growing pace. Even more, many were beginning to question the very legitimacy of the capitalist state itself (Brown 1987, 156). The Calgary Albertan published an editorial which openly condemned the government. Referring to McKenzie’s complaints about the Relief Office occupation it read in part:

“He might have been the victim of a less disciplined, less organized body of men. But he was not; he really was co-victim with them of a Government at Ottawa which deferred men’s hopes—all our hopes—so often, promised us so much and given us so little that at length the chief sufferers have determined to go to Ottawa and ask the Prime Minister himself what he proposed to do about it.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 156)

The Regina Leader-Post pointed out the bankruptcy of the government’s approach and their reliance on violence:

“The camp strikers have become a body of national importance and the Dominion Government appears to have no policy except that of force.

So far as Saskatchewan is concerned the people who made it possible for the strikers to reach here by rail had better concern themselves with methods to get them out, and to get them out in the orderly fashion in which they came in.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 161)


Regina was determined to be the strategically beneficial spot to stop the Trek for the now desperate government. The RCMP training depot is situated there along with a large active RCMP force. Regina was also viewed as having a small organized labor movement, less radical than that of Winnipeg (Brown 1987). For the government the Trek had to be stopped before it could reach the center of working class radicalism in Winnipeg.

The decision to stop the Trek was opposed and derided by the public, mass media, opposition parties, and the provincial government in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan government had made plans to provide food and accommodation to trekkers while they were in the province.


Provocative Governance: Preparing a Riot in Regina

The federal government prepared to use both the militia and the regular army against the trekkers. There was some concern though about the readiness of the local militia to attack the unemployed.

When word came out on June 15 that the railway was acting against trespassing the trekkers determined to leave Regina by freight on June 17. They put out a request to residents of Regina to attend the railway yards to keep police from intervening against the trekkers. The trekkers knew the stakes. In a leaflet they stated: “Only the mass support of Regina citizens will force the Authorities to keep their hands off us on our way to Ottawa” (quoted in Brown 1987, 164).

While the provincial government tried to reaffirm its control over the police so as to allow the trekkers to leave, the federal Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie again reasserted the federal government’s authority over the RCMP and federal jurisdiction in the matter (Brown 1987, 163).

As the June 17 clash loomed, the federal government announced it was sending the Minister of Railways, Dr. R.J. Marin, and the Minister of Agriculture, Robert Weir, to Regina to hear the trekkers’ concerns. They would arrive there on the 17th. Still RCMP Assistant Commissioner Wood mobilized his forces to prevent boarding of trains and arranged with CPR to cancel the eastbound freight scheduled to leave Regina. The Riot Act was going to be read (Brown 1987, 164).

In a telegram to the federal Minister of Justice, the Premier suggested that the federal government was setting the stage for, even actively provoking, a riot. Indeed the federal government actions seemed designed solely to spark a riot—giving the government the excuse to unleash extreme repressive violence against the trekkers.

The tension on June 17 would be somewhat lifted on news that Slim Evans and seven other representatives of the Trek would meet with Marion and Weir. At the meeting Marion raised the proposal that Trek representatives travel to Ottawa to meet with the Bennett cabinet. The proposal was taken to the trekkers for discussion and for decision. After much debate a mass meeting of trekkers decided that a delegation of eight trekkers would travel to Ottawa. Many were concerned that this was only a government stall tactic to both separate some organizers from the mass group and to secure time to prepare an assault by police. The decision to halt the Trek while a delegation traveled to Ottawa would prove disastrous for the Trek though it was well received by the public and the mainstream press.

The Bennett government now had an opportunity to see a voluntary disbanding of the Trek. But to do so they would have to compromise and make some real concessions and provide real results. The RCWU was willing to listen to and respond positively to reasonable offers. Bennett would have benefited his government in an election year by gaining some public goodwill and legitimacy in the eyes of the mass media.

Tellingly the influence of the RCMP and the military played key parts in keeping the government from reaching a compromise. For the RCMP and Department of National Defence the organized unemployed were communist agitators who could not, and should not, be reasoned with. Should never be accommodate, and by nature threatened legitimate (i.e. government) authority. This position restricted what little inclination the government might have had for a mutually agreeable settlement. For the military forces and government, the communists must get nothing.

The RCMP officials acted on the assumption that talks would fail. From the start of the planned Ottawa meeting they pushed for a violent police intervention. Assistant RCMP Commissioner Wood even worked up a detailed plan to stop the Trek by force and repress the trekkers. On June 8 he communicated this plan to RCMP Commissioner MacBrien (Brown 1987, 170). He stated: “Energetic police action in this operation would, I am sure, have liquidated this movement, for a large percentage are boys who never have been in a relief camp and have joined this movement as they would a circus, not realizing what it was all about or what was back of it” (quoted in Brown 1987, 170). One might again note the patronizing view of unemployed workers held by the government and their wishful thinking about the composition of the movement. One might also note the liquidationist social war language.

The meeting between the Trek delegation and the federal cabinet occurred on June 22, 1935. It did not go well. Evans noted that the issue of the camps was systemic rather than limited to specific grievances He also raised concerns that an additional 60 RCMP troops had been transferred to Regina while the delegation was away, in violation of the agreed to terms for the meeting (Brown 1987, 170).

Incredibly in his time Bennett first asked where each of the delegates had been born. He then raised questions about the delegates on the basis of all but Evans having been born outside Canada. The xenophobia and racism of the Bennett government would not be concealed even in this meeting. That the government turned immediately to nationalist xenophobia showed their racist framework but also their reliance on divide and conquer approaches to working class unity.

Said Bennett during the meeting:

“We have listened with much interest as to what you men have had to say. With the exception of one of you, who has a record that we will not discuss, you were born outside Canada, and in the country from which you came I was told the other day there are one million men who have no work and never will have. In this country we have been passing through the same period of depression as the rest of the world.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 172)

Bennett then went on a red baiting rant against communism, “Soviet Committees,” the WUL, and the whole project of unemployed organizing. What really bothered him was a “rising against law and against the institutions of our country” (quoted in Brown 1987, 173).  This unleashed a diatribe against the delegates. Bennett railed:

“You have not shown much anxiety to get work, not much anxiety to get work. It is the one thing you do not want. What you want is this adventure in the hope that the organization which you are promoting in Canada may be able to over-awe government and break down the forces that represent law and order. I never thought that I would come to the day when I would hear a Canadian at any rate say that a country that sends its policemen west or east for the purpose of maintaining law in the country is going to be subjected to censure on the part of those who themselves admit they are violators of the law, admitted here today. The police have moved west; they have moved east; they will move in increasing numbers whenever it is necessary to maintain law. Take that down.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 173)

Bennett, in an anti-communist furor, rejected any recognition of elected camp committees as a plot to establish Soviets in the camps. Tellingly the Prime Minister refused to take the camps out of DND control. Finally Bennett ignored the advice of Manion and offered the trekkers nothing in the way of even limited compromise.


A 1930s Solution: Military Containment Camps for the Unemployed

Federal DND and RCMP officials put the plan to stop the Trek into action on June 22, even as the delegation was meeting with the federal cabinet. In Winnipeg 860 new men had requested to join the Trek and authorities feared those numbers would swell over 1000 if the Trek reached the city.

Incredibly the government planned, in 1930s fashion, a containment camp to hold trekkers. The military character and focus on labor regulation of the camps was clear. On June 24 the District Officer Commanding in Regina, Brigadier Boak, was ordered to establish the detention camp at Lumsden, 20 miles from Regina (Brown 1987, 179). By June 25 the special camp had been built and was ready for inmates.

The Lumsden camp would be policed by the RCMP and administered by the military while being formally under the purview of the federal Department of Labour (largely for public relations purposes). Assistant Commissioner Wood of the RCMP framed it in these terms: “Absolutely essential that housing and particularly feeding be handed over to National Defence Department in order to secure control and liquidate movement” (quoted in Brown 1987, 179). Note the liquidationist language used repeatedly by the federal government. The trekkers were to be forced explicitly into military containment camps from which they would be dispersed to other work camps. The state capitalist nexus of military detention, forced labor, and social war is inescapably clear in this case. Work would make them free?

In Regina the RCMP had amassed its own force of 340 officers. Railway and city police would bring those numbers to around 500 (Brown 1987, 181). While the military would have been mobilized in open social war against the trekkers the large police force available made this not immediately necessary. Police forces were entirely suitable for waging this campaign of social war.

To force the trekkers to Lumsden the federal government cut off meal tickets unless the recipients went to the camp. That the government considered creating conditions for a police riot as an excuse to unleash police violence is clear. Assistant Commissioner Wood, in a report to Commissioner MacBrien suggested a police provocation would leave the trekkers with no choice but Lumsden. In his words:

“It is not expected that there will be many voluntary registrations tomorrow and that sooner or later there will be a demonstration in front of Mr. Burgess’ office which will bring about Police action. The situation is suitable for our purposes in that it is opposite the armouries and there is a large open space in all directions surrounding the building where we could use mounted men to advantage.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 182)


The RCMP were ordered not to allow trekkers to leave the city or province even by vehicle or on foot. A truck and two cars raised by trekkers to travel to Manitoba were intercepted outside of Regina with all drivers and passengers arrested by the RCMP, the vehicles impounded (Brown 1987, 185).

Five of the travellers arrested leaving Regina were charged under the infamous Section 98 anti-communist legislation. On June 28 the federal government decided to apply Section 98 to members of the RCWU which was declared an illegal association. The Trek leaders were to be arrested as would anyone claiming membership in the RCWU.

Even as the trekkers had decided to organize an orderly retreat under their own efforts back to their camps, the government was pushing the RCMP to proceed with Section 98 arrests. It was still not certain there was any legal basis for doing so. Showing its real intentions, even at this point the government refused to allow any negotiation with the trekkers in their attempts to disband of their own accord. For the federal government the only option was containment and dispersal from the special detention camp.


Police Riot in Regina and the Killing of Trekker Nick Schaack

The RCMP decided to arrest Trek leaders at a mass rally being held at Market Square on the evening of July 1, appropriately the nationalist “Canada Day.” The meeting was arranged to inform allies and residents in Regina of the status of the Trek. It was geared to non-trekkers. Almost 2000 people would show up to hear the speeches and gain updates on the Trek. Only around 200 of these were trekkers, most, aware of the Trek’s status, having decided to stay at the exhibition grounds. The vast majority of attendees were local residents curious about the Trek and supportive of it. Having prepared the ground to launch a police riot, the police would choose this moment and place, filled with non-trekkers, to carry out a bloodbath.

The RCMP never provided an explanation, even in the following inquiry, why they did not simply wait until the end of the rally to arrest leaders after the crowd had left (Brown 1987, 192). What seems clear is that Assistant Commissioner Wood wanted to seize this opportunity to make a show of force to trekkers and the supportive public more broadly (Brown 1987, 193). Why else attempt to arrest seven men in the middle of a mass rally of people supportive of the targeted men and their actions? The intent was clearly to humiliate the trekkers while sending a message of terror to other organized and organizing unemployed from Winnipeg to Québec.

Plainclothes officers were situated throughout the crowd with several near the speaker’s platform. The square was surrounded by RCMP forces in furniture vans. Mounted officers were positioned two blocks from the square. City police were at the ready inside the garage of the Regina Police Station located directly at the edge of the square (Brown 1987, 192).

The police assault on civilians began in chaos. Two troops of ECMP officers left their vans before the sounding of the supposed signal whistle. With the sound of the whistle the haphazard, prematurely launched, assault was joined by officers of the city police who quickly took to the crowd armed with baseball bats. RCMP forces advanced on the square and were taken up in hand to hand combat with civilian attendees (Brown 1987, 193).

According to the Regina Daily Star report:

“A whistle blew. The four doors of the city garage at the rear of the headquarters building, not 100 feet from the speakers stand, swung upward with a clatter and blue uniformed, helmeted constables, as well as plainclothes officers, ran out waving “baseball bat” batons overhead. People began to run.” (quoted in Stone 1967, 83)


As police violently cleared the square the battle spread into nearby neighborhoods with most trying to leave while others tried to defend retreating civilians against continuing police assaults. Cars were overturned and used as barricade. Rocks were thrown to slow the advancing troops.

Police began firing on the civilians wounding several people. There was no gunfire from residents or trekkers—they had no guns (Brown 1987, 194). Numerous eyewitnesses would report random assaults on bystanders by police who, sometimes in small gangs, simply attacked people without cause (Brown 1987, 194). The Regina Riot lasted more than two hours with police assaults slowing down only by 11 PM. More than 100 people were arrested.

The RCMP then laid siege to the Exhibition Stadium where most trekkers were staying. In an attempt to starve the trekkers out the military police refused food or water to people inside the facilities. Machine gun units were trained on the building, encircling it.

By July 5 arrangements had been made for trekkers to leave the city in two special trains of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. The On to Ottawa Trek was over.

One trekker, Nick Schaack, simply an unemployed worker hoping for a better life, was dead, murdered by police who wanted violence, a victim of social war. Schaack, a worker up from the United States seeking work, was badly injured by police during their assault. Instead of giving him medical treatment for a serious head injury or taking him directly to hospital police threw him in jail where he lingered for several hours. Sadly he would die days later of the injuries inflicted upon him by police. Incredibly the police acted to cover up their responsibility for killing Schaack and his death was not associated with the riot until sometime later (possibly years). Not recognized as the working class victim of social war he was, Nick Schaack was placed in a grave that remained unmarked for 76 years. His name has still been largely forgotten in Canadian history.


States of Exception: Flimsy Democracy and the Conservative Government

The Bennett government took the decision to stop the Trek in Saskatchewan on their own without consultation with the Government of Saskatchewan and against that government’s wishes. The Premier of Saskatchewan was only informed by the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP.

In Regina Bennett violated his own previously, and repeatedly, stated policy of not intervening unless officially called upon to do so by a provincial government. Yet he would intervene in Regina against the preference of the Saskatchewan government. Furthermore the Province maintained that policing and law enforcement were provincial responsibilities and the RCMP as the provincial force in Saskatchewan was under order of the Attorney-General. If the law was broken the province and police would act as they always did.

The federal government actively sought to, and did, circumvent this order of command by invoking the Railway Act which would give Ottawa authority to call in the RCMP. Bennett’s position had been that illegal trespass on CPR and CNR property was an issue for the railway companies and the provincial governments. But this view changed with the Trek in Saskatchewan and government crisis rising. The government used the excuse of a request for aid from the railways against trespassing. Yet that request came a day after Bennett’s decision had been made and seems to have been compelled by the government in any event. No request was made to the Province for assistance which was proper protocol given that the police would have been under provincial jurisdiction.

RCMP Commissioner MacBrien instructed the Assistant Commissioner in Regina to ignore the Premier and Attorney-General and carry out any federal orders as rail trespass was under federal jurisdiction and within the federal-provincial agreement on policing (Brown 1987, 162). MacBrien directed Wood: “Agreement expressly stated Mounted Police to remain a Dominion force. Also that federal policing duties are excepted from direction of Attorney-General” (quoted in Brown 1987, 162). Wood was also told that if needed he was to swear in railway police as special RCMP constables. He was also directed to prepare for the reading of the Riot Act and to do so himself as a Justice of the Peace if he could not find provincial or municipal officials willing to do so.

According to Premier Gardiner the federal government was acting in violation of the country’s own constitution. In his words:

“This constitutes taking the right to instruct police in matters of administrative justice entirely out of our hands. In our opinion your action may result in causing a riot in this province endangering life and property. A letter just handed to the government by the police to the effect that preparations be made to read the Riot Act indicates you hold the same view. We protest your action as being unconstitutional and would state that your lack of action before these men left British Columbia to bring two forces to grips in Regina was bound to produce a riot in Saskatchewan if the present orders are carried out. We strongly protest this flouting of the constitutional rights of the province and would once more ask you to reconsider your position. Your appeal to us to cooperate in every way to protect lives and property as well as to maintain law and order has been made most difficult to comply with as you have taken unto yourself all the power consigned to the government under the B.N.A Act to deal with such matters.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 165)


Manion expressed dismay with Premier Gardiner’s position and offered a thinly veiled threat against him should he not support an assault by CPR police. In Marion’s own words: “I expressed great surprise at his attitude, and said that he would be taking a very great responsibility, if he aided and abetted revolution in any such manner” (quoted in Brown 1987, 165).

Again, the primary concern for the Conservative government was putting down a popular working class movement at any cost—even against the concerns of other levels of government. And the formalities of democracy would not stand in the way, as they typically do not when liberal democratic governments seek to impose repressive measures on elements of the population deemed oppositional.

Bennett refused emergency debate on the situation requested by opposition members of parliament and there was no debate on a petition from British Columbia with 10,800 signatures calling for Election Act amendments to ensure that relief camp workers had the right to vote tabled by MP Angus MacInnis in May (Brown 1987, 152).

As the federal government took over more and more police functions under provincial jurisdiction they took on the appearance of an extralegal (fascistic) entity. Incredibly, RCMP leadership were not even certain of the legality of their actions in the province, given the federal assumption of provincial authority. Finally the government declared a national emergency to justify its usurpation of authority

The government made use of a phony, fraudulent “order in council” to effect special measures and Section 98. That order came under a provision of the Relief Act stating: “the Governor in Council my, when Parliament is not in session, take all such measures as in his discretion may be deemed advisable to maintain, within the competence of Parliament, peace, order and good government throughout Canada” (quoted in Brown 1987, 185).

This was a fascist turn of governance removing decision making from parliamentary oversight and giving power unilaterally to the Governor in Council. Yet no order-in-council had been passed nor could it have been since Parliament was sitting and thus there was no legal authority for the order-in-council.

Yet RCMP acted in laying Section 98 charges against trekkers. The feds had taken authority for themselves outside of the law and Parliament. The force even stated publicly that they were acting on legal authority conferred by order-in-council (an order that did not exist and would not have been legal in any event).

A report in the Toronto Daily Star suggested that Prime Minister Bennett had scrapped the Magna Carta and put Canada “in the unique position of operating a criminal law which the government refuses to make public” (quoted in Brown 1987, 187–188).

In times of open social war the state of exception prevails. The public order-in-council campaign did have the effect of dissuading people from aiding the trekkers which was now prohibited by RCMP order. No one in government or policing clarified publicly that there had been no order-in-council.


Red Scares and a War against Communism

Like the miners of Bienfait, Saskatchewan who had been fatally assaulted by the RCMP in 1931, the organized unemployed had support from the Workers Unity League (WUL). Support from the WUL, the RCWU, and the Communist Party helped them build connections and support from a range of Leftist community groups along the Trek route. These included groups like the Canadian Labour Defence League and community associations like the Ukrainian Farmer-Labour Temple Association (Brown 1987, 151). The local support groups provided food, shelter, meeting spaces, print services, and funds (Brown 1987, 151).

The desire to smash Leftist groups and working class resistance was an obsession for the Conservative government. And Bennett used the community supports as an opportunity to red bash the trekkers, and organized unemployed more broadly.

PM Bennett was explicit and arrogantly so in asserting that he would not engage with trekkers because of support they had from communists. In his words:

“I need hardly say that there are several well known communistic societies under varying names; they have sought to embroil the government in some discussion in respect to these matters, and we have declined to enter into any discussion with them.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 153)

Manion viewed the organizers as extremists and wrote to Bennett two days before the meeting with the delegation to suggest that repressive violence was necessary. In his words:

“My conviction is that this Communistic crowd who are leading the more or less innocent unemployed are determined to stir up what would be practically a revolution and I feel that undoubtedly strong measures will have to be taken to curb this movement. Somehow the leaders should be got at and if possible got out of the position of leading these unemployed.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 168–169)

Prime Minister Bennett accused the provincial government of coddling communists. His words to the Premier:

“Have not the slightest intention of withdrawing from the position which we have taken and proposed to use our utmost endeavour even though you decline to cooperate to maintain the fabric of our society and the institutions of the country against the illegal threats and demands of communists and their associates.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 184)


Bennett described the trekkers in a PR campaign as having “sinister purposes” (quoted in Brown 1987, 180). The sinister plan was of course of communist nature. Fumed Bennett to Parliament: “in reality an organized effort on the part of the various communist organizations throughout Canada to effect the overthrow of constituted authority in defiance of the laws of the land” (quoted in Brown 1987, 180). This is ironic given the disregard shown for the constitution and the “laws of the land” throughout this episode by the Bennett government.

These statements were only part of a broader Red Scare campaign launched by the government, RCMP, and military and repeated in mainstream media. This included replays of the personal, xenophobic, smears about Trek leaders being born outside Canada.

On June 28 the federal government made anti-communism the priority for law and policing with the invoking of Section 98. As the Toronto Daily Star reported, simply being a trekker would now render one a communist in the eyes of the law. Its report read:

“All strikers holding membership in any of the strike organizations are to be considered communists, it was officially stated at R.C.M.P. headquarters today. Under this ruling, Section 98 of the Criminal Code is being invoked and any striker tying to trek from one province to another is considered a Communist and liable to arrest as such. Any person giving aid or comfort to any such person is also liable to prosecution. R.C.M.P. senior officers said this included the relief camp workers’ associations and similar bodies which are affiliated with the Workers’ Unity League. The leaders are declared to be known Communists.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 187)


Clearly breaking any resistance was the government aim and Red Scare tactics would be the means. This was a rather cheap effort to red bait the public into turning on the trekkers by attempting to link them with communists, rather than simply being aggrieved working class people and victims of capitalism. It was also an effort to delegitimize the RCWU and organized unemployed workers more broadly. Notably communists had higher standing and regard among the general public than did the Bennett Conservative government.



In the days weeks, and months after the police assault the federal government continued its ongoing attempts to distort their role in fomenting the riot and to slander the trekkers and their efforts. Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie lied to Parliament in blaming the trekkers and attributing to them actions they did not perform. In his words:

“The attack was made in the first instance by the strike marchers, and the city police were called upon to defend themselves. Subsequently the mounted police joined for the purpose of maintaining order. Shots were fired by the strikers and the fire was replied to by shots from the city police.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 201).

Notably the strikers were not marching. Most were at the exhibition grounds. The police attacked a standing rally of mostly townspeople. Neither did trekkers or any civilians fire weapons nor even have guns on them.

Bennett continued his Red Scare mania. He described the organized unemployed efforts as “not a mere uprising against law and order but a definite revolutionary effort on the part of a group of men to usurp authority and destroy government” (quoted in Brown 1987, 202). Bizzarely he claimed the opposition parties and local politicians in British Columbia were in on it.

Much to the dismay of the federal government the provincial government in Saskatchewan launched a commission of inquiry into the causes of the riot and related issues of constitutionality. The Regina Riot Inquiry Commission (RRIC) clearly laid out the extent and intensity of state violence based on witness testimony.

The Regina Riot was without question a police riot. It was initiated entirely by the vicious, and reckless, actions of police at all levels. According to even the state-centric RRIC report:

“[T]he presence of the three troops of police in the vicinity, one of which was advancing towards the crowd, necessarily created some alarm among the people gathered on the Square and lent colour to the belief, which no doubt some of them entertained, that the police had come upon the Square for the purpose of breaking up a peaceable and orderly meeting.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 194)


Witness after witness would later describe the violence of police. The RRIC report documents some of this:

“A great deal of evidence was given as to the methods used by the City Police in dispersing the crowd. One witness described it as “swinging their batons and knocking down any persons they could get hold of,” another says, “They struck wherever the batons wanted to fall.” Another says, “I saw them hitting people with their clubs.” At least ten witnesses have given evidence upon this subject and the above quotations are indications of the general trend of their testimony with respect to it.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 194)


Specific accounts were harrowing. And there were many of them. The report describes many of these if only in brief:

“Such, for instance, is the case of three mounties pounding a man on the ground; three mounties and a city policeman beating one striker, one policeman clubbing an unconscious man near the General Theatre; four city policemen beating one striker; city police marching west on 11th Avenue shooting as they went, assault of one Belabek on July 2nd by Sergeant Logan.” (quoted in Brown 1987, 195)

Incredibly the RRIC concluded that reports of police violence were un-Canadian and thus, despite what eyewitnesses actually saw happen, impossible.

The Regina Riot Inquiry Commission also concluded that a compromise agreement could have been reached if the government had allowed its local officials some leeway in negotiating. Prior to the arrests of leaders the RCMP offered no communication with the provincial government about their plans. Tellingly since the RCMP was the provincial force. It is also notable given that RCMP officials knew that the provincial government was meeting with trekkers.

Charges against the more than 100 arrested by police included Section 98, rioting, and assault. Most would be released with charges dropped soon thereafter. Only eight were ever convicted, of minor offences. All of those charged under Section 98 had those charges withdrawn before any trial. The legal outcomes signalled significant vindication for the trekkers and supporters, even in the skewed terms of the law and criminal justice. The only criminal organizations and criminal events of July 1 were those of the state, particularly police, alone.

Across the country blame for the bloodshed in Regina was placed squarely at the feet of Prime Minister Bennett, who was now openly accused of preparing and provoking the riot in a desperately vain attempt to save his own electoral hide. Calls for the abolition of the camps grew louder with opposition parties and even some Conservatives calling for straight up work and wages programs. Mass protest events in support of the trekkers and against the government were held in cities across the country. Branches of the Citizens’ Defence Committee were established in numerous locales. They organized meetings, circulated information, raised money, and petitioned governments (Brown 1987, 203).

The national federal election of October 14, 1935 was held in the shadow of the Regina Riot, the Trek, and the continuing crisis of unemployment. The election would see the ruling Bennett Conservative government routed, dropped from 134 seats to 39. This was the lowest total for the party of confederation since confederation. They amassed only 30 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Their destruction was particularly prominent in Western Canada, holding only one seat in each of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

The new Liberal government began shutting down the relief camp system in March of 1936 with the last camp closed on July 2 of that year. That same year Section 98 of the Criminal Code was rescinded (Brown 1987, 204).

The struggles of the unemployed did not end, of course. Neither did unemployment with the new government also ill-suited and unprepared to resolve the capitalist crisis. Notably the organized unemployed had helped to effects a shift in political outlook across the land. Their work helped move public opinion away from support for political repression in 1931 as seen in the attack on Bienfait miners, and to a position opposed to such reaction and repression by 1934. That was an outcome of direct action organizing and open, ethical, communication.

Brown notes that in 1937 when International brigades in Canada were formed to fight against fascism in Spain the largest constituency of volunteers to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion came from vets of the relief camps and On to Ottawa (1987, 206).



The struggles of the organized unemployed contributed to the growth of working class militance throughout the 1930s. They also contributed to the forces that pushed states to develop social welfare policies in the postwar period, not from benevolence but out of a concern to dissipate social upheaval and defuse discontent that might otherwise topple the existing social structure.

Notably these struggles did not take conventional, approved forms such as electoralism, lobbying, or symbolic appeal (street protest). Rather the approaches of the organized unemployed pursued direct action, militant organization, and extra-parliamentary mobilization. The organized unemployed deployed disruptive rather than conciliatory tactics, though they were strategically attuned enough to make reasonable shifts in their approach. Rather than rely on appeals to authorities they sought to prevent harms from occurring by making it difficult for the state to pursue its aims.

“Direct action gets the goods” was a theme of these struggles and battles were waged in relief camps, workplaces, public squares, and government offices against bosses, politicians, and, especially perhaps, police. Notably, unlike the present period, as the battle in Regina shows, the organized unemployed and their direct action tactics were largely understood by the public and enjoyed widespread public support. Their struggles were understood as struggles for all working class people and the stakes had implications for all non-elites.

These are lessons for organizers and movements today. This is particularly so as neoliberal governments advance increasingly repressive measures and escalate police violence in social war. Clearly such governments are not, will not, and have not been swayed by appeals to justice or right or honor. Movements must change the conditions in which such governments operate and must be prepared to defend themselves.


Further Reading

Brown, Lorne. 1987. When Freedom Was Lost. Montréal: Black Rose Books

Liversage, Ronald. 1973. Recollection of the On-to-Ottawa Trek. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart

Stone, Gladys. 1967. The Regina Riot: 1935. Unpublished MA Thesis. University of Saskatchewan.

Swankey, Ben and Jean Evans Sheils. 1977. Work and Wages: A Semi-Documentary Account of the Life and Times of Arthur H. (Slim) Evans, 1890–1944. Vancouver: Vancouver Trade Union Research Bureau

Waiser, Bill. 2003. All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot. Calgary: Fifth House

Zuehlke, Mark (1996). The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Vancouver: Whitecap Books

The Myth that Policing is Dangerous: Dismantling an Excuse They Use When They Kill Us

“It’s a dangerous job.”

“They put their lives on the line every time they suit up.”

“They’re under a lot of pressure.”

“They face constant threats.”

One of the most durable and potent myths about policing is that it is dangerous work. Indeed this myth is often used to justify police violence and the lethal use of force, quick trigger fingers and a shoot to kill ethos. This myth is used as well as political capital to justify growing militarization of police forces and the increasing “equipmentization” of forces (body armor, more powerful weaponry, armored vehicles, sound cannons, riot gear, etc.).

Yet it turns out that policing is nowhere near being one of the most dangerous jobs in Canada. Not even close. As Adriana Barton puts it: “But in terms of workplace hazards, firefighters and police officers are relative lightweights compared to workers at greatest risk for job-related accidents, and death. Among the most threatening health and safety issues for police officers, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and safety lists sitting and standing for long periods (CCOHS 2016). There are ore industrial deaths in Canada ever year than the number of police officers killed in Canada throughout the country’s history. Yet cops use the dangerous job myth to justify killing poor working class people (while doing nothing about the bosses responsible for workplace deaths).

Policing do not show up on any list of most dangerous jobs in Canada.

The top 10 most dangerous jobs (and their main hazards) are as follows:

  1. Loggers: falling trees, cutting equipment.
  2. Fisheries workers: drowning, heavy equipment.
  3. Pilots and flight engineers: air disturbances, high altitudes, takeoffs and landings.
  4. Roofers: falling from heights, heat stroke in summer.
  5. Structural iron and steel workers: falling from heights, heavy materials, welding.
  6. Garbage and recyclables collectors: hazardous materials, heavy equipment, road accidents.
  7. Electrical power line installers and repairers: electricity, falling from heights.
  8. Truck drivers and mobile sales workers: road accidents, exhaustion.
  9. Farmers, ranchers, agricultural managers: heavy equipment, large animals.
  10. Construction workers: dangerous equipment and large animals. (Barton 2014)

According to statistics from AWCBC (Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada), Canada’s most dangerous industries have the following rates of fatalities. Fishing and trapping have 52 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers. Mining, quarrying and oil wells have 46.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Logging and forestry have 33.3 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers. For construction the rate of fatalities is 20.2 per 100,000. The rate for transportation and storage is 16.0 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

And no one is willing to concede that the great danger faced by workers in these jobs justifies or legitimizes their killing people because they are under pressure, exposed to dangers, or simply afraid. “Going postal” should properly be termed “going cop” and should have been all along.

These are primarily blue collar jobs. And they typically do not pay anywhere near what police are paid in Canada. A recent survey of 4,500 Canadian police officers by Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of Western University found that 52 per cent of cops earn between $80,000 and $99,000 and 38 per cent earn $100,000 or more (cited in Quan 2012). Maclean’s magazine, the national newsweekly in Canada refers to police officers as part of Canada’s “new upper class” (Macdonald 2013).

In Windsor, Ontario, one of the most economically depressed cities in the country 40 percent of the police force took home more than $100,000 in 2012. In 2013, an arbitrator awarded the police a substantial 12 per cent pay hike over four years, retroactive to 2011 (Macdonald 2013). This despite one murder in the city over the previous three years combined and an overall decrease in crime rates. According to Maclean’s, police in British Columbia out-earned engineers, whose 2012 median income was $87,500, as reported by the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (Macdonald 2013). The median income for a police officer in Abbotsford was reported as $107,000 while provincially the median income for municipal police officers was around $95,000 (Macdonald 2013).

That is quite impressive danger pay. It far exceeds the pay of most of the workers in the actually dangerous jobs in Canada. Where is their danger pay? Quite the opposite. The average Canadian logger, the most dangerous job in Canada by many counts, earns a paltry $26,500 a year (Barton 2014).

Police promote and prey upon people’s fears of the scary, anonymous criminal, the bad person who seeks to harm us and against whom the police must always be armed, dangerous, and ready to kill (to defend themselves, of course). Yet people in Canada are consistently more likely to be killed simply trying to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. Twice as many people in Canada are killed carrying out their job than are murdered every year in Canada. In the Canadian context there are about five fatalities on the job per workday (Swartz 2016). There are typically more than 1,000 deaths each year in workplaces. Even more, there are about 15.5 cases of work-related injuries per thousand people employed in Canada (Swartz 2016). These are almost all avoidable deaths that occur simply because bosses are cutting corners and costs to increase profits. They are homicides.

Yet civilians are far more likely to be killed by police than police have to fear from civilians. A study by Whittingham in 1984, one of the few to study the issue in the Canadian context, found that between 1975 and 1979 the homicide rates per 100,000 for police officers were substantially lower than for the general public. Indeed the homicide rates for police officers were a minuscule 0.1 while for members of the general public the rates were 2.91 (Whittingham 1984). In reality it was safer being a police officer in Canada, considerably safer than simply being a person. So much for the dangerous job claim.

In reality the supposed scary criminal of police mythology has far more to fear from police than the other way around. As do we all.

Even if one looks at homicides the numbers are telling. Between 1961 and 2009 the Canadian government reports that 133 police personnel have been victims of homicide. Most of those deaths occurred in the first half of that time period, between 1961 and 1984. That was a period in which violent crime rates in Canada were up as a whole. Still that number puts police well behind other occupations. Taxi drivers are victims of on the job homicide at rates twice that of police. Some would suggest that other jobs such as sex work are even more dangerous and sex workers subject to even higher on the job homicide rates. The horrible irony is that, based on conversations with sex workers and street advocates, a number of those homicides likely come at the hands of police officers but will never be reported as such or perpetrators identified let alone charged or convicted.

Historically, a total of 234 officers with the RCMP and its predecessor, the North West Mounted Police, have died in the line of duty. Most of these were the result of accidents and natural disasters. The total number of RCMP officers shot and killed on duty is 78. In about a century-and-a-half (CBC News 2014).

Unfortunately there is no systematic record keeping of people killed by police in Canada. And, as stated above, there is no way to gain access to or record people who have been killed by police in back alleys or on the outskirts of town (as in the so-called “Blue Tours” in which police infamously drop largely indigenous people on the edge of town, in the snow, in the middle of a Canadian winter). So the numbers of people killed by cops in Canada is inevitably an undercount.  Still a few groups and individuals do try. Research done by killercopscanada and the Coalition contre la Répression et les Abus Policier (la CRAP) suggests that since 1987 there have been at least 847 people killed through contact with police in Canada. That number would be more than the number of police fatalities, of all forces, federal, provincial, and municipal, combined since 1865—before there was a Canada!

The myth of policing as a dangerous, risky, or threatening job is a political tool. It is promoted by corporate media, police associations, and governments to both justify and increase funding for forces (already the largest expenditure of municipal budgets) and to legitimize the regular and ongoing use of often lethal force against civilian, mostly poor working class, people. It is an ideological mechanism in regimes of regulation and accumulation. And it allows them to arm to the teeth, shoot first and ask questions later—and kill us with impunity.


Further Reading

Barton, Adriana. 2014. “And the Top 10 Most Dangerous Jobs Are.” Globe and Mail. Jan. 15.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. 2016. “OHS Answer Fact Sheet: Police.”

CBC News. 2014. “Killed in the Line of Duty: History of RCMP Shooting Deaths.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. June 5.

Dunn, Sara. 2010. “Police Officers Murdered in the Line of Duty 1961–2009.” Juristat. Statistics Canada.

Macdonald, Nancy. 2013. “The $100,000 Club: Who’s Really Making Big Money These Days?” Maclean’s. April 15.

Quan, Douglas. 2012. “Canadian Police Officers Overworked, Understaffed, Stressed Out: Surevy.” Postmedia News. April 24.

Swartz, Mark. 2016. “Canada’s Most Dangerous Jobs: Weighing the Risks of Hazardous Careers.” Monster.

Whittingham, Michael D. 1984. “Police/Public Homicides and Fatalities in Canada: A Current Assessment—Serving and Being Protected.” Canadian Police Chief. 3(10): 4–8

“Standing the Gaff: The Police Murder of Striking Miner William Davis” (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

“Standing the Gaff: The Police Murder of Striking Miner William Davis” (Nova Scotia, 1925)

Policing, throughout the history of state capitalist development, has always been directly connected with the protection of business and business interests. This connection has perhaps been especially clear in the context of resource and extractives industries. One sees it in defence of mining interests in which local, provincial, and federal police have been deployed, often lethally, to ensure the operations of mining companies and mining profits. The police killing of Ginger Goodwin and the Estevan Massacre are examples of this. At the same time companies have often created, as well, their own company police forces, private police to protect company property, ensure operations, and especially, control and regulate workers and bust their organizing efforts and unions. In various North American contexts, including for example in the steel towns of Pennsylvania, policing has developed as company policing with forces initiated by companies and/or business associations. In Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company ran its own police force. So too did companies like the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) in Nova Scotia. In 1925 this police force was responsible for attacking a group of striking mine worker and killing miner William Davis, a father of ten (whose tenth child was born after his killing ad never knew its father).


Standing the Gaff: The Strike of 1925

The coal mines of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia have been the sites of some of the most intense class struggles in the history of the Canadian state. The coal miners have shown some of the most militant and resolute examples of working class action ad solidarity in the face of aggression and brutality from massive mining companies. This has included facing lethal force from the mining companies and armed police forces.

William Davis was born June 3, 1887 in Gloucestershire, England. He began working as a miner for the Dominion Coal Company Limited (DOMCO) on Cape Breton Island in 1905. He would work at the Number 12 Colliery in New Waterford, Nova Scotia until his murder at the hands of company police under direction of managers with the virulently antiunion British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) which succeeded DOMCO in the coal fields. Upon taking over DOMCO mines in 1920 the larger BESCO immediately set up a systematic campaign to bust the union, District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Between 1920 and 1925, under the aggressive BESCO management, there were 58 strikes in the Sydney Coal Field.

When the most recent contract expired on January 15, 1925 BESCO saw a chance to end the union. On March 2, 1925, BESCO cut off credit for food at BESCO company stores. This put many mining families in a situation of near starvation. On March 6 the union declared a strike with 12000 workers taking to picket lines. Only a small rump workforce was left to maintain the mines and prevent flooding. UMWA District 26 moved to full picketing on June 4 in response to the BESCO refusal to participate in arbitration.

A few days into the strike, the company also decided to shut down the electricity and drinking water supply to the town of New Waterford. In response to the striking miners directly marched on the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. There they actively expelled company workers in order to restart the utilities for the company homes in which miners lived while shutting them down for the company production facilities.

On June 10 BESCO turned to its company police force to protect 30 scabbing company workers on their return to Waterford Lake. The plan was to go ahead with an effort to restart the water and electricity to company facilities that ran the mine pumps. The aim was to again cut off water to the families living in the town as a means of forcing the workers back to work by, essentially starving them out of the union. Indeed by June the situation of miners’ families had become desperate.

Shortly after the strike began in March, a reporter with the Canadian Press interviewed Vice President of BESCO J.E. McLurg. In the interview McLurg offered his entirely arrogant, and now infamous assessment of how the company would defeat the striking workers. McLurg blustered: “Poker game, nothing, we hold all the cards. Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not, eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.”

This promise, and threat, that the company would squeeze the union until it broke would serve as a rallying cry of the striking miners to “stand the gaff.” It remains a rallying cry of workers in Nova Scotia and source of strength and solidarity on picket lines.


The Murder of William Davis: June 11, 1925

The morning of June 11, the company police carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation carrying out thug patrols within the town. In response striking miners organized a protest in which around 3000 miners marched to the Waterford Lake pumping station and power plant. Their intention was to convince the scabbing company workers to support the strike.

When the striking workers arrived at the plant at around 11 AM the company police were waiting for them. Without warning the armed police charged the crowd on horseback opening fire as they came. Many workers were injured in the fusillade of over 300 rounds fired into the crowd. William Davis was killed by police in the attack with many understanding that he had been shot deliberately by the officer whose bullet struck him directly in the heart. The striking workers rallied and were able to enter the facility as police retreated.


Turning the Tide: Solidarity and Militance in the Face of Murder

In the days and weeks following the murder of Davis, miners stepped up their tactics and turned to direct action against company stores and other company properties in various communities throughout the Sydney Coal Field. Where the company was willing to take workers’ lives, the workers would target what was most important to the company, its property and profits.

While neither the provincial nor the federal government showed much concern over the company shooting of workers and murder of a striking miner, the simple threat to company property spurred them to immediately deploy the provincial police force and almost 2000 soldiers from the Canadian Army. This would be the second largest military deployment against an internal target in the history of the Canadian state, the largest being the deployment against indigenous and Métis communities in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Of course, this would not be the last military mobilization against an internal target in Canadian state history with the military assault on the Mohawk communities during the “Oka crisis” being a recent egregious case. For those who cling to an illusion that the liberal democratic government of Canada is a peaceful one that this serves as a stunning reminder that the Canadian government has at various points in its history used military force against civilian, non-combatants. For some this might stand as an example of state terrorism.

Faced with the determination of the strikers and their families and the growing strength of the union, BESCO was compelled to settle the strike the strike in November and finally abandoned its attempts to break the union. The company also gave up its company stores, company housing, and other services. Indeed, BESCO never recovered from the strike action and faced with an energized and militant workforce eventually succumbed to company debt. In 1930 BESCO was taken over by the larger Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO). The miners of Cape Breton would continue as a militant force and the island have stood as a model of labor activism for generations.

The strength and solidarity of the striking workers, their families, and their supporters and the commitment to direct action District 26 of the UMWA would emerge from the strike as one of the most militant, active unions on the continent. Their efforts and successes would stand as a testament to rank-and-file assertiveness and direct action.


Same Old Story: The Killers Go Free

Charges against police for any killing of a civilian are rare in the Canadian state context. There is reluctance to hold defenders of property and accumulation accountable for doing what, at least in the final instance, they were organized to do. Rarer still are officers charged when they kill union members; in such case the role of policing in capitalist economies is even more immediately front and center and it would certainly be hypocritical of states to proceed. Yet in the case of the assault on UMWA member and the murder of William Davis, an officer did face a charge. This, perhaps because the officer belonged to a company rather than public force.

BESCO police officer Joseph MacLeod was brought before a preliminary hearing in Sydney where he faced the charge of murder. In the end, though, not surprisingly, the Crown prosecutor dropped the charges against officer accepting the defense argument that the identity of the shooter could not be discerned and MacLeod should not be given unique treatment relative to the numerous other police officers involved the assault and shooting of Davis. A curious argument to say the least (raising a question about why the overall actions of police on that day were not addressed).

For many in the area it apparently was common knowledge that William Davis was shot by BESCO police officer Harry Muldoon. The very day following the police shooting that took Davis’ life, Harry Muldoon and his family were relocated to Boston, Massachusetts where they were able to live out their lives untroubled by the murder of William Davis.


Davis Day: A Legacy of Solidarity

More than 5,000 mourners attended William Davis’ funeral on June 14, making it the largest public presence for a funeral in the history of the province. District 26 of UMWA, showing the community care and solidarity at the heart of labor organizing established a fund to support the Davis family, his ten children and their mother, with monthly support. The date of the police murder of William Davis is still marked as a day of solidarity and working class memory in Nova Scotia. The first Davis Day was held on June 11, 1926 and saw miners across Cape Breton refuse to work. Instead they marched to the union hall in New Waterford before going to a nearby church for a memorial service in Davis’ honor. Davis Day as an “idle day” spread quickly being observed by miners across the province, who refused to work on the day. In 1969 Davis Day became a paid provincial holiday.

New Waterford established Davis Square in 1985. The Davis Wilderness Trail was established in 1996 and follows the original route taken by the striking miners on June 11, 1925 to the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. The ringing words on the Davis Memorial at Davis Square proclaims simply: “Standing the Gaff.”

Killing to Protect Property: Police and Vigilantes in the Reesor Siding Strike Massacre of 1963 (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

Killing to Protect Property: Police and Vigilantes in the Reesor Siding Strike Massacre of 1963 (Activists Killed by Cops Series)

Policing in Canada has at its roots the protection of property and profit. The police at all levels have readily resorted to violence, including lethal force, to protect the interests of private property holders and businesses. They have also worked to provide a context in which property holders and business owners have been able to inflict often lethal violence against working people and the poor, especially against labor organizers and union members, with impunity and often in the sheltering presence of the police themselves.

Too often if police violence against activists in the Canadian context is considered at all it is viewed as a relic, something confined to the early histories of colonial or industrial strife, remnants of say the less enlightened 1910s or 1930s, eras marked by robber barons and resource giants. Yet labor struggles in all periods of Canadian history have shown the willingness of police to deploy extreme violence against unionists and to support such violence against unionist by others.

The strike at Reesor Siding in 1963 stands as one of the signal and bloodiest labor struggles in Canadian history even if it and the town it is named for have been unduly forgotten. It would culminate in a vicious attack on striking workers by vigilantes accompanied by, and facilitated by, local police, with the shooting of 11 union members, three of whom were killed in the assault.

The 1963 strike involved fifteen hundred members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union (LSWU), Local 2995 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America who worked at the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. Issues of concern included a proposed wage freeze and an attempt by the company to extend the woodworkers work week to seven days a week over the next two months in order to meet a company quota.

Among the other suppliers of pulp wood to the mill were independent settler farmers who supplied about one-quarter of the company’s annual input. These settler farmers, who sold wood to supplement their incomes, were asked to stop their sales of pulp wood to the company to put additional pressure on the mill and strengthen the workers’ position.

Throughout the strike, the union organizers attempted to demonstrate to the farmers that the strike against a common antagonist Spruce Falls would benefit both farmers and workers. The union even offered to feed and give firewood to any farmers who were affected by the strike (Kapuskasing Times 2013).

Settler farmers, forgoing solidarity for narrow self-interest refused to halt operations to support the strikers and improve their bargaining position. A strike at the New York Times, a main purchaser of the mill’s pulp further reduced the striking woodcutters’ leverage. In retaliation for the scabbing operations of the settler farmers, striking workers sabotaged the settlers’ stacked lumber piles, destroying some lumber and making it unusable against their own efforts.

The growing tensions in the community came to a head on February 10, 1963. At midnight of that day a shipment of 600 cords (2200 m³) of lumber was scheduled to be loaded onto waiting railcars for transport to the company. Twenty settler farmers were present to defend the lumber and they were openly ready and prepared to use any levels of violence deemed necessary to do so. Around 20 officers of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) were also present at the loading station in order to protect the lumber and presumably the angry settler farmers as well. The settler farmers and OPP officers formed what has been called a “battalion” against the strikers (Darrah 2015). A grouping of an estimated 400 workers had determined to impede the shipment but they were, as has generally been the case in labor disputes in Canada, unarmed.

The police put up a simple chain line to keep the striking workers away from the shipment. As workers moved past the chain and continued toward the pulp wood several of the farmers, who police knew to be armed, stepped out from their hiding place at a hut by the tracks and began shooting before the union members indiscriminately with no response from the police whose actions, in fact, allowed the ambush to occur. Eleven union members were shot. Brothers Irenée and Joseph Fortier along with Fernand Drouin were killed. Eight others were wounded: Harry Bernard, Ovila Bernard, Joseph Boily, Alex Hachey, Albert Martel, Joseph Mercier, Léo Ouimette, and Daniel Tremblay.

It has long been understood that the OPP officers were aware that the farmers were armed the night of the assault. It was also well known within the community, and would certainly have been known to police that the farmers had been worked up to a murderous pitch against the striking workers. The mayor of nearby Kapuskasing, Norman Grant, was quoted in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, saying, “These settlers are getting so desperate they are going to go into the bush with guns and shoot anyone who tries to interfere with their cutting.”[1] None other than Donald MacDonald, leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), would later report that affidavits after the massacre showed that the police knew that the farmers had brought firearms with them that night, but did not take any precautions to ensure the weapons were not used against the workers. Indeed it was the OPP who notified the farmers that the workers were coming, allowing them to prepare their ambush (Kapuskasing Times 2013).

The response of the provincial government was to send an additional 200 OPP officers to the area, the same force that had been complicit in the massacre. The Ontario Ministry of Labour intervened to settle the dispute, with the workers having to return to work under the conditions of their old contract only a week after the killings. Joseph Laforce, President of Local 2995 and the executive board of LSWU had accepted the agreement only under threat by the Government of Ontario that it was poised to legislate the workers back to work if they refused this solution (Kapuskasing Times 2013). The strike had gone on for only 33 days.

Incredibly, 254 union members were charged with rioting, there had been no riot by workers, and held temporarily in the former Monteith POW Camp (which is now the site of a penitentiary) (Kapuskasing Times 2013). They were released on bail posted by the union but in subsequent trials 138 union members were found guilty of illegal assembly and the union was made to pay $27,600 in fines.

All twenty settler farmers present at the siding the night of the shootings were charged. In total an arsenal of five .22 caliber rifles, three 12 gauge shotguns, two .30-30 caliber rifles, two Lee–Enfield rifles, a .30-06 caliber rifle, and a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver were confiscated.

The case against the farmers was heard in October 1963 in the nearby town of Cochrane, before Supreme Court of Ontario Chief Justice McRuer. Astonishingly, but showing the real face of class justice in the Canadian context, following a preliminary hearing, the seven-man jury dismissed the charges of non-capital murder after three days of deliberations. Paul-Emile Coulombe, Léonce Tremblay, and Héribert Murray were charged with firearms violations in relation to the ambush, which resulted in fines of a mere $150 to each of them, a pittance in comparison to the fines levied against the union and given he atrocity of the actions the men had been involved in.

Some suggest at the Reesor Siding Massacre and the murders of the three workers contributed to provincial arbitration and an improvement of working conditions for bush workers across Northern Ontario (Darrah 2015). It apparently did much to build solidarity among workers in the region.

A monument to the murdered workers was placed on the site as well as a provincial historical marker. Over the years anti-unionists have made threats on the memorial. Several folk songs have been written about the massacre including one by Stompin Tom Connors. Ironically, in the years after the massacre any children of farmers left the farms to go work in the bush for Spruce Falls.

It is often said and believed, by criminologists as by members of the general public, that the police are neutral arbitrators who serve and protect without taking sides in social conflicts, particularly those involving the private realm of industry. Yet throughout Canadian history we see the fundamental, and consistent, class character of policing as mechanism of capital accumulation, profit, and property relations (and relations of ownership and control of production). The Reesor Siding Massacre shows yet another example, this time of complicity in mass murder and direct relations with those responsible for killing (even alerting them of their victims’ impending arrival and unwillingness to disarm the assailants ahead of time).

The Reesor Siding Massacre also offers an important if forgotten aspect of the history of settlerism I the Canadian context. It is one that bears further research.

Further Reading

Darrah, Dan. 2015. This Labour Day Let’s Remember Five Forgotten Stories of Struggle.

Kapuskasing Times 2013. “Fifty Years Later: The Ressor Siding Incident.” Kapuskasing Times.

Murdered by RCMP: The Estevan Massacre of Striking Miners (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

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.

The Murders

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.

Murdering Justice: The Police Killing of Ginger Goodwin, Labor Organizer (Activists Killed by Cops Feature)

Murdering Justice: The Police Killing of Ginger Goodwin, Labor Organizer

The various police agencies in Canada have long histories of routinely inflicting often lethal violence on activists, community and labor organizers, protesters, and dissenters, despite popular perceptions, and state propaganda, suggesting otherwise. Police violence and the killing of activists have been particularly pronounced in the case of labor organizers and active union members.

One of the most infamous instances of lethal police force against a labor organizer is the killing of Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, a prominent union organizer and socialist, by a disgraced constable of the Military Police of the Dominion Police, Dan Campbell.

Born in Treeton, England in 1887, “Red” Goodwin was a migrant coal miner who came to settle in the area around the Cumberland mines on Vancouver Island where he arrived looking for work late in 1910. Immediately angered by working conditions, health and safety threats, and the abuse of workers by bosses in the mines Goodwin quickly set about on a number of organizing projects in the area. Goodwin was instrumental in union organizing in the industry and also played crucial parts in several militant strikes. Goodwin was also a war resister who took to the woods around Cumberland to avoid conscription in a war that he opposed as the murdering of workers on behalf of imperialism. It was in those woods that he was killed by police. On July 27, 1918 Goodwin was gunned down by Constable Campbell, executed for refusing to fight a bosses’ war.

Red Goodwin: For Workers and Against War

After the Vancouver Island strike of 1912 to 1914, in which Goodwin played a key part, he was blacklisted and had to move on. Moving to Trail, BC in 1916, Goodwin worked as a smelter with the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Limited (CM and S). As a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, Goodwin ran in the provincial election of 1916. That same year he was elected secretary of the Trail Mine and Smelter’s Union. He would later be elected vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour. In 1917 he was elected president of the Trail Trades and Labor Council and president of the local International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

From the start of World War I, Goodwin, as was the case for many socialists and anarchists, openly opposed the war on pacifist grounds and because the was was understood as an imperial endeavor built on the dead bodies of the working classes who were forced to fight each other on behalf of capital and its national states. Goodwin had actually tried to assist returned soldiers, as harmed members of the working class. Goodwin initially complied with law and registered for the draft. He was rejected for conscription on the basis of a medical examination that declared him unfit for military duty on the basis of black lung, common for miners, and bad teeth, common for the poor. The medical board classified him Class D, unfit for military service. Not long after his medical exam, in 1917, Goodwin became centrally involved in a strike at the Trail smelter over nothing more radical than an eight hour day (it is too often forgotten that workers in Canada did not enjoy an eight hour day, usually working much longer, and would fight the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 over this very issue, leading to mass arrests and the police killings of several workers). Incredibly, during the course of the strike Goodwin received notification that his conscription status had now changed and he was now declared fit for duty. Business people made up much of local draft boards across Canada. At the time of his reclassification from Class D to Class A it was almost certain that Goodwin suffered from an advanced form of tuberculosis (Steeves 1960, 38).

To avoid being forced to fight and possibly kill other workers in a bosses war, Goodwin along with several other war and conscription resisters moved to the woods around Cumberland. They were literally hunted like animals by hunting posses of various agencies of police in British Columbia, the Provincial Police of British Columbia and the Dominion Police. The police unambiguously played a strictly political role serving working people up to the military and directing specific violence against workers who had been involved in community and labor organizing and/or who had challenged business owners and processes of exploitation of labor.

Deadly Forces: The Police Agencies

Officers of the federal Dominion Police were used to track down and capture those who opposed war and conscription during the period of World War I. So too were constables of the British Columbia Provincial Police. This was part of the taken for granted role of police as agents of empire, and obedience to the state (rather than as defenders of justice, law, and order). Objectors to war and conscription were arrested under the Military Service Act.

The Dominion Police was a relatively small and federal force established in 1868 to operate as the secret service, to enforce federal statutes, and to guard government buildings. In 1920 it was merged with the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The Military Police component of the Dominion Police was deployed to seek out and round up men who opposed the war and avoided the draft.

Given that many, indeed most, of those who opposed war were socialists, communists, anarchists, social reformers, critics of states or corporate interests, this policing of war resisters reinforced the police role as fundamentally political forces, defending capitalist and state authorities and priorities. It also gave ample opportunity to rid the world of various “Reds,” which was precisely what capital and liberal democratic governments desired and sought.

The Military Police had been organized in British Columbia by BC conscription registrar Robert Lemmie, a lawyer in Nelson and Vancouver. In order to stir resentments and ensure vengeful prosecution of duties, Lemmie built his force mostly of handpicked returning soldiers.

The cop who killed Ginger Goodwin was a businessperson who owned and operated the Colwood Hotel near Victoria between 1906 and 1919. Special Constable Dan Campbell said two days before he killed Goodwin: “Mac, we are here to get these men, dead or alive.”

The police description of Goodwin, in addition to saying he had a “furtive glance,” noted that he was “socialistic” and strangely implied he might be Jewish (Stonebanks 2004).

The Hunt Posse

The Provincial Police constable based in Cumberland was Robert Rushford (30). The police posse hunting draft avoiders at Cumberland were led by William John Devitt (49) a career police officer. Devitt was the Vancouver based Inspector and second in command to the Chief Inspector of the 45 person Military Police arm of the Dominion Police in British Columbia, one Captain Frederick R. Glover (Stonebanks 2004, 90). At the time of the Goodwin killing Devitt had had a 31 year police career. He joined the NWMP in 1887 serving a five year term which saw him involved in several breaches of discipline. Despite conduct that was officially recorded as “indifferent” Devitt was brought back for a second, three year term. Between 1896 and 1910, Devitt operated with the BC Provincial Police, serving in Nakusp, Nelson, Rossland, and Trail. Devitt became the first police chief of Trail, British Columbia.

Devitt had been in charge of a hunting party searching for resisters at least as early as, ironically, May Day, the historic holiday of the workers of all lands. That party included Constable Alfred Stafford of the Military Police.

The cop who killed Ginger Goodwin, Dan Campbell, joined the hunt for resisters in July 1918. Prior to killing Goodwin, Dan Campbell had met disgrace as a constable in the British Columbia Provincial Police. At the time of the hunt for Goodwin, Campbell was a special constable.

The hunting party also included a third police officer, Lance Corporal George Henry Roe (48), a former customs officer overseeing coal loaded for export, and two trappers, Thomas Downie Anderson (58) and George Alfred Janes (44). As if the hunting symbolism was not direct enough.

Police hunted the resisters day and night. Reports of the time suggest the resisters led a very precarious existence suffering from bites from mosquitoes and poisonous deer flies and from exposure (Stonebanks 2004, 97). One resister, identified as Andrew Aitken, returned to Cumberland suffering what was called a form of dementia. Goodwin himself suffered pneumonia but received medicine from supporters and recovered (Stonebanks 2004, 97). Many locals supported the resisters and there were networks of sympathetic workers and townspeople who brought supplies, especially foodstuffs, to hiding resisters. While friends and supporters did help out food was on the whole quite limited. Resisters had to forage and hunt for themselves.

Over May 14 and 15, Rushford and Constable Alfred Stafford of the Dominion Police conducted all night searches for resisters. On April 27 the pair had arrested Earon Jones for failing to register for the draft.

The posse set out from Comox Lake on its human hunting trip on Saturday, July 27, 1918. Goodwin was hiding with other resisters and mine workers Frederick Taylor, Arthur Boothman, and James Randall.

The Killing

On July 27, 1918, the Dominion Police set out for the fateful hunting expedition that would claim Ginger Goodwin. Sometime around 4:30 PM Devitt and Roe heard a shot ring out and working their way through dense bush came to the spot where Goodwin lay dead. He had been shot by Dan Campbell who used his own .30-.30 caliber 1893 Marlin lever action rifle. A bullet pierced Goodwin’s neck severing his spinal cord. Death was instant (Stonebanks 2004, 102).

Goodwin was found by Devitt and Roe thirteen feet away from Campbell. Goodwin was holding a .22 caliber rifle. Bloodstains were found on the trail six feet, three inches away from Goodwin’s body.

Initially the police planned to bury Goodwin’s body on the spot where it lay without any autopsy or coroner’s report. Two undertakers, Thomas Banks of Cumberland and John Sutton of Courtnay, were asked to bury Goodwin in the woods but refused. Unions intervened and declared their intention to get the body out. Undertaker Thomas Banks and a rescue team of miners brought Goodwin’s body out of the woods.

In a curious decision neither of Cumberland’s two doctors, who may have been sympathetic to the local miners, George McNaughton and E.R. Hicks, was asked to perform the postmortem. Instead authorities turned to Dr. Harrison Mullard from Courtnay, several miles away.

The Inquest

An Inquest was held in Cumberland on the morning of July 31. Constable Dan Campbell maintained that he had killed Goodwin in self defense but seems not to have been asked to provide specific details of the interaction.

Dr. Millard suggested based on the condition of the wound that the gun had been fired from not farther than ten feet and not closer than two feet. Goodwin has a “large gaping wound” on the left side of his neck and a “nasty” wound on his left wrist (Stonebanks 2004, 105).

Devitt replied that based on the wrists and neck wounds he believed Goodwin was shot from the side and had been standing with his left side facing the shooter. This would suggest that he was not pointing a gun at Campbell and should have raised questions about Campbell’s claim of self defense. While Devitt had initially referred to Goodwin’s gun as a high powered automatic it was actually a small .22 used by farmers for dealing with pests or hunting small game.

Roe testified that in finding Goodwin he held the gun tightly in his right hand but not his left. A firing position would have had the gun gripped in both hands. Roe reported that the .22 had ten bullets but only two were recovered. For some reason, despite being told by Devitt to make the gun safe, the two billets were put back in the gun by Roe.

There were real discrepancies between in the self defense claim and the forensic evidence which did not fully support it. The fact that Goodwin had two separate and distinct puncture wounds in his neck was not fully explained. Was he shot only once? As well there were discrepancies in explanations for the wound in Goodwin’s wrist. There was no gunpowder found on the wound and it was suggested that the wound was not caused by a bullet. Later it was suggested that a bullet had first hit Goodwin’s wrist before entering his neck. There was also an unexplained puncture on Goodwin’s lip.

Many believed (many reviewing the case still do) that Goodwin was shot in the back from someone crouching in bushes below him (Steeves 1960, 39). This would, in fact, correspond with the angle of the bullet path from back to neck (an exit rather than an entry wound). It would also explain the wrist wound as the upward rising bullet would have met the upraised hands held out front (in a gesture of surrender and compliance).

The inquest returned a neutral verdict. Campbell was arrested by the Provincial Police and charged with manslaughter. He was released on $10,000 bail.

Incredibly the jurors were all local business people or local government representatives. They were: Frank Dalby, jury foreman, a storekeeper at Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd.; Charles Parnham, underground supervisor at Number Four mine and city alderman; R,R, Ridout, payroll clerk at Canadian Collieries; Neil McFadyen, stable boss at Canadian Collieries and school trustee; John Fraser, proprietor of a cigar store and barber shop; and J.W, Cooke, postmaster. In a mining town, not a single juror was a working miner (Stonebanks 2004, 107).

Aftermath of the Inquest

Many considered the killing of Goodwin to be murder based on the path of the bullet. As numerous miners at the time noted the path of the bullet through the left side of Goodwin’s neck and into his right shoulder showed that he could not have been sighting his rifle at Campbell, who would have been at his side and perhaps even out of sight, but would have been turned away from him. This glaring discrepancy in Campbell’s defense claim caused rising anger among miners and others who challenged the Campbell version of the killing.

The Metal Trades Council and the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council called a 24 hour general strike for August 2 in Vancouver, the first general strike in Canada, a year before the Winnipeg General Strike. The 24 hour strike was long known as the Ginger Goodwin General Strike.

Work stopped in Cumberland for the funeral, a testament to the high regard in which Goodwin was held but also an expression of outrage over what was considered a murder plain and simple (Stonebanks 2004, 109). The funeral procession measured over one kilometer in length. The Cumberland chief of police requested that the federal police be removed from town for the funeral saying that he could not be responsible for the consequences if they stayed given the seething anger of the miners (Steeves 1960, 39).

Police and the Political Climate

The social climate that the police played into says much about their social role. This was a context in which violence against union members was openly advocated and pursued. With no police intervention against those, particularly in business associations and veteran’s groups who called for or carried out anti-union violence.

In 1918 the Canadian government passed legislation making it illegal to publicly express or publish statements unfavorable to the motives or purposes of the war (Stonebanks 2004, 122). Anything that might “unsettle or inflame public opinion” was prohibited by law (Stonebanks 2004, 122). This did not prohibit actions that inflamed public opinion against war resisters, even where violence against resisters was involved.

Thirteen organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and various socialist parties were declared illegal on the basis of revolutionary literature (Stonebanks 2004, 123). These were groups that were most active in their opposition to the state and to capitalism as well as opposing imperialism, militarism, and war. No illegalization was leveled at the many conservative groups that actually inflicted violence on poor and working class people and organizations in what were essentially terroristic acts.

The Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) threatened violence against striking workers. Sergeant A.E. Lees, secretary of the GWVA in British Columbia said: “Whether he was shot in the front or the back, he got his just and due deserts” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 111). The BC Veteran’s Weekly called the general strike “murderous disloyalty.” The Vancouver Sun called the strike “deliberate treason.”

On August 2, three hundred veterans stormed the Vancouver Labour Temple, broke down the door, shattered windows, and trashed the office scattering papers and records around the room. Labour Council secretary Victor Midgely was assaulted. The following day veteran’s attended the Longshoreman’s Hall and demanded that several union leaders leave the province.

This sentiment was advanced in various establishment outlets including the mainstream newspapers. The Trail newspaper the News called Goodwin’s killing a “natural consequence” and suggested he should have paid the price in the war anyway, oddly suggesting that he “could have made a name for himself” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 112).

All in all the establishment papers found Goodwin to be an offense to patriotism who deserved to be executed without trial apparently. And Dan Campbell made this sentiment a reality.

In that sense the police did the bidding of the ruling class. They served the function of recruiters for war and also provided an ideological function that condemned and morally regulated resisters posing war resistance as criminal enterprise. In this we see the longstanding role of police and legislation in constructing various forms of opposition to capitalist barbarism (war, exploitation, dispossession, etc.) as crime (as in laws around vagrancy, theft, strikes, squatting, war resistance, etc.).

The hunts for resisters continued on Vancouver Island after Goodwin’s killing. Several unionists were arrested for aiding and abetting resisters, particularly for taking them food. The officers involved in the Goodwin killing took part in later hunts for resisters.

The Preliminary Investigation

On August 7, the Preliminary Investigation into charges against Constable Campbell convened at the Victoria Courthouse. Notably several witnesses for the defense would enhance their testimony to support a self defense argument (despite there being no witnesses to the killing itself, or perhaps because of it).

The Crown, prosecuting the case, held that Campbell was operating on a “dead or alive” basis. Six new witnesses testified to hearing Campbell say, on three distinct occasions overall, that he would “get” the resisters “dead or alive.” One testified that Campbell used the word “shot” in his discussion of getting the resisters (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 113). Further, there was no evidence that Campbell spoke to Goodwin before shooting him. This suggested that Goodwin may not have known Campbell was even present and/or was not given any opportunity to surrender. No one heard any warning given. Indeed, no one heard Campbell say anything before the shot was fired. Was Goodwin simply executed on the spot as Campbell had suggested he would do to six witnesses? This question lingers to the present day.

The existence of two wounds on the left of Goodwin’s neck was never pursued in questioning. There were also issues about the wrist wound. There was no gunpowder on the wrist and Dr. Millard changed his view about the source of the wrist wounds.

The Court relied on Devitt’s opinion about the place of Goodwin’s hands and the state of his fingers to determine whether he could have been able to fire his gun. They also relied simply on his opinion about the possibility of a bullet ricocheting from Goodwin’s wrist to his neck. Roe, who supposedly took the rifle from the dead Goodwin’s hand could not say what position his index, trigger, finger was in.

Campbell even later suggested that Goodwin had only covered him with his rifle and that Campbell had been able to raise his after Goodwin saw him and had him covered. Suggesting no intention of shooting by Goodwin (Stonebanks 2004, 115). Reports of the interaction between Campbell and Goodwin changed further. From Goodwin first having Campbell covered, Campbell later suggested that he had Goodwin put his arms up, which he then did, complying with the order. Campbell then suggests Goodwin suddenly clutched the rifle as if to shoot before Campbell shot him. But both scenarios cannot be true at the same time. Either Goodwin had Campbell covered and Campbell quickly raised his weapon afterward and got a shot off or Campbell had Goodwin covered with his arms in the air and fired later when Goodwin brought his arms down. It cannot be both. Yet Campbell was never interrogated on this, indeed he never took the stand for cross examination as far as is known, and the incompatible discrepancies were never pursued.

Campbell’s weapon might also have been questioned. he killed Goodwin with a .30-.30 rifle but, as Devitt testified, the regulation arm for Dominion Police was a .45 or .55 caliber pistol. Where was Campbell’s pistol and why was he permitted to carry a non-regulation weapon into the field?

Devitt testified that he did not know Goodwin beforehand but he surely must have known of him while serving as police chief in Rossland. Incredibly, despite this, Devitt added to his testimony, with no actual evidence ever provided, that he had “certain telegrams” suggesting Goodwin would shoot anyone who tried to draft him (Stonebanks 2004, 117). Yet Ben Horbury, a Cumberland miner, said he was actually present when Goodwin told his father that if ever cornered by police he would not shoot (Stonebanks 2004, 117). Albert Stephenson, Chief of the Provincial Police, who knew Goodwin while a constable at Cumberland during the Big Strike that Goodwin was involved in, testified that Goodwin was in no way offensive or aggressive.

There were numerous inconsistencies and improprieties in the hearing. Witnesses Devitt and Roe were able to listen to each other’s testimony, for example.

Incredibly, the hearing concluded that Goodwin had assaulted Campbell and thus Campbell was justified in killing Goodwin in self defense. Yet there was, and is, certainly no evidence ever produced of any such assault.

Still, the hearing court actually returned a decision to commit Campbell to trial for manslaughter. The evidence could not be disregarded.

The Grand Jury

At the time of this case the trial would occur only after the case had been presented to a Grand Jury and only if the Grand Jury decided it should proceed. Before Campbell would stand trial a Grand Jury was formed to determine whether there was sufficient prima facie evidence to warrant a trial.

Before the trial began the venue was moved from Nanaimo, a coal miner town to Victoria, the provincial capital and an imperial center, on the basis of affidavits from several prominent business people and government officials. They were: John S. Bannerman, customs collector in Cumberland; Thomas Graham, general superintendant at Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd. in Cumberland; Charles Graham, district superintendant of Canadian Collieries in Cumberland; Donald Robert MacDonald, traffic manager for Canadian Collieries in Cumberland; Frank J. Dalby, storekeeper for Canadian Collieries in Cumberland and foreman of the Goodwin Inquest jury; Thomas Duer McLean, a jeweler in Cumberland; Neil McFayden, stable foreman for Canadian Collieries in Cumberland, school trustee, and juror in the Goodwin Inquest; Charles Edward Hildreth, manager of the BC Veterans Weekly, the official paper of the GWVA of BC, which was on record as saying resisters were traitors who deserved to die; and Anson Jones Burnside, now unknown. The Deputy Attorney-General of BC, A.M. Johnson, did not oppose the relocation of the hearing.

Had the Grand Jury stayed in Nanaimo, the scheduled jurors would have included four mine workers—there ended up being none on the Victoria jury. In this case the Grand Jury again consisted overwhelmingly of business people, local elites. The Grand Jury in Victoria consisted of six merchants, three accountants, a shipping agent, a real estate agent, a financial agent, and a retired man. There were no blue collar workers and no union members. And the political context in Victoria was more conservative than in working class Nanaimo.

On September 25, as the Grand Jury was being prepared, the Victoria League of Patriots called for “forceful methods” against those “who can endanger the winter coal supply of Canada by striking at the beginning of winter” (Stonebanks 2004, 122). This was in keeping with other such public calls for violence from conservative war mongering groups.

A Victoria Reverand suggested that “enemy aliens” in the coal mines should be forced to work for twenty-five cents a day at the point of a bayonet under guard of returned soldiers (Stonebanks 2004, 123). The Victoria Daily Colonist ran a letter from a soldier killed in action that read: “These non-soldiers are not only slackers but are keeping some returned soldiers out of a job who have certainly earned it over here. But don’t worry. God help them when the boys get back. They will wish they instead of their former comrades faced the Hun” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 123). Such was the sentiment promoted by local elites and conservative and establishment organizations in Victoria.

Decision to proceed to trial or not was based in a simple majority, rather than consensus as in a criminal trial jury. Thus, as few as seven people could decide the fate of the case.

With no explanation given the Grand Jury returned a verdict of “No Bill” and Campbell was free.

Men of Honor and Standing

The men of the police who formed the posse all had questionable backgrounds in service. What were not in question were their direct connections with, and as members of, local elites.

Campbell was a former Provincial Police constable with a past best described as checkered. As a less than proficient businessman he was also desperate for money. His stepfather John Donald Campbell had been Provincial Police Constable in Esquimalt, BC from 1877 to 1897 and as such was responsible for an area from Victoria to Port Renfrew. When he retired Dan succeeded him as constable, a family affair in policing (one might ask about patronage and vetting perhaps).

As police officer he attempted to claim a company reward for the BC Electric Railway Company for apprehending the person supposedly responsible for putting a piece of iron across transmission lines. But the award was never intended for police in the conduct of their business, for obvious reasons (of avoiding the appearance of police as mercenaries or bounty hunters).

On August 29, 1905 Officer Campbell shook down two women who lived in the red light district for $30 after stopping them in their horse and buggy. According to a complaint filed by the women with the Provincial Police, Campbell took them to a hotel and held them hostage demanding $30 for their release. This amount was equal to half of his monthly salary (Stonebanks 2004, 98–99). Following an inquiry which was referred to provincial Premier Richard McBride, Campbell was dismissed on September 28, 1905, for “conduct unbecoming a policeman, conduct injurious to the public service or public welfare, and accepting money without approval” (Stonebanks 2004, 99). Notably, Campbell had lied about the event saying the money was “a gift” (in a familiar police ploy).

Campbell had further trouble with the law while running the Colwood Hotel. In 1912 he was convicted in magistrate’s court for selling liquor in quantities above Liquor Act requirements. He appealed the case twice, to the BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal, losing both times. His appeals were called “a clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to evade the statute” by Justice Archer Martin (Stonebanks 2004, 99).

Devitt’s history is an interesting one and shows the close links between the police and business interests which have always been close and which are present in the form of the other hunting party officers. In Trail, Devitt was not only police chief but also city clerk, assessor, and collector. He was one of four businesspeople who dominated the community. Known as the “Big Four” of Trail, they included other businessmen James Byers, MLA James Schofield, and, interestingly, Noble Binns (who was on the Local Tribunal that declined Ginger Goodwin’s application for conscription exemption in 1917) (Stonebanks 2004, 93). Binns and Schofield served as mayor and Schofield went on to serve as MLA for twenty-five years.

Moving to Nelson, Devitt became the Chief Constable for Kootenay Police District of the BC Provincial Police in charge of 23 officers between July 1907 and May 1909 when he was appointed village constable in Nakusp. There he also served as mining recorder.

Devitt resigned from the Provincial Police in Nakusp in 1910 and there was a dispute over his expenses which the Superintendant in Victoria described as “ridiculous claims.” Such was the integrity of the police given the role of hunting down “undesirables” like war resisters.

Returning to real estate and land development in Nelson, Devitt joined the municipal police force becoming chief in 1914, the year he was hired to be chief of the municipal forces in Rossland. Devitt was unceremoniously fired from the Rossland chief’s position in 1917 over some ongoing disputes with the police commission. There seems to have been some concern that Devitt was soft on gambling and pimps and his replacement was charged with addressing that situation. It remains to history to speculate whether Devitt was receiving kickbacks from either or both endeavors. Devitt then moved to the coast where he did detective work before joining the Military Police of the Dominion Police in March 1918.

The rest of his story is perhaps even more telling. After the war Devitt went to work as a police spy surveilling unions and union members. He became a constable of the Royal North West Mounted Police (later the RCMP).

Notably, trapper Anderson had crossed picket lines to work during the Big Strike of 1912 to 1914 and as a result bore the nickname “Scabby.” An upstanding character of great integrity and committed to the betterment of the working class. It was scab Anderson who tipped off the Military Police about locations of possible deserters hiding in the backcountry outside Cumberland. Anderson regularly worked, and we can assume profited nicely, assisting the Dominion Police in their hunts for resisters.

Intent to Kill?

At least six people reported conversations with Campbell while he was a constable hunting resisters and prior to his killing of Goodwin in which he said clearly that he would get resisters “dead or alive.” Campbell seemed to interlocutors visibly upset that other constables had not shot resisters when they had the chance and that this hesitance allowed the men to get away. An outcome that Campbell seemed to find abhorrent.

In a chance meeting in July 1918 on the shore of Comox Lake near Cumberland with family man Camille Decoeur, Campbell reportedly told Decoeur, “If I ever get that close they will never get away” and continued, “They will never get away, I will get them” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). Campbell seemed upset that “the first bunch of policemen” got within 30 feet of one resister before he eventually got away.

Several miners reported similar chilling conversations with Campbell on July 7 of 1918 also near Comox Lake. Raisi Giovanni recalled Campbell saying: “And he talk of something else, and after he tell me that Bob Rushford see one of the boys up the lake on one of the boats, and he did not want to shoot him, but if he [Campbell] had been in his place he would have shot” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). Giovanni continued: “We stayed there for eight or 10 minutes and he said, ‘This time we are going to get them, dead or alive’” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100).

Alexandros Merillo recalled an earlier encounter with Campbell: “He say there was one boat across the lake and John [sic Robert] Rushford would not shoot because he was one of his friends. Campbell said if he was in his place he would get him” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). And Merillo reported that Campbell continued, “dead or alive” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). Another man, Carlos Cavallero heard Campbell say as well: “That Rushford saw one of these boys in a boat on the lake and he would not shoot him because he was his friend, and he (Campbell) said, ‘If it was me I would get him’” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). Cavallero also added hearing: “We are going to get him, dead or alive” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). Similarly Peter Ioris repeated: “He said that Rushford saw a man there at the top of the lake and he did not want to shoot him on account of his family and if he [Campbell] had been in his place he would have got him for sure” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100). And again, as Ioris reported: “Yes, he (Campbell) said that he would get him dead or alive” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 100).

Peter McNiven, a miner and secretary in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and member of the Socialist Party of Canada had a conversation with Campbell on July 25, 1918. He reported what Campbell said to him: “We were talking about military evaders in general and he made the statement to me that if he saw any of these men he would get them and he said, ‘Mac, we are here to get these men dead or alive.’ That was the end of the conversation” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 101).

Devitt claimed at the first inquest that his instructions had been to arrest the men under the Military Services Act. He also suggested that this was relayed to the men in the posse. There was, in his view, no instruction to bring the men in dead or alive.

All of this suggests that Campbell had something of an obsession with war resisters. One could even suggest he held an irrational hatred toward them. He certainly was willing to express openly the view that opposing war was reason enough to kill someone. Incredibly, none of these conversations were brought into the initial Inquest of July 31, 1918.

No one but for those directly involved, Dan Campbell and Ginger Goodwin, can ever know what actually happened in those woods in the summer of 1918 beyond the clear fact that Constable Campbell shot and killed union organizer and war resister Goodwin.

Yet virtually everyone who has studied the case agrees that justice was not served—not even in limited criminal justice terms. Neither has justice been seen to have been done.

The Grand Jury process, abolished in Canada in 1932, entirely subverted “due process” by denying the public trial of the manslaughter charge which the Provincial Police and two justices of the peace had determined should proceed, as a prima facie case was established. Even more, the Grand Jury hearing took place in private and left no record of proceedings (Stonebanks 2004, 126).

As few as seven people with no legal education, experience, background, or insight, but strong business connections and interests, decided, on what basis we still do not know, that there should be no trial. Secrecy and the lack of written record meant that perjury was unbothered during a Grand Jury hearing.

A trial might have drawn out of Campbell details about what actually happened. In a self defense argument he would certainly have had to take the stand. And his testimony would have been subject to cross-examination.

Campbell was to have appeared before a military tribunal for inquiry into the shooting but there are no records this ever happened. Neither is there any record of his having been reprimanded for carrying a non- weapon in the field while carrying out duties of the force.

Indeed most of the official records relating to the police killing of Ginger Goodwin have been destroyed or gone missing. Most documents relating to the hunting of war resisters have been wiped out across the board.

Chillingly, Louvan Brownlow, daughter of the Provincial Police Constable in Cumberland, Robert Rushford, said in an interview that her father always maintained privately that Goodwin was unarmed when he was killed. She recalled him saying: “The poor little bastard. He wasn’t armed” (quoted in Stonebanks 2004, 130).

Historian Mark Leier puts the killing of Ginger Goodwin, labor organizer and war resister, by a Canadian cop in proper context. In Leier’s words:

“In sending police after Goodwin, politicians were operating normally. Immorally, of course, but in their usual fashion, following their usual rules and orders. The real criminality is that they were simply doing their day-to-day, regular jobs, maintaining a capitalist order and ensuring the smooth operation of an exploitative system.” (2013, 86)

At some point a government telegram was sent ordering Goodwin’s reexamination which led to a reclassification to A or fight to fight at the front. Notably this occurred during the 1917 strike Goodwin was leading at CM and S in Trail, which was a major supplier of war materials (Stonebanks 2004, 128). There is evidence that CM and S ran Goodwin out of Trail during the strike. They most likely did not want him back under any circumstances.


Leier, Mark. 2013. Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy. Vancouver: New Star Books

Steeves, Dorothy G. 1960. The Compassionate Rebel: Ernest Winch and the Growth of Socialism in Western Canada. Vancouver: J.J. Douglas

Stonebanks, Roger. 2004. Fighting for Dignity: The Ginger Goodwin Story. St. John’s, NL: Canadian Committee on Labour History