On June 19, 2017, Saskatoon police shot 22-year-old Austin Eaglechief. The young man then crashed the vehicle he was driving into another vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy suggests the gunshot was not the cause of death but it does not speak to the part that being shot played in the fatal crash. A 33-year-old passenger was also injured in the crash. Critics of the police suggest that officers were too quick to shoot the young man. The Saskatoon police force has a history of racist treatment and violence against Indigenous people in the city and nearby locales.
Tag Archives: Saskatchewan
Fatally Injured but Resisted Arrest? Serious Questions over Police Role in Death of Jordan Lafond (Indigenous Victims)
Jordan Bruce Lafond, a 21-year-old father of a small child, died one day after being taken into custody by Saskatoon police following a violent arrest on October 23, 2016. Several weeks later serious questions remain unanswered regarding the role of police violence in causing the young man’s death.
Jordan Lafond’s mother, Charmaine Dreaver is seeking answers to those questions in the face of general silence from Saskatoon police. In her words: “I just want and need the truth to be told,” (quoted in Markewich 2016). Family members have turned to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations special investigations unit and the Chief of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation to discuss possible steps forward.
Jordan Lafond was the passenger in a vehicle that crashed while being chased by police. The driver sustained minimal injuries and ran from the scene. He was later found and charged. Lafond was supposedly found beneath the rear of the vehicle. Police have claimed he was thrown from the vehicle during the crash and was not run over by any vehicle. .
Charmaine Dreaver notes her son showed real physical trauma. In her words: “My son was banged up pretty bad. His body showed signs of a lot of damage” (quoted in Markewich 2016). She has reported being left with a sense of unease and questioning since learning about her son’s injuries. This sense grew upon hearing that the other man in the vehicle who fled was not nearly as badly injured (Markewich 2016). As she recalls: “[That] made me feel that, OK, there’s something more to this” (quoted in Markewich 2016). Police have said that the injuries, including bruising and head trauma were caused by the collision (Markewich 2016). She asked immediately for an autopsy to be undertaken to receive some answers and clarification. She relates: “I was angered and I was so hurt because my son went through so much pain” (quoted in Markewich 2016).
Police have provided the questionable and apparently contradictory explanation that the supposedly fatally injured Lafond resisted arrest to such an extent that an officer felt compelled to use a knee to subdue him. This seems implausible given the supposed degree of injuries police suggest were sustained from the crash alone.
Dreaver finds the explanation questionable as well. She notes: “I almost felt that I was lied to, really, because I didn’t know. I wasn’t told about [it]” (quoted in Markewich 2016).
The autopsy was completed Wednesday, November 2 but results have not been released. Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill has not given the public a timeline for release of the autopsy findings.
Markewich, Courtney. 2016. “‘Something More to This’: Saskatoon Mother Seeks Answers in Death of Son Taken into Custody.” CBC News. November 4. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/jordan-lafond-mother-seeks-answers-1.3837678
On October 23, 2016, Jordan Bruce Lafond (21) died after police used physical force to arrest him. The victim was in a vehicle that crashed while chased by police. It is reported that Lafond was thrown from the truck. An officer used a knee to subdue the stricken youth. Lafond was taken to hospital after being arrested. He died there the next day.
An autopsy was carried out Wednesday, November 2, but the Saskatoon Police Service is not saying when details of the autopsy would be available. The Police Service reports there is some video of the incident but they have not released it to the public and claim that it is too dark to make anything out. This has not been independently confirmed.
The investigation into Lafond’s death will be undertaken by the Saskatoon Police Service which gives no sense that it will be a thorough or reliable investigation, as police examine police. Jordan Bruce Lafond’s family, along with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations special investigations unit, has met with Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill to discuss the incident and investigation. In the meantime the officer involved has been reassigned to administrative duties while the examination is carried out.
Few details have yet been released after a man was killed during a standoff with police in a Saskatoon home, Thursday morning on October 6, 2016. It is acknowledged by police that their officers fired several shots and it does not appear that they were fired upon first.
Police entered the home on the 500 block of Avenue Q North after receiving a call at about a suspected break-in by the home’s owner Ron Zerebeski. Saskatoon Police Service reported that upon searching the home officers found one room closed. Opening the door slightly they claim to have seen a man inside armed with a gun. Home owner Zerebeski has since said that he had many guns in his home. Police claim that on seeing the man they immediately retreated and set up a security zone around the house.
Police have not claimed the man fired any weapon but an initial investigation reveals that at least two member of the Saskatoon Police Service fired multiple shots. Police are not sure or not revealing how many shots their officers fired. When attempts to make contact with the man were unsuccessful police entered the closed room, around 4:30 PM, and found the man dead.
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.
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
Murdered by RCMP: The Estevan Massacre of Striking Miners
Police at all levels have been deployed to exert often extreme violence against working people during organizing efforts, unionization drives, and/or strikes. In these situations the veneer of police neutrality easily slips away and the police are revealed as little more than an armed union busting or strike breaking force of municipal, provincial, and federal governments. They are readily available to do the bidding of capital in securing business interests and disciplining the working classes to obey states and capital going forward. This character of policing has been fully on display throughout the history of the Canadian state. That examples of police, especially the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (and its predecessors), injuring workers during strikes in Canada are numerous is quite telling. Even more so is the fact that police have used lethal force killing workers during several strikes in Canadian state history.
The Estevan Massacre was one such case of the RCMP killing workers for simply organizing to improve their conditions of work and life. On September 29, 1931, in the town of Estevan, Saskatchewan, RCMP attacked a parade of striking workers from the Bienfait coalfields, their family members, and supporters. The police killed three miners, shooting them down in cold blood. The police mobilization against the parade came at the behest of mine operators and local business and political elites. The Estevan Masscare and its aftermath saw RCMP officers unleash what historians have called a reign of “police terror” against mine workers, their families, and their communities (Endicott 2002).
Here the direct connection between capital and the police is unequivocal and undeniable. During the 1931 strike against coal bosses in Bienfait, Saskatchewan by the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada (MWUC) the RCMP showed their full allegiance to capitalist interests and deployed lethal force against a peaceful parade of miners and supporters. In the days and weeks after the three young miners were shot and killed by RCMP, the police force proceeded to hunt down wounded marchers and union leaders who were arrested and treated like criminals rather than victims of an egregious assault and extreme state violence.
The Bienfait miners were merely seeking the basic necessity, and right, of forming a union of their choosing. Their 30 day strike to gain union recognition would ultimately fail—in large part because of the deployment of RCMP police violence on behalf of mine company interests and mine owners against the miners. In this, the RCMP once again revealed, most forcefully, and lethally, their unflinching commitment, service, and sense of duty to corporate interests and outcomes and against the needs of exploited and abused civilian communities.
In one of the rare cases of political honesty in the history of the Canadian state, the inscription on the headstone of the three dead miners reads, simply and poignantly, “Murdered by RCMP.”
What the RCMP Killed to Uphold
Conditions in the mines of Saskatchewan in the 1930s were unhealthy and dangerous. So too were the conditions of living in the company-run mining towns of the province. In 1931 more than 600 men and boys worked in the underground mines of the Souris coalfields in southeastern Saskatchewan (Dishaw 2006).
Working conditions in the mines were, not surprisingly, awful and threatened miners lives and well being. Work days underground were long and arduous. Miners worked ten hour days in tight coal seams in which the men could not even stand upright. The mines had inadequate ventilation and smoke from blasting lingered as an underground fog. So-called “black damp,” or high concentrations of carbon dioxide exited in many mines and caused workers to become quite ill on a regular basis. The Crescent Mine and Eastern Collieries were notorious for water collection upwards of one to two feet in work areas. At Western Dominion Collieries damaged or rotted timbers were routinely overlooked by management and not replaced resulting in frequent roof cave-ins (Dishaw 2006). In smoke and dust filled environments workers shoveled coal for paltry amounts of around 25 cents per ton.
For all of this miserable and dangerous work under brutal conditions, miners were paid 25 cents for each ton of coal that they dug, loaded on coal cars by hand, and pushed to the main shaft. The experienced miner working all out over the ten-hour shift would earn $1.60. At the same time dockage for rocks, clay, and small-sized coal reduced the take-home pay. In addition, miners were required to do extra work, including laying track, timbering, pumping water, and clearing up roof falls. This work was unpaid. Incredibly, despite the fact that wages in Saskatchewan were 50 percent below those paid in Alberta and British Columbia, the Bienfait mining bosses imposed massive wages cuts in 1931 (Dishaw 2006).
If working conditions were awful, there was little comfort or refuge to be had under the condition of life that existed in the mining towns. Company houses and bunkhouses were no more than tar paper shacks without insulation for the hard Saskatchewan seasons. Most mines lacked shower facilities. There was no indoor plumbing and the shelters were infested with cockroaches, bedbugs, and lice (Dishaw 2006). Workers had to buy their essential from company stores which siphoned back their wages in exorbitant prices which put miners in debt to the bosses.
Workers, in the absence of union organization, were fired at will by pit bosses, blacklisted by owners, and denied work for noting more than appearing to express concerns for their health and safety (Endicott 2002, 4). As was the case in other industries across Canada, workers and community members from recent migrant backgrounds were deported on flimsy grounds at the whim of bosses and managers (with police readily serving as deportation officers on behalf of capital). The reasons for arrest and/or deportation could be, and were, for as little as distributing literature or attending meetings. In many cases all it took for the government to deport someone was being labeled communist by an anonymous accuser (Endicott 2002, 4). Typically, as had been the case for decades in Canada, excuses for deportation were often explicitly anti-communist in nature. That is, they were directly geared toward the protection of capitalism in general and the interests of specific capitalists in specific struggles.
In an attempt to build public support for the strike and the unions, the strike committee decided to hold a parade from the coalfields to Estevan on Tuesday, September 27, 1931. The day was to end with a public meeting at Estevan’s town hall. The parade was initiated as part of the broader campaign to pressure coal operators to simply begin negotiations on improved working conditions. The march would pick up people at collieries along the way and was set to arrive in Estevan around 3:00 PM (Endicott 2002, 90). This should not have been a controversial plan or event.
As history tells us of course the parade would never reach its destination and would end in what has been called a massacre and police murder of three miners. More than 20 people would also be wounded by the RCMP.
This was what a member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly for Estevan would call, 60 years later, “senseless murder in the name of law and order” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 87). The police were anxious to show their fealty to the mine operators, and capitalist property relations in the country, and in their haste to show their good service to the mine bosses carried out a public atrocity (not the first or last the RCMP would inflict on the working class in Canada).
None other than RCMP Commissioner, General J.H. MacBrien sent a telegram to Ottawa providing a dishonest and overblown falsification of the events of Estevan. In his fictitious and slanderous account, 500 miners carrying red flags and armed with clubs rioted against an overpowered and desperate RCMP force. As the strikers destroyed property and opened fire on officers (with their clubs?), injuring eight, the police had no option but to return fire with unfortunate, but unavoidable consequences according to the Commissioner’s tale.
To ensure that capitalist order was restored, though, RCMP Commissioner MacBrien dispatched a special rail car to Estevan with 40 more officers armed with rifles and machine guns. Clearly there was no compunction about deploying military force to protect capital from unions. So much for the neutral arbitrator state that does not take sides which animates too much of public and criminological discourse.
Civilian observers, including a staff reporter from the Regina Leader Post, Chris Higgenbotham, reporting from the scene, gave a dramatically different account from that of the propagandist Commissioner of the RCMP. Observers suggested the parade was straightforward and peaceful. Miners and their families started out walking in what appeared little more than an Easter parade. There was reportedly much laughing and chatting. Children left school to stand on the street and wave.
The parade was a real show of broad support for the miners. It included 63 cars and trucks (Endicott 2002, 89). This, of course, posed a threat to the mine companies and their efforts to break the organizing efforts.
No police were posted at the outskirts of Estevan to warn the parade members not to proceed further. In town, RCMP officers had formed a line in front of the new courthouse and the war memorial (Endicott 2002, 92). Mine operator C.C. Morfit had expressed a wish for gunfire and had pressed the RCMP to act with force against the striking workers. At the courthouse in Estevan, police had blocked the way. As the procession approached the police blockade police took at them with riding crops and batons (Endicott 2002, 89). Police, as was pre-planned, brought a fire truck to the street and, attaching the hose to a hydrant, began spraying the paraders. In response to this a miner, Nick Nargan, tried to chop the fire hose with an axe from a nearby house. It was then, while threatening nothing more than a fire hose (but property to be sure) that Estevan Police Chief McCuthceon shot the worker in the heart with his police pistol, killing him.
As the police violence escalated, marchers returned the challenge, some picking up rocks and iron from the dump nearby. The 24 Mounties opened fire indiscriminately on the crowd almost immediately. More police tellingly stationed at the Truax-Traer mine to protect capital arrived in Estevan and added fire from their rifles killing young worker Julian Gryshko and injuring dozens of others. Marchers retreated in the face of heavy fire and, that quickly, it was over.
It was at this point, in the immediate aftermath of the RCMP shooting of marchers, that some of the most despicable actions of the town elites were carried out against the community. Injured miners were carried by their fellow workers to Dr. Creighton’s hospital. There they were cursed at and told that they would not be admitted to the hospital unless they paid a week’s deposit in advance. The lesson of a private health care system within a class society. Desperate, strike committee member Jim McLean got a car together and took the two most severely injured miners to Weyburn General Hospital which was 50 miles away. The delay in provision of medical services proved fatal in consequence. Peter Markunas, 28, shot in the abdomen, died of his wound two days later following an emergency operation. The other miner, Steve Baryluk, a 53 year old father of nine children survived but required a long recovery before returning to work. Incredibly, the RCMP tried to track down and arrest McLean during his frantic attempt to save the two injured men.
The primary intention of the miners and their supporters was simply to hold a meeting to discuss and publicize their recently formulated list of demands. They had already booked the Estevan town hall for the purpose of this meeting. To bring greater public attention and support to their concerns they decided to hold a colorful parade with banners expressing their numerous grievances publicly.
The union organized a six day mourning period for the young murdered miners in open defiance of the coal bosses’ order to immediately reopen the mines. The men’s coffins were placed in the Labour Temple Red Hall for public viewing. At least 1500 people took part in the funeral procession. Banners held aloft offered such assessments as: “They fought for bread; they got bullets instead” and “Murdered by the bosses’ hired police thugs” (Endicott 2002, 96–97). Clearly the miners understood, or were at least more honest about, what had happened better than the police, local officials, and mainstream media. Gryshko and Markunas left behind young wives.
Political Context of the Canadian State
The police actions at Estevan in support of capital were emblematic of political policing in Canadian history. At the same time they occurred in a period, during the Great Depression, in which police were particularly virulent in their efforts to uphold the interests of economic and political powerholders. This was a decade, in the 1930s, in which hundreds of workers were severely brutalized by police and many were killed by police in Canada simply for asserting the basic needs and rights of workers for sustenance and lives with dignity.
The ruling government of R.B. Bennett was a notorious one, its hostility to working people reaching legendary proportions. Indeed, the Bennett government is now regarded as one of the worst governments in the dubious and shameful history of Canadian governments. Bennett infamously diagnosed the cause of social dissatisfaction and unrest not as depression, unemployment, poverty, and economic desperation but rather to foreign agitators and “Reds.” In a notorious address he proclaimed that the appropriate response to protest was “an iron heel” (see Endicott 2002, 35). Only a few years after the Estevan masscare, in 1935 in Regina, the police forces would again assault workers with lethal force, using military weaponry to put down a public meeting about conditions of unemployed workers, including a mass movement of relief camp workers who sought an audience with Bennett at which to raise their grievances against the federal government. The so-called Regina Riot, a police riot that saw numerous civilians injured and arrested and left one worker killed by police. More than a riot, the police attack on unemployed workers and supporters in Regina saw military maneuvers deployed against the unemployed who were surrounded in the local arena by mobile machine gun units, with food and water withheld, in an attempt to starve them into submission.
In Saskatchewan in the early 1930s there was an all out state program of surveillance and counterintelligence used against the Bienfait mine workers. The government deployed spies and infiltrators to break union organizing and to assist capital in the struggle against unions in various industries. Police spies and informants surveilled several meetings of mine workers prior to the Estevan parade and their reports misrepresented the mood and intentions of the workers and their families.
The police were, perhaps unintentionally, misled by informers to believe that the workers were going to shut down the strip mine and they, as uninterested, neutral arbitrators who would never interfere in the workings of the market, deployed a large force of officers to ensure that capital would not be negatively impacted by exploited workers. The miners, in fact, never actually intended, or even contemplated, a move on the mine (Endicott 2002, 90).
The RCMP supported and perpetuated a myth of communist agitators and riot planners to obscure the fact that the events of “Black Tuesday” were due solely to the vicious actions of police and their obedience to capitalist interests in the area. And this is a fact the national state force actively sought to cover up and keep from becoming a focus of attention and criticism by playing a fear card of moral panic over communism. Indeed, the RCMP placed the contents of their entire file on the strike under the label “Sam Scarlett, communist agitator” (Endicott 2002, 7).
Even some local RCMP recognized the red scare as an anti-union ploy under the guise of anti-communist considerations. As Detective Sergeant J.G. Metcalfe of Estevan RCMP stated in 1931:
“It appears to me that the moment a man submits himself to be appointed on a Committee or some position in a Union, and he has nerve enough to approach the Owners on behalf of the workers, he is immediately branded a Red. I have not yet interviewed the Owner or Manager of a mine in regard to the red element, that has not given me the names of all of the men on the Pit Committee and the names of some official of the Union.” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 95)
The red scare propaganda was also played up in the corporate press. Proclaimed the Mercury on October 1, 1931: “Red propaganda is busy…Unless it is hit, and hit hard, right now, there will be troublous times” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 95). Never mind that the police had already hit the workers hard. And never mind the troublous times already experienced by mine workers and their families.
The miners were outraged at the red scare tactics. As Bienfait miner Alex Konopaki said decades after the massacre: “We were blacklisted. Why? They called us Bolsheviks, we backed up the labour class. We belonged to labour organizations” (quoted in Rohatyn 1979).
The makeup of the local government also played a role. As was the case in resource towns in Canada town councils were dominated by local business people and representatives of capital. They typically acted to ensure conditions favorable to business owners and against the interests of workers. Such was the case in the killing of Ginger Goodwin as well as the case of the killings of workers during the Winnipeg General Strike
Mayor Bannatyne and the town council of Estevan, composed entirely of business people and professionals (in private and public sectors), was determined not to let the miners state their concerns openly in Estevan (Endicott 2002, 90). They even convened an emergency meeting of the town council for 10:30 AM the morning of Tuesday, September 29. The council prepared and passed a motion against the miners. It proclaimed that “no public demonstration or parade be allowed in any public place in the Town of Estevan by strikers or operators and that the chief of police and Inspector Moorehead be placed in charge to prevent any such public demonstration or parade” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 90). The motion against the workers was prepared by councilors James Parkinson (a mine operator) and W.D. Niblett (a mine foreman). In most situations this would be recognized unambiguously as a clear conflict of interest, if not shameful self-promotion using public resources and offices, yet in this case the council clearly had no shame. Another resolution passed by the council held “that the Town Hall shall not be rented to either operators or strikers for the purpose of holding any public meetings and that all parties be so notified” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 90). Notification to the mine companies should not have posed much of a problem given that they had representation on the council that passed the resolutions against the mine workers (while the miners, of course, had none). Following the emergency meeting, the chief of police, McCutcheon, requested help from RCMP Inspector Moorehead to “prohibit such parade or meeting in the Town Hall; and the carrying of banners” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 91). Incredibly the mayor ordered Reverend Gordon Tolton of Stirling Baptist Church to remove signs supporting the miners from the lawn of his church (Endicott 2002, 91).
The fake, and quite cynical, “impartiality” of the motions shows clearly the bold faced hypocrisy of the state. The motions also included prohibitions against strikers and operators even though operators never had any intention of doing any of the prohibited acts—and the target was solely the miners. This is quite like the situation regarding current legislation against panhandling or sleeping in parks that is legislated against rich and poor alike. But, of course the rich are not likely to panhandle or be homeless and will never be targeted by the legislation in question while the poor and homeless may be subjected to it every day.
Significantly the message sent by telegram from the council to the union did not even mention that police would be present to enforce the last minute resolution. As well, the union intended to drive through town (rather than hold a foot parade) on the provincial highway and the town council did not have jurisdiction over the provincial highway. They had no reason to believe police would intervene to act on a town council edict on a road over which the council had no jurisdiction. In an incredibly cynical attempt to change history, after the massacre the town clerk sent a telegram with the missing information about the orders to police added in.
In the current period police agencies make much hay, and money, out of fear based promotion of so-called anti-terror policies, practices, and surveillance equipment. In the days, weeks, and months following the Estevan massacre the police carried out a campaign of what can only be called terrorism against the local working class, particularly in the mining center of Bienfait.
The day following the massacre 90 Mounties, fully armed and led by inspectors Moorehead and Rivett-Carnac swarmed the small village of 500 people and engaged in overt acts of intimidation (Endicott 2002, 95). Stunningly, machine guns were placed out in strategic places around town, including at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator, on the porch of the King Edward Hotel, and across from the Ukrainian Labour Temple. This is an image not regularly presented or reflected upon in Canadian history books or ideological pieces about the peaceful and democratic character of Canadian government.
Armed police officers broke into and searched homes in the village and mining camps seeking out injured miners and making arrests. The rooming house where visiting organizers and supporters had stayed was searched. Armed patrols were run throughout the area on an ongoing basis day and night. This could only be properly described as an atmosphere of state terror (Endicott 2002, 96).
Aftermath: Continuing Police Terror
A Royal Commission opened in Estevan on October 5, 1931. The miners saw it as an opportunity to air their concerns to a public audience (Endicott 2002, 99). In their view they would go on to expose the greed and lawlessness of the owners, local officials, and RCMP. The commissioner was District Court Judge E.R. Wylie and legal counsel for the commission was W.J. Perkins the local agent of the attorney general and a member of the Estevan Conservative Association (a pro-owner, pro-capitalist organization). The enactment of the commission would result in no let up in police attacks on miners, their families, and supporters. Clearly the commission sent no single to the police that their activities might be inappropriate.
During the commission period RCMP Inspector Moorhead, on direction from village overseer A.H. Graham and mine manager H.M. Freeman, sent mine constables to raid the boarding house where they turned seven men out of their beds in the middle of the night, arrested them, and charged them with vagrancy. The suspected unionists were held in jail for four days without bail before being released. The morning after the boarding house arrests the police arrested WUL organizer James Bryson at the union hall.
Two days after the night raid Inspector Moorhead led 40 armed officers to Bienfait to intimidate and harass strikers who were considering a tentative agreement to end the strike. He went so far as to enter the union hall and offer a veiled threat of violence to the workers there. Moorhead later amassed a large force of officers at the mine entrance on the day that work was to restart. Miners reported that the feeling was like a slave camp (Endicott 2002, 101). And the slave patrols were, much as they were in the southern US, government forces acting for capital—in this case the cherished RCMP.
These were unambiguously illegal, and entirely business driven, actions by the police. Their sole purpose was to harass and intimidate miners and unionists, and disrupt organizing on behalf of capital. Again the stories of state neutrality and police service as community safety are shown to be completely false. Moorhead and his officers manipulated and abused law to serve the private financial interests of mine owners.
RCMP Inspector Moorhead was a rather despicable character who put fully on display the racism and anti-working class bias that were bedrocks of RCMP culture and perspective throughout their history to that point. Moorhead was particularly hostile to so-called foreign born miners. He claimed that the Bienfait organizers “consisted largely of Foreigners as very few English-speaking people took part” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). He even called for “discriminate deportation of the radical foreign element” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). In his view, “until this method is put into effect there is sure to be continual trouble, possibly of a more serious nature” (quoted in Endicott 2002, 101). Tellingly, trouble for Endicott did not include the life threatening working conditions, child labor, low pay, and miserable living environments that the miners and their families were forced to endure in the mines and company work camps. Trouble, in his view did not include the arbitrary and abusive actions of management over workers.
One effect of the RCMP attack less remarked upon has been the silencing of militant voices and perspectives on organizing in the coalfields and a rewriting of the history of working class struggles both in the local area and in the Canadian state context more broadly.
The important and courageous part played by the Workers’ Unity League and Mine Workers’ Union of Canada in defending workers’ interests for job security, better working conditions, health and safety, and improved pay has been disparaged or distorted in the interests of asserting narratives less critical of the police and bosses.
The age at which boys could work in the mines was not raised until after 1944. The RCMP attack on and murder of the Estevan Three helped delay this change for 13 years. This derailment of this particular union demand provided an exploitation bonus for employers but was, of course, disastrous for young workers.
The RCMP in service of the mine companies killed three young miners and wounded many others. They then used their force and privilege to track down and arrest other miners and supporters, particularly going after supposed leaders of the unionization drives.
Police, as they have throughout Canadian history, played important, indeed pivotal, repressive roles in an all out assault on working people defending their lives against capital. At Estevan the assault on miners and their organizing efforts was on behalf of ownership. At the same time it expressed Conservative government interests, perspectives, and priorities to ensure accumulation and profitability within the Canadian context but also to discipline and restrain workers within a period of depression and unrest. The violence of the state was accompanied culturally through over racism and xenophobia and patriotic jingoism and militarism within a context of Red scare fear mongering. All of which are characteristic bulwarks of RCMP history.
Dishaw, Garnet. 2006. “Estevan Coal Strike.” Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Regina: University of Regina
Endicott, Stephen L. 2002. Bienfait: The Saskatchewan Miners’ Struggle of ’31. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Rohatyn, Michelle. 1979. Taped Interviews with Miners.
People who died following a police intervention since 1987 (Saskatchewan):
• Neil Stonechild, 17, d. Nov. 24, 1990
• Alexander McDonald, 26, d. Jan. 21, 1993
• Brent Nowlin, 25, d. June, 1993.
• Donald Mercedi, 23, d. May 11, 1994
• Floyd Piche, 28, d. March 31, 1995
• Denice Cyr, 20, d. Jan. 28, 1996
• Josh Engdahl, 16, d. Sept. 10, 1998
• Lloyd Dustyhorn, 53, d. Jan. 19, 2000
• Rodney Naitus, 25, d. Jan. 29, 2000
• Lawrence Wegner, 30, d. Feb. 3, 2000
• Melvin Wayne Bigsky, 33, d. April 27, 2001
• Keldon McMillan, 33, d. May 20, 2001
• Vernon Dale Crowe, 32, d. July 10, 2001
• Michael Stochmal, 35, d. Sept. 1, 2001
• Martin Joseph Aubichon, 34, d. June 19, 2003
• Andrew Wayne Moore, 35, d. April 30, 2004
• Delbert Kenneth Pelletier, 44, d. Nov. 13, 2006
• Dwayne Charles Dustyhorn, 38, d. Dec. 22, 2007
• Jackie Montgrand, 44, d. Mar. 18, 2008
• Chase McKay, 21, d. June 14, 2008
• Harry Haineault, 38, d. Sept. 2, 2008
• Calvin Roy McLean, 43, d. Oct. 9, 2008
People who died in police custody:
• Wayne Allen Strandquist, 46, d. Jan. 2, 2006
• Christopher Hiebert, d. Sept. 9, 2009
• Brandon Daniels, 19, d. July 2, 2010
People who died following a traffic incident involving a police officer:
• Darwin Robert Campbell, 17, d. Sept. 15, 2002
Source: Coalition contre la Répression et les Abus Policiers (la C.R.A.P)