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Men in the Mines

A History of Mining Activity in Nova Scotia, 1720-1992

Davis Day Through the Years: A Cape Breton Coalmining Tradition
Christina M. Lamey, "Davis Day Through the Years: A Cape Breton Coalmining Tradition," in Nova Scotia Historical Review, Vol.16, No.2 (1996), pp. 23-33. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society (publisher of the Collections, successor journal to the Review).

For the past seventy years, Davis Day has been a tradition in the coalmining communities of industrial Cape Breton1. Every year on 11 June, all the mines are closed and miners take the day off; only essential workers such as pump operators and technicians are on duty. Town halls in the mining towns are closed, as are government offices and banks; the schools — at one time closed all day — now close for the afternoon. Named in honour of William Davis, who was killed at the New Waterford Lake riot on 11 June 1925, Davis Day has come to symbolize both the miners' battle for fair wages and the continuing struggle to save Nova Scotia's coal industry. Over the years, Davis Day has had to evolve to survive, and so its meaning has taken on new dimensions. Its original purpose, for example, was to mourn Davis's death and its particular symbolism, but the event has now evolved to become, additionally, an occasion for mourning all miners killed in provincial coal mines. As the struggle of Nova Scotian miners continues, so does Davis Day — each year changing to better fit the context of the most recent issues and thus slowly drifting away from the events of 1925.

The story of the General Strike of 1925 is intrinsic to understanding the miners' struggle and the longevity of Davis Day. The history of unrest in the Cape Breton coal industry can be traced back at least to the signing in 1893 of the Dominion Coal Company's 99-year lease of the coalfields located northeast of Sydney. At first, Dominion brought never-before-seen prosperity, and the population of the mining towns it controlled doubled almost overnight. The company, however, relied on the dubious financial practice of selling 'watered stock': dividends on such stock could only be paid to the shareholders if operating costs, namely wages, were reduced2. When Dominion was taken over and merged into the giant British Empire Steel Corporation in 1921, the situation grew worse. Falling wages and deplorable working and living conditions lay behind many of the 58 strikes that occurred in the Cape Breton coalfields between 1920 and 19253. The climactic strike of 1925 broke Besco's iron grip on the company towns. Organized by the United Mine Workers of America District 26, the miners walked out on 6 March 1925 — into a hellish three months of near-starvation, culminating in a showdown with company police at the New Waterford Lake power plant on 11 June.

That morning, a large crowd of miners and their families gathered at a New Waterford schoolyard. They were determined to oust the Besco company police force from the power plant and restore both electricity and water to the town. For a week, the company had withheld these vital necessities in order to force the miners back to work. Also, it had been months since the miners last bought food for their families at the company stores — where their credit had been revoked, again to break the strike. Besco vice-president J.E. McClurg publicly taunted the starving miners, saying: "We hold 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."4 The crowd in New Waterford swelled as miners from Glace Bay, Dominion and Sydney Mines arrived. John Mellor has graphically described the scene in his book, The Company Store:

Miners came by car, bicycle and on foot. At every street corner and crossroads their numbers increased as long-suffering miners' wives and their children joined the ranks. Here and there, a grim-faced miner's wife could be seen pushing a perambulator packed to the brim with hungry, white-faced children, while on the outskirts of the march, scores of little boys raced excitedly back and forth, yapping mongrels at their heels, as they attempted to keep pace with their elders.5

At the lake, the miners were confronted by a mounted cavalry of company police who fired indiscriminately on them, felling the first row. The miners then scattered and ran through the woods, outflanking the police who soon were surrounded and knocked from their horses, then beaten mercilessly by the mob. Every blow struck was a blow against the hated coal company.6 The Besco police fled in every direction, pursued by mobs of miners and their families. Although a victory was won, the casualties were great. One man had broken his back, another was shot in the arm, one was shot in the stomach — and William Davis, the father of nine, was shot dead. The next day's Sydney Post described the riot as "the culminary [sic] result of five months of government inaction, corporation obstinacy, and the accumulated desperation of hungry men...."7

The fight with Besco was not over, but the climax had been reached. The 1925 strike was the sixth and final time that armed police were used against Cape Breton coalminers.8 Another victory was celebrated in 1926 when McClurg left Cape Breton. Labour poet Dawn Fraser has since captured, in vivid verse, the feelings of local miners on this occasion:

The bosses couldn't stand the gaff!
Oh, let me write their epitaph.
Let's see now — how should I begin —
'Here lies a monster born of sin,
Of graft, corruption, fraud, and worse —
Adieu, adieu, Cape Breton's curse'.9

Miners vowed that Davis's death and the tragic events of 1925 would not be forgotten, declaring at the autumn convention of UMWA District 26 that, in honour of Davis, never again would they report to work on 11 June. At first Besco said that work would continue as usual on the memorial day, but miners ignored the company's threats and stayed away.10 Hundreds attended the first memorial service for Davis, held in New Waterford in 1926.

The struggle for better wages and conditions was no closer to being won, however. In 1928, District 26 president John W. MacLeod resigned his position and assumed the job of assistant superintendent of mines at Besco — a move for which he was labelled a traitor to the working class. Soon after, a reorganization of Besco led to the creation of the Dominion Steel and Coal Company. Dosco, however, was essentially Besco under a different name.11

At first, Davis Day was well attended by miners and their families: the cause for which he had died was still unresolved. Many of the traditions surrounding Davis Day ceremonies were moulded in these early years. The ecumenical ceremony commenced at 10:30 a.m., for example, most likely because religious services were only held in the morning hours at that time. Before long, however, attendance at the annual ceremony fluctuated, for reasons which are often unexplainable. The 1928 memorial, for example, was attended by only four hundred miners. District 26 president John W. MacLeod — not yet a company official — laid a wreath on the grave. Four hundred, however, was a pitifully small number compared to the five thousand who had attended Davis's funeral three years earlier. Union tensions between left-wing radicals and moderates in the years leading up to the Great Depression may have contributed to these early poor turnouts.

Fluctuating attendance continued into the 1930s. The Depression was a time of infrequent work for miners and the company was again pushing for wage reductions. By 1932, the average miner worked only 102 days per year, compared to 230 in 1926.12 Since Davis Day was not declared a general holiday for miners until 1932, some miners may have used the day to earn badly-needed wages.13 Also continuing troubles within the union may have led to disorganized planning for the event. The 1932 Davis Day memorial service in New Waterford was attended, nevertheless, by 1000 miners.14 The breakaway Amalgamated Mineworkers of Nova Scotia, led by the popular trade unionist and Communist J.B. McLachlan, was incorporated in that year and drew many miners away from the vacillating and ineffective UMWA. By 1935, McLachlan's attacks on UMWA leader John L. Lewis garnered the support of nearly 8,000 Nova Scotian miners — a great many more than remained loyal to the UMWA. In 1936, however, Davis Day ceremonies were attended by only 150 miners, although the mines then employed over 8,500. The Sydney Post-Record reported that as a result of the poor turnout, District 26 president Dan Willie Morrison would "address the matter of changing the Davis Day service" at the next District Convention.15

An important variation in the 1936 event was the inclusion of the New Waterford Miners' Monument in the ceremonial route. Those attending the ecumenical service afterwards marched from the church to the monument on Plummer Avenue, where union local and district officers and Davis's family placed wreaths; the procession then moved on to Davis's gravesite in Scotchtown where they again laid wreaths. Despite the introduction of an expanded ceremony, attendance at Davis Day continued to decline. The 1937 service had the smallest numbers ever; union officials expressed disappointment, especially because all mines were idle that day.16 Since the late 1930s was a time of relative peace within the union — the AMW and the UMWA having amalgamated in 1936 — it may be that outside factors, such as fading memories of the 1925 strike, bad weather, or Davis Day falling on a weekend, contributed to the low attendance.

After yet another poor turnout in 1938, Davis Day was changed dramatically: it was renamed District Memorial Day, although the media more commonly referred to it as Miners' Memorial Day. UMWA officials claimed that the change had been made in order to renew interest in the occasion as a means to mourn the death of all miners killed within District 26, and not to confine it merely to Davis and the memory of the 1925 strike.17 Also, the One Big Union miners of Pictou County had recently joined UMWA District 26; wishing to establish their own local tradition, on 11 June 1938 they held their own first Miners' Memorial Day ceremony. The Sydney Post-Record still called it Davis Day, but the memorial in Pictou was dedicated to the 88 miners killed there in January 1918.18

The format of Davis Day had changed very little up until 1936: the ecumenical church service in New Waterford, followed by a visit to Davis's grave, was the extent of the event. Following the changes introduced in 1938, the meaning of Davis Day/Miners' Memorial Day was expanded to include all miners killed in UMWA District 26 mines — which now included those in Pictou County. The Great Depression and the union troubles of the early 1930s had distracted miners from the original meaning of Davis Day and their memories of the struggle of 1925 had faded over time. As their labour battles continued, little attention could be paid to victories of old — there were still fights to be won. Overall, the miners took more steps backward than forward in the 1930s. Factional 'right' versus 'left' disputes within the unions — chiefly between J.B.McLachlan and Dan Willie Morrison and their followers — combined with the formation of the breakaway Amalgamated Mineworkers of Nova Scotia breached the solidarity of miners.19 Indeed, the Trade Union Act of 1937 was the only bright light for Cape Breton miners during this decade.20

The Second World War brought a pay raise to the miners, although they were still being paid in real wages at levels lower than in 1921. In essence, the twenty years of grim struggle had been a battle to retain, where possible, what had been won during 1917-1921.21 Bargaining for wage increases intensified after 1940, as union leaders maintained that the war effort would give them the bargaining power necessary to win better wages for the miners. It was perhaps this sense of hope that led in 1940 to the largest Miners' Memorial Day gathering since the 1920s. Services were held in both New Waterford and Stellarton. The New Waterford gathering was attended by 1000 miners and their families.22 This year there was no visit to Davis's grave; instead, a wreath was placed at the Miners' Monument in New Waterford. It can be argued that the move from Davis Day to Miners' Memorial Day was effective in increasing attendance. The theme of commemorating all mine disasters and fatalities included many more individuals than those encompassed within the original Davis Day motif.

Nineteen forty-one was an exceptional year in Cape Breton mining history. Miners were upset with the UMWA's unilateral acceptance of Dosco's new contract, negotiated without first holding a referendum. In retaliation, on 16 April 7000 miners walked off the job in a five-month-long wartime slow-down strike.23 Coal production was reduced to two-thirds the normal output. There was tremendous opposition to the illegal strike from government, the media and the UMWA itself. The miners, with support from non-striking mainland miners, called for the resignation of longtime-president, Dan Willie Morrison, and secretary-treasurer, A.A. MacKay. Rather than resign, Morrison and MacKay stayed on until the October 1942 UMWA elections, when they were soundly defeated. Freeman Jenkins became the new District 26 president.

The road ahead for the new executive was rocky. In January 1942 the average miner's basic adjusted pay rate was $3.90 daily, against $5.00 in 1920. There had not been a general strike since 1925. Effective negotiating by the union in 1944 led to a $1.04 raise and a paid vacation. The war was finally paying off the miners, as Dosco could no longer deny them a share of the profits. The tremendous impact of the slow-down strike and the trouncing of the Morrison executive overshadowed Memorial Day services in both 1941 and 1942: the miners' contempt for the District 26 executive kept them away from the union-organized ceremonies. In 1943, however, the new executive instructed all locals to observe the day and remember all "associates who [had] died the preceding year."24 A memorial service was, as always, held in New Waterford. The Salvation Army Band performed and District 26 officials laid wreaths at the Miners' Monument. An essay contest entitled "New Waterford as a Mining Town" was also introduced to raise awareness among local schoolchildren.

The war interrupted Miners' Memorial Day in 1944. Not a word was mentioned in the Sydney Post-Record of the service; instead, it had been overshadowed by the extensive coverage given to the Normandy invasion on 6 June. The end of the war in 1945 brought a new hardship to Nova Scotia's coalminers. The market within Canada had been flooded by cheaper American coal since the early 1940s. In 1938, about half of Canada's coal was produced nationally; in 1945 imported American coal was almost double the volume of Canadian coal on the Canadian market.25 In 1947, thirteen thousand UMWA miners — the largest number ever — went out on strike for three months. It was the first general strike since 1925 and the miners were hoping for a $2.50 per day wage increase. Management waited them out, however, and they ended up with only a $1.00 raise.26 So decisive was their defeat that the miners even acquiesced to a contract which geared wages to productivity. Jenkins' UMWA was again widely criticized for its poor showing on the members' behalf.

In the following years, Jenkins drifted slowly to the conservative right, as had MacLeod and Morrison before him. Serious attrition set in throughout the coal industry and reached disastrous proportions by 1960. As Paul MacEwan has noted in his book, Miners and Steelworkers, "The fifties...are noteworthy chiefly in that they set the stage for the still more calamitous sixties."27 The industry's problems were familiar: rising production costs, competition from other fuels, the lack of a national coal policy, unsound management and outmoded methods of mining.28 Rapid de-industrialization after the war also weakened the union's position,29 while mechanization led to a noticeable decline in the numbers of employed miners between 1947 and 1951. The most serious open conflict in the mining communities of industrial Cape Breton in the 1950s, however, surrounded the love-hate relationship that District 26 had with Communism. Communists and left-wingers were purged from the union in the 1950s.

Miners' Memorial Day underwent a slow transformation during these years. The service, which had once centred around the remembrance of miners killed while working, was gradually turned into a political 'grandstanding' opportunity for union leaders. UMWA presidents — Jenkins until 1954, then Tom McLachlan — thus used the day in part to speak out against the company and government and to comment on the present state of the coal industry.30 At first, this display of rhetoric drew big crowds: 2500 attended the service and parade in 1952. But by 1955, fewer than two hundred miners participated in the ceremony. UMWA leaders, concerned over poor voter turnout in three recent referendums concerning wage freezes, publicly urged those attending the ceremony to reassess their responsibilities to the trade union movement.31

Another change in the 1950s was the politicization of Miners' Memorial Day. Provincial and municipal government representatives laid wreaths at the Miners' Monument, along with UMWA officers.32 Previous ceremonies had seen only Davis's family and union officials laying wreaths both at his gravesite (although not here after the late 1930s) and at the monument on Plummer Avenue. Indeed, it was in the early 1950s that Miners' Memorial Day was made a general holiday in the mining towns of Cape Breton — a sign of its growing connection to civic politics. The provincial government, which had often called in troops to crush the miners' strikes, now shut down its own offices on 11 June, to honour those killed in the mines.

The 1960s were tumultuous times in Nova Scotia's coal industry. Reeling from two disasters at Springhill in the late 1950s, which claimed the lives of over one hundred men, the UMWA upped its stance on better wages and improved mine safety measures.33 Although Tom McLachlan negotiated what the Cape Breton Post described as "history-making wage concessions,"34 he was defeated in the 1958 UMWA elections by William (Bill) Marsh from New Waterford. Greater attention was also being paid now by the federal government to mining concerns. The Rand Commission was appointed to look into the coal industry; although the report provided government with a realistic look at the situation, few of the recommendations were acted upon.35

More than ever before, 11 June was used as an opportunity for political and union activism. In 1960, Bill Marsh called upon management and government to find "a just solution to the coal marketing problem."36 Father Andrew Hogan of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish also spoke, observing that Memorial Day had three purposes: remembrance of the past, challenge of the present and hope for the future.37 The crowds grew, as did the rhetoric, at subsequent Memorial Days during the 1960s. Numerous wildcat strikes kept the miners interested in unionism. In 1965, in a political speech which headlined the Cape Breton Post's coverage of Memorial Day, Marsh called for federal and provincial government assistance to keep the faltering mines open.38 William Davis's name and the 1925 strike were not mentioned until the very end of the article — and then only because of the time-honoured custom of laying the first wreath for Davis. As well, Davis's family alone laid a wreath for him, while UMWA officials laid wreaths for all fallen miners. Whereas earlier media coverage of the event had always contained a narrative of Davis's story and a detailed description of the day's sermon, the purpose of the gathering was now openly for union leaders to voice political issues. Unlike newspaper stories of years past, Miners' Memorial Day articles now even omitted the word "memorial."

The takeover of Dosco by the federal government in 1967 enhanced the miners' position as a bargaining unit, but little could be done to reverse trends in the Cape Breton coal industry. It continued to decline under the Cape Breton Development Corporation.39 As for Miners' Memorial Day, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the continuing politicization of the occasion — in fact, little has changed since that time, in this respect. A three-town rotation began in 1967, in order to allow other mining communities an equal opportunity to host the event. New Waterford, then Glace Bay in 1968 and Sydney Mines in 1969, each took turns staging the ceremony, with the financial backing of District 26.40 Miners' memorial monuments and parks dedicated to those killed in the local collieries were unveiled in Sydney Mines in 1974 and Glace Bay in 1980.41 Dominion requested a turn in the rotation in 1989 because the town had also erected a monument; permission was granted on a one-time-only basis, but when the community formally asked to be included in the rotation, the schedule was amended to rotate annually among New Waterford, Glace Bay, Sydney Mines and Dominion.

By the 1970s, the events of 1925 had been all but forgotten in the mining communities' celebration of Miners' Memorial Day. A Cape Breton Post story covering the 1970 ceremony did not even mention Davis's name. At the 1970 District Convention of the UMWA, the date for the annual event was changed from 11 June to the second Monday in the month. This, of course, guaranteed a workday holiday. From 1971 to 1974, Memorial Day services were accordingly held on the second Monday in June. At the 1974 District Convention, however, the day was changed back to 11 June and has remained there since. The only exception was in 1978, when ceremonies were held on Monday 12 June. A resolution introduced at the 1978 District Convention to reinstate the second Monday date was rejected. These years also saw major changes in the Memorial Day format. Firstly, in 1974 the name was changed back to Davis Day. UMWA officials now realized that the ceremony had moved away from its original intent and so made an effort to reclaim its history.42 There was an obvious revival taking place as a new generation of miners reminisced on the struggles of their forefathers. Very little changed, though, concerning the politicization of the event.

Today, Davis Day remains much as it was during the 1970s. There is always a guest speaker — usually the District 26 president or an international board member. Attendance depends mostly on which community is hosting the event and what the weather is like that day. Although the ceremony is officially titled Miners' Remembrance Day in the present UMWA contract, the union nevertheless promotes it as Davis Day.43 Each year, District 26 and the local communities sponsor an essay contest about Davis Day and coalmining, give away lapel pins, and host dances and wreath-laying ceremonies. In 1985, Miners' Memorial Park in New Waterford was re-named Davis Square.

Davis Day has undergone many changes through the years because of the differing outlooks of the UMWA executive. To continue, it has had to adapt to the changing face of mining in Nova Scotia. Davis Day has survived through the years, marking its seventieth anniversary in 1995. And it will continue to survive as it is passed from generation to generation in the mining towns of industrial Cape Breton.

Christina Lamey is originally from New Victoria, NS; she is at present a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Journalism and History (Combined Honours) programme at Carleton University, Ottawa, ON.


1. The tradition has since been extended to Pictou and Springhill in NS, and to Minto in NB; also held on 11 June in these communities, the occasion is known there as Miners' Memorial Day.

2. John Mellor, The Company Store: James Bryson McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners 1900-1925 (Toronto, 1983), p. 5.

3. E.R. Forbes and D.A. Muise, eds., The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation (Toronto, 1993), p. 245.

4. Ibid., p. 247.

5. Mellor, Company Store, p. 297.

6. Ibid., p. 299.

7. The Sydney Post, 12 June 1925.

8. In 1882, the Provincial Workmen's Association struck at Lingan for one year; strikebreakers were brought in from Scotland but refused to work, so the company called upon Premier W.T. Pipes to bring in the militia. In July 1904, the federal and provincial governments jointly brought in troops to protect strikebreakers. During the 1909 strike, troops at the Halifax barracks had their leave cancelled and five hundred were sent to Cape Breton, along with machine guns and light artillery. They were used to threaten miners participating in the 3000-man march from Glace Bay to Dominion on 31 July 1909. Coal company police beat miners during a 1907 walkout at Dominion No. 1 Colliery. In 1922, twelve hundred cavalry were sent to Cape Breton, and British naval vessels were seen offshore. The next year, provincial police and cavalry were used against miners during the 1923 strike in support of the steelworkers. Paul MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton (Toronto, 1976), pp. 3-110, passim.

9. Dawn Fraser, Echoes of Labor's War (Toronto, 1976), p. 84.

10. The Sydney Post, 12 June 1926.

11. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, pp. 157-158.

12. Michael Earle, ed., Workers and the State in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (Fredericton, 1989), p. 37.

13. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 176.

14. The Sydney Post, 13 June 1931.

15. Sydney Post-Record, 12 June 1936; The Sydney Post and The Sydney Record combined in Jan. 1933.

16. Ibid., 12 June 1937.

17. Discussion with UMWA District 26 officials, 24 Feb. 1995.

18. Sydney Post-Record, 11 June 1938.

19. Mellor, Company Store, pp. 328-329.

20. Besides recognizing the legality and collective bargaining rights of unions, the act included a check-off provision forcing employers automatically to deduct dues for their employees' union. The UMWA had already gained the check-off provision under The Coal Mines Regulation Act and used this power to outmanoeuvre the AMW (which it then absorbed in 1936). Had the AMW had the advantages of the 1937 act, the outcome of this rivalry might have been different. See Earle, Workers and the State, pp. 38-39.

21. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 229.

22. Sydney Post-Record, 12 June 1940.

23. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 230.

24. Sydney Post-Record, 10 June 1943.

25. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 268.

26. Earle, Workers, p. 42.

27. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 281.

28. Ibid., p. 285.

29. Earle, Workers, p. 19.

30. The Post-Record, 13 June 1952.

31. Ibid., 13 June 1955.

32. Ibid.

33. Forbes and Muise, Atlantic Provinces, p. 386.

34. MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers, p. 295.

35. Ibid., p. 310.

36. Cape Breton Post (Sydney), 12 June 1960; The Post-Record became the Cape Breton Post in Sept.1956.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid., 12 June 1965.

39. Forbes and Muise, Atlantic Provinces, p. 455.

40. Discussion with UMWA District 26 officials, 27 Feb. 1995.

41. Cape Breton Post, 12 June 1980.

42. Discussion with UMWA District 26 officials, 27 Feb. 1995.

43. Ibid.



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