“Standing the Gaff”

A picture of two brothers eating their lunches nearly 800 feet under the Atlantic Ocean, exemplifying the harsh conditions the miners faced in the mines. © John Mailer / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada

For the Week of Monday, June 7, 2021

On June 11, 1925, company police killed coal miner William Davis during a standoff at Waterford Lake, Nova Scotia, which marked the height of tensions, as striking workers demanded better working conditions and recognition of their union from coal companies.

After a group of British investors formed the General Mining Association in the early 1800s, mines opened around Sydney, Nova Scotia. By 1873, there were eight coal companies in operation. Workers formed local unions to seek better terms and conditions of employment to improve safety and meet the rising cost of living. They organized as District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America, which served as a model for industrial unity.

The pace of factory production slowed in the early 1920s, when the demands of the First World War had passed and a global recession reached Canada. To reduce costs, in early 1925, the British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco) implemented wage reductions, instituted longer working hours, and cut off credit to miners at company stores. The miners of District 26 opposed these measures. In March, Besco Vice-President John McLurg said: “we have all the cards … eventually they will have to come to us … they can’t stand the gaff.” The strikers adopted the phrase as their motto, using it to describe their ability to endure long-term hardships resulting from coalfield work. On June 4, Besco refused to negotiate new terms with an arbitrator and the union representative. The miners responded with resolve.

On June 11, miners arrived at the New Waterford power facility to ask plant workers to join their strike in a show of solidarity. Company police were at the plant when miners attempted to enter. A violent clash followed, during which police fired on the miners, killing Davis. Miners responded by setting fires and looting company stores. To restore order, Provincial Attorney General Joseph O’Hearn called in the Canadian military. Although the police charged an officer with Davis’ murder, the courts dismissed the case for lack of positive identification.

The following year, the miners refused to work on June 11, which District 26 commemorated as Davis Day. Now Miners’ Memorial Day, it honours the men who died in the mines and those who “stood the gaff.”

The Nova Scotia Coal Strikes of 1922 to 1925 are a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about Asian Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Early Chinese Cemeteries in Victoria, British Columbia, Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978, and The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple.