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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Social Impacts

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Small before 1898, the mine labour force soon assumed the substantial size and character that it would maintain until the 1950s. Composed almost entirely of immigrants before the 1920s, the workforce consisted of a heterogeneous group of people of British and continental European origin. This fact discouraged social cohesion, but, over time, as an increasing percentage of miners established families and sank roots into the soil of the mining towns, common attitudes emerged in relation to the workplace and the position of capital. The cultural background of some miners encouraged a sense of independence and predisposed some to take up radical positions in relation to entrepreneurs and capitalism generally.

The Societa Operaia Italiana di M.S. [Mutuo Soccorso or Mutual Help] had an impressive building and reflected the large Italian population.The workforce expanded quickly in the first decade of the 20th century. By 1910, when reliable statistics first became available, almost 9,000 persons were employed. Afterwards, the numbers fluctuated between 8,000 and 14,000 until the 1950s, when employment declined. These persons were involved in varied tasks below and above ground. About half were skilled miners, who were aided underground by workers bringing timbers to the rooms, engaged in haulage, and other activities. Above ground, large groups of labourers were involved in cleaning and sorting the coal, and in transportation, while machinists, blacksmiths, and carpenters saw to the maintenance of the works.1

After the opening of the Crowsnest Pass in 1898, this workforce was divided between the mountains and the plains coalfields. The mountains usually employed more persons than the plains until the First World War. While the Crowsnest Pass continued to be the largest single employer, employment grew in the plains mines and, after 1920, was consistently larger than in the mountainous fields. However, the domestic coal sector was a highly seasonal employer, hiring substantial numbers of workers in the winter, only to lay most of them off during the slow summer seasons.2

This was a distinctly heterogeneous and mobile population. Unlike Nova Scotia, which drew on a large existing rural population for its coal miners, there were no established communities in the vicinity of the coalfields of Alberta and southeastern British Columbia before the advent of coal mining, except in the case of Edmonton. Instead, the mines relied on recent migrants from Europe, eastern Canada, and the United States. In 1911, 9 out of 10 men in the mines were immigrants. The proportion gradually fell afterwards, as immigration subsided. The largest single ethnic group were the British, but they were outnumbered by persons from many backgrounds in continental Europe, the greatest proportion of whom were from central and eastern Europe. Many of these miners were in transit, moving from mine to mine. This trend was particularly noticeable during the early years of mining in each location, when a high proportion of workers were single males. Some miners never intended to stay in the mines, or even in Canada, hoping to make enough money to establish their families in homes elsewhere in Canada or in their original homelands.3

These characteristics weakened the solidarity and unity of the mining towns. The Western communities never achieved the level of cohesion attained by the towns in Nova Scotia, where a majority of the population could often draw on a common tradition of British background and provincial rural roots.4 Instead, Western towns were initially fragmented, dominated by a variety of ethnic and social affiliations. The situation began to change as miners became permanent residents, established families, acquired property, and started to recognize common interests and problems. The unions played a decisive role in encouraging a shared social outlook. By the 1920s, according to labour historian Allen Seager, a second generation of miners had left behind the particularism of their parents, and were engaged in forming a unified mining culture.5

Miners needed relaxation. One method of attaining this was to organized a band. Unfortunately there is very little information on this group in the Galt archives. The band was not the first such organization but probably dates to the first decade of the 20th century.This emerging culture was influenced by the radical tendencies of certain miners. Some workers had imbibed concepts of class warfare and socialism in Europe. Others had been politicized by their experience of being at the bottom of the social ladder in North America. According to Allen Seager, the members of several ethnic groups seemed predisposed to radicalism. Among the Europeans, the Slavs took an aggressively radical point of view, especially after many of their number were placed in Canadian internment camps during World War One. Though small in numbers, the Finns were also influential, particularly in encouraging the participation of women in political affairs. The Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks also played militant roles in union affairs. All these groups helped to shape an emerging worker consciousness that challenged the hegemony of capital in the coalfields.6

William N. T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918

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