by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
An important aspect of mining history is issues of government regulation as well as unionization. This subject deserves extensive coverage in its own right but
the scope of the following refers to material pertaining primarily to Italian immigration history. A primary source book is the hearings of the Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission in 1919. Selections from the hearings were published by the Historical Society of Alberta in 1978, edited and with an introduction by University of Calgary historian David Jay Bercuson.
Bercuson notes that the Commission was formed at a time of labour unrest and business uncertainty.
Aritha Van Herk in her Mavericks: An Incorrigible History
of Alberta (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 2001)
writes: "Wages of $3 a day attracted workers from all
over the world, and coal became the crucible for unions; organizers
from the United Mine Workers of America signed up miners by
translating their creed into Italian, Ukrainian, and
Hearings lasted for two-and-a-half months beginning October 6th in Edmonton. Other sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. The Index of Witnesses provide a "quick" overview of the key mining companies in the province and interests represented. Of 12 recommendations, only four deal with issues pertinent to the miners.
Edmonton witnesses included: W.S. Cupples, Managing Director,
Great West Coal Co.; L. E. Drummond, Mountain Park Coal Co.; E.J.
Mahar, Mahar Coal Co.; A.W. Ormsby, Superintendent, Electric Light;
J. Richards, Mine Inspector, Alberta Government; and C.G. Sheldon,
General Manager, Humberstone Coal Co.
In the Bercuson selection, most of the evidence in hearings is given by mine owners and other officials with a minority representing the unions and individual miners. It is clear from the testimony that the mining companies want to be able to address issues of over-production and also to get into markets, such as Manitoba, where they are excluded and US coal has a monopoly. Bercuson notes that the War had
temporarily solved the problems of over-supply, but, with the coming of peace, mine owners wanted to deal with issues of production, the power of American unions, and the fact that immigrants through the unions had what appeared to them as too much control. Wording of these concerns relates to "enemy aliens" and is partly rooted in the hostilities felt by many about Europeans, which was to result in more restrictive immigration.
Ostensibly, the Commission also wants to address issues of conditions in the mines, but the recommendations deal largely with the regulation of the industry, including consolidation, and worker concerns appear to be given short shrift.
One of the miners who testified is
Italian-S. Centazzo-and he is listed as an unemployed miner from Edmonton. He is 23 years old and he indicates that he has worked in the mines in different parts of Alberta for 15 years. He has been locked out of mining jobs because of his union activities including being Chairman of the Humberstone miners. He appears very articulate and knowledgeable and would certainly have been viewed as a dangerous militant. He speaks immediately after G.S. Montgomery, General Manager, Alberta Coal Mining Co. Ltd., Edmonton, who attacks the unions and wants to restrict the voting rights on non-British miners.
Centazzo, when asked by Chairman J.R. Stirling, if he has anything
further to say, states: "Well, I don't know; according to the
previous speaker I shouldn't be allowed to speak for the simple
reason I'm not English speaking. I don't know if you will allow me
to." He is challenging authority but then proceeds to deal
with concrete miners' concerns about what they are entitled to but
do not get, for example, hot water to wash themselves, heated
washhouses as they come off shift and drying boxes to dry their
clothes. He is challenged to state which mine he is referring
to and he replies: "I will not take just one mine. I take in
general. Because it's not fair to ask one fellow and leave the
other out." He also makes recommendations with respect to
safety lamps requesting that miners be allowed to carry small
electric lamps in their pockets as a safety precaution in case of an
explosion to help them get out of the mine:
There should be in each mine-inside the mine-in every
section or two sections a couple of blankets and an
ambulance; I guess that's the proper name, put there in the
box in case of accidents. A miner can go there and take the
blankets and ambulance to support that fellow miner that has
been hurt. It happened to me in Drumheller field last year,
a man be shot and I asked the pit boss if he had no
blankets. He said nothing doing. While the man was nearly
dead and I had to go and take a board-was full of nails-and
take the nails out and then carry him out on that board.
That should be in the mine in case of accidents, and support
men being hurt.6
He also asks for blankets in the mine as well as stretchers to
carry out the injured and enforcement of legal limits to hours of
What emerges is a grim picture of the appalling conditions in the mines and the exploitation of workers not only on the job (including "docking" their pay packets for "dirty" coal) but through poor company housing and "gouging" through the company shops. The protection provided by legislation is imperfect and the unions are struggling to improve conditions but also to entrench themselves.
Is it any wonder that Italian miners felt the need to have their own fraternal societies?