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Interwar Period

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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

Page 1  |  2

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.  Cover of book Alberta's Coal Industry 1919 edited by David Jay Bercuson.  Published by the Historical Society of Alberta; 1978.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 Hungarian." 

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.Humberstone Coal Company, Edmonton, Alberta. Teams and scales; mine located between 118th Avenue and Saskatchewan River in Beverly district, 1916.

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. 

Humberstone Coal mine, Edmonton, Alberta. Mine located between 118th Avenue and Saskatchewan River in Beverly district. 1918. Courtesy of the Glenbow Archives.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 work. Mine rescue group, Humberstone Mines Limited, Edmonton, Alberta. 1923

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?


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