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Cumberland's Miners' Memorial Day
by Carole Pearson
Don't mourn. Organize. Epitaph of Barney McGuire, mine mill organizer 1916 - 1995
For 17 years, Miners' Memorial Day has been held in Cumberland, on central Vancouver Island, to commemorate the men who worked and lost their lives in the mines. The late Barney McGuire, a miner and union organizer came up with the idea. Today, the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labour Council works with the Cumberland Historical Society to stage this event every June. It draws several hundred trade union supporters from around the province.
According to Linda Hargreaves, a member of the Historical Society, which also operates the Cumberland museum, "The intent is to try to preserve history. It's not often you have a museum that has so much labour history preserved."
Miners' Memorial Day includes gathering in Cumberland's municipal cemetery to honour Ginger Goodwin and the other miners buried there. This year, the crowd heard local historian Russell Bowers speak about the lack of labour history being taught in schools today. Bowers said that despite ample stories and information available in local museums and archives, few people know about the past struggles of workers. He said, "The CPR has a place in history. The Dunsmuir family has more places than anyone named after them. But the men who died digging out coal to make them wealthy have nothing named after them."
The NDP government re-named a nearby section of the Island highway as Ginger Goodwin Way. When the Liberals took over in Victoria, the name was removed. The decision still rankles many people, and they defiantly adhere "Ginger Goodwin Way" stickers over street signs.
Ginger Goodwin has become a legendary figure and even considered to be a martyr for his work as a union organizer. Bridges comments, "He was someone who fought for workers and made a difference." Arriving in Canada from Britain in 1906, Goodwin started down a road that led to recognition as an ardent and effective trade unionist. In his short life, he would acquire followers, detractors and incur the wrath of company managers and owners. It began during Cumberland's "Big Strike" in 1912 to 1914 that eventually shut down mines in Nanaimo and Ladysmith, areas rich in coal deposits.
A 75-mile long continuous coal seam extends from Nanoose Bay to Campbell River and stretches up to 13 miles in width. The first mines opened in Nanaimo in 1852 when the Hudson's Bay Company hired miners and managers from England and Scotland. Later, miners were also brought in from Asia and Europe, but there were discriminatory wage levels. In 1888, whites were paid $2.50 to $4.00 per day while Chinese and Japanese workers received only $1 to $1.25.
The first labour dispute happened in1853 over low wages, unsafe working conditions, job security, unfair competition from lower paid Chinese workers and dictatorial managers. Over the next 100 years, the miners struggled to form an effective union to see their demands wrested from employers whose hearts were as black as the coal in their mines.
Work was done in confined spaces where the miners were subjected to coal dust and gas fumes due to poor ventilation. These natural gases were created by centuries of decomposition and pressure that formed coal out of plant life. As the seams were mined, the gases were released. These included highly explosive methane and deadly carbon monoxide.
There was the danger of flooding as water trapped in ceilings or pockets of rock could flood the area within minutes. There were numerous injuries and deaths caused by falling rock and coal and runaway carts that could crush workers. One coal cart could hold up to a ton of coal. And if a miner managed to avoid these dangers, there was also a risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease.
A book in the Nanaimo Museum provides a record of 2000 mining deaths and accidents that occurred between 1877 and 1952. Susan Mayse writes in Ginger. The life and death of Albert Goodwin, "For another century, the island coalfield produced handsome profits at the cost of grisly mine disasters which crushed, drowned, suffocated or dismembered workers." She quotes the 1902 World Mining Statistics which reveal BC's death rate per thousand (4.15) was three times worse than in British mines (1.29).
On the other side of the fence were the mine owners. One of these was Robert Dunsmuir who arrived on Vancouver Island from Scotland in 1851 to work for the HBC. On October 1869, Dunsmuir discovered outcroppings of coal three miles inland from Departure Bay. He was able to raise enough capital to buy the rights on 1000 acres of what became known as the Wellington coal seam.
Dunsmuir died in1889 but his oldest son, James, was already a manager in his father's coal mining operations. Under his direction, daily coal output soared from 30 tons to 1500 ton as he brought the Comox field into full production and developed collieries at Wellington and Cumberland. These extensive coal holdings made James Dunsmuir the wealthiest man in BC. But little thanks were given to the workers.
According to a Times Colonist article, A Selfish Millionaire by Roger Stonebanks, Dunsmuir told a 1903 Royal Commission on Labour Unrest he'd rather close mines than be told how to deal with the men who worked in them. Asked whether it had occurred to him there were corresponding obligations with great wealth, Dunsmuir told the commission, "No, sir. From my standpoint, it doesn't."
Dunsmuir was premier from1900 to 1902 and lieutenant governor from1906 to 1908 and by early 1910, he had sold off most of his operations - his collieries, coal rights and the E&N railway - worth $11 million. He spent his last days enjoying his wealth until he died in 1920. But life was not so easy for the miners. In the pre-war years, the struggle for decent working conditions and wages came to a full boil.
In 1911, after smaller local unions had no success in dealing with employers, the powerful United Mine Workers of America. was invited in. It was here Ginger Goodwin stepped into the spotlight and helped promote support for the union. The UMWA formed its own safety committee with workers serving as inspectors to check the mines for dangerous conditions. When two workers reported the presence of gas in one of the mines, the company fired them.
The next day, on Sept 15, 1912, the miners declared a "holiday" to protest the firings of their co-workers. This work stoppage was to last two years and became known as the "Big Strike ." Provincial police were quickly brought in, miners were ordered out of company homes and strikebreakers were hired to re-open the mines. In 1913, the union called a general strike and shut down mines in Nanaimo and Ladysmith and, by summer, 3500 workers were off the job.
After two years, the UMWA withdrew, having paid out $1.2 million in strike pay and draining their coffers. Goodwin switched his support to the Industrial Workers of the World. With the start of World War I, the strike collapsed and, as men returned to work, Goodwin found himself blacklisted. He eventually moved to Trail where he gained prominence in a number of executive positions within the Trail Mill and Smeltermen's Union and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. He helped orchestrate a strike, which shut down Trail's mines and smelters in support of an eight-hour day.
As a pacifist and a socialist, Goodwin was philosophically and pragmatically against a war that pitted worker against worker while, he wrote in the Federationist, "profits flow into the war-mongers' pockets."
Under the Military Services Act, men were required to report for medical examinations and be classified for service. Plagued with ulcers and lung disease, Goodwin was initially classified as Category D - "unfit." But after a subsequent re-examination, the board bumped him up to Category A, ill health and all. His appeals for exemption denied, he fled back to Cumberland and into the deep-forested mountains around Comox Lake with other local draft evaders.
According to Mayse, military authorities put pressure on the provincial police to track down draft evaders. She claims, "The Dominion police had no intention of arresting Goodwin. Many in Cumberland believed...from the start, authorities planned his death." Local people recall the frenzied manhunt for draft evaders in the area ended suddenly with the death of Goodwin.
Just four days before the King announced amnesty for draft evaders and only months before the end of the war, Goodwin was shot and killed on a wooded trail by Dominion police special constable Dan Campbell on July 27, 1918. Goodwin appeared to have been shot as he was turning away but there were no witnesses to the shooting. Campbell claimed self-defense and would eventually walk free from manslaughter charges.
This year, a light rain began to fall as the Miners' Memorial Day proceedings came to a close and Hargreaves handed out long-stemmed red roses to place upon the graves of other miners.
In 1937 the UMWA was finally granted recognition but the following year, the Number 1 Esplanade mine- the largest employer in Nanaimo - shut down as world wide demand for coal declined. It was a hollow victory in a dying industry.
Russell Bowers summed up the need for learning about labour history - the oppression of workers, the struggle and how victories were won - and its importance in understanding current situations. He said, "If you don't know where you've been, you don't know where you're going."
The Columbia Journal
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