David Frank: Cape Breton Red: J.B. McLachlan and Canadian Labour Radicalism
Department of History, University of New Brunswick
Second Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, 28 April 2000
Here in the heart of the Canadian metropolis, it may seem strange to be thinking about the coal miners. For the story of the coal miners is usually considered a story of the distant frontier, far removed from the realities of urban civilization. That is the picture one gets from a reading of, say, Hugh MacLennan's novel Each Man's Son (1951) or from a viewing of the Canadian film Margaret's Museum (1995). There is no coal industry in the heartland of the Canadian economy, and the coal miners have occupied a limited place in the Canadian imagination.
I grew up a long distance from the sights and sounds of the coal mines. I can remember the flatbed truck that stopped on Shaw Street here in Toronto, loaded with fat bags of coal. A black-faced man shouldered those bags up the walk and emptied them down through a side window into our basement. Then he folded the bags neatly on the back of the truck and drove away. Down in the basement you could see a pile of black, dusty rock, ready to be shovelled through an open grate into the hot, heavy fire of the furnace that heated our home. As a child in Toronto in the 1950s I had no idea where these black rocks came from, and I suppose it was only when my father made me read news stories from Springhill -- it must have been 1958 -- that I began to realize that the fuel for our furnace came from far away, and that the men who went down under the ground did so at great physical risk.
I do want to share with you one other early story that seems appropriate to the occasion of this Lecture. As a schoolboy, I used to walk up the hill, first to McMurrich Public School, up there on Winona Drive, and later to Oakwood Collegiate Institute, right up there at the top of the hill, at what some of us thought was the edge of town, on St. Clair Avenue. I very definitely remember seeing an older couple walking on those streets in the late afternoon, wrapped in their hats and scarves against the winter cold, happily arm in arm. It was only later, when I came to visit them in their home, that I realized that this was Bert and Janet Kenny. Later on, much later on, I had the benefit of some practical assistance from them in pursuing the research that became the biography of James Bryson McLachlan.
That help included the loan of a photograph that, in an edited form, became a poster advertising McLachlan's views on working class history:
I believe in education for action. I believe in telling children the truth about the history of the world, that it does not consist of the history of kings, or lords or cabinets. It consists of the history of the mass of the workers, a thing that is not taught in the schools. I believe in telling children how to measure value, a thing that is not taught in any school.
Bert had supplied the photograph of McLachlan sitting in a chair with a young boy at his side. The young Jim Buller of Toronto, who was of course the son of the redoubtable Annie Buller, one of the Toronto comrades whom McLachlan admired; the quotation itself I had located in the records of a royal commission at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia; and the poster was placed into wide circulation by the Miners' Memorial Museum at Glace Bay, which, under the direction of Robert MacDonald in the 1970s, had become one of Canada's few proletarian museums. The composite image and text on this poster even went on to appear on the monument to McLachlan installed in 1992 at one of the main intersections in Glace Bay. But it started with a photograph in the Kenny basement.
The image on the poster is a picture of inter-generational solidarity that underlines the theme of working class education. But in the original photograph there was a third man. It was Max Shur, a Toronto organizer of the needle trades whose name will be familiar to those who know something about the history of unions and the left on Spadina Avenue. He and McLachlan appeared together at a meeting in the Standard Theatre at Dundas and Spadina Avenues in 1928. One of the purposes was to introduce immigrant workers to the domestic Canadian version of the class struggle that McLachlan embodied in his personal history. By all accounts it was a lively meeting. First, the city police chief tried to cancel the theatre's permit and only relented when the Reverend A.E. Smith of the Canadian Labour Defence League promised that the proceedings would be entirely in English. This did not turn out to be the case. In mischievous defiance of the police, McLachlan thickened his speech with more than his usual "Scotchie talk" and Shur followed in Yiddish. I did not know this story at the time we prepared the poster. We probably should have included the third man, for this was an opportunity to say something not only about the transmission of working class culture across generational lines but also about solidarity across regional, ethnic and language distances.
It is a long way down the road from my years in Canada's biggest city to my time in Dominion, one of the small coal towns in the territory surrounding Glace Bay, which is where I sat down at an old Underwood in an upstairs room with a small view of Lingan Bay and started writing this book. At one time I thought I would even sign the preface to the book Toronto-Dominion, if I had not thought this might be misinterpreted as a corporate sponsorship. That itinerary is not the subject of this lecture, but it has allowed me to think about the extraordinary variability of the working class identity in this country.
It has been said that the working class in Canada did not rise like a single sun, if that is an appropriate metaphor. Certainly one of the findings of much of the social history of workers in the past several decades has been the increased understanding we now have of the diversity of the working class experience across this country. Different conditions and different traditions have given rise to different forms of common action. In some ways these conditions have strengthened the effectiveness of working class resistance at the local, community, industrial or regional level; in other ways they have weakened the presence of the working class as a factor on the larger terrain of the class struggle in Canada and in the emptier spaces of Canadian politics on the left.
Years ago Eric Hobsbawm encouraged labour historians to think seriously about the "conditions of effectiveness" for working class movements. Determination alone cannot produce revolutionary results. To be effective, labour radicals have to choose battles they can win. McLachlan saw his own history as part of a global contest between labour and capital, but he also recognized that every battle must be fought as if it was also a local struggle. As a labour radical, McLachlan participated in a dream of human liberation and social justice. But most of his achievements were nevertheless the outcome of a pragmatic labour radicalism, one that looked for the opportunities in the present to prepare the way for future social transformations. The coal miners have had more than their share of battles in this cause, but today I would like to discuss three of the local sites of resistance that McLachlan identified as part of his strategy of labour radicalism.
The first of these sites of resistance was located in the resources of the working-class household. McLachlan grew up with this understanding, and it found expression at all stages in his own family life as well as in his public politics. He was born in February 1869 at Ecclefechan, a small country village in the south of Scotland. As sometime weavers and farm labourers, McLachlan and his people were living through the big changes of the industrial revolution -- the recruitment of Irish labourers for the milltowns, the displacement of artisans by new technologies, the movement of workers' families from the countryside to the industrial centres, the emigration of British workers to the labour markets of the New World.
At four years of age McLachlan and his family moved north into the industrial territory of the Clyde, where his father took work at Newmains in the mines of the Coltness Iron Company. So did his older brother. His older sisters sought out work as dressmakers in the town. His mother maintained the home and even attempted to plant a small garden in flower boxes mounted on the front of the company row. Then, like most other boys in the coal towns, McLachlan entered the mines himself at the age of ten in order to contribute to the family income. In his short life he had already seen that all family members contributed to the livelihood of the household, whether they worked in the home or the field, the workshop or the coal mines. The same would be true in his later family story, as his own sons and daughters worked first at home and then in outside employment. These patterns remind us of the numerous forms of productive and reproductive labour necessary to the support of the working class household.
Something else was also happening in the McLachlan family at this time, for the young McLachlan was learning about his place in a dissenting democratic tradition that placed ideals of human improvement and social responsibility ahead of the authority of church, state and employers. This line of defence came to him through his grandfather, who was a Chartist and a Cooperator, and through the influences of Robert Burns and the Bible, whose words were read in the family circle, and, especially, through Thomas Carlyle, the great romantic critic of industrial capitalism who was also born in Ecclefechan and for whom McLachlan always had a special affection. From the evidence in McLachlan's surviving book collection, we can follow his intellectual development through such early texts of the radical covenanting tradition as A Hind Let Loose (1687) in which "a Lover of true Liberty" addressed himself to "all that are freeborn, and are not contented slaves mancipated in a stupid subjection to Tyrants absoluteness". Like so many 19th century labour radicals, McLachlan found his way to socialism through an immersion in dissenting religious traditions. Years later we hear him articulate this legacy most strikingly:
From Moses and Jesus and Marx and Carlyle, one outstanding theme runs thru all their teachings, however much the language employed may have differed. The sins which all of them denounced most fiercely were economic sins, and the mission of all of them in life was to deliver the oppressed. . . . Their gospel was an economic gospel that dealt with the affairs of men right down here on this earth, and the preacher that is going to be listened to today, amid the turmoil and welter of a head-on collision between two economic classes -- the exploited and the exploiters -- must have a message of hope for the one, and not for the other. He must stand either for the supremacy of things as against the supremacy of man, or the supremacy of man as against the supremacy of things.
Here was a statement of the social gospel with a hard economic edge, and it was made in the annus mirabilis of 1919, a time when church leaders were exploring the virtues of a "new Christianity" that applied ethical values to the material world. But this was nothing new to McLachlan. There was no sudden intellectual conversion, of the kind one often finds in the biographies of middle class reformers. This was something McLachlan had grown up with, and he had gone on to identify the labour and socialist movements of his time as the modern carriers of an ancient tradition.
He reached this position as well out of his own experiences as a young father. Following his marriage to Catherine Greenshields in 1893, there was little security, and the poverty of the miner's life filled McLachlan with frustration. Like other skilled workers of the late 19th century, he considered himself under a special obligation to succeed as a breadwinner. This particular form of the cult of masculinity was especially pronounced among the coal miners, where the division of labour between men and women ran to extremes. Women had been banned from underground work in Britain since the 1840s; opportunities for other forms of paid work were limited in the coal towns; obligations for the management of the household were urgent. As they moved from one small colliery village to another in the 1890s, and then to Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia in 1902, McLachlan was consciously pursuing this proletarian ideal of the family wage -- the idea that a man should earn enough to provide the essentials of food, clothing and shelter for a family and the comforts and satisfactions of a good life:
I grew up and got married, and we had a sweet little baby girl. The house we lived in had a brick floor. One did not need to mud-patch it. . . My wife used to wash it every day . . . All the wives in that miners' row did this. We were very happy, my wife and baby and I. But at night when we would sit by the fire, just the three of us, my happy feeling would go smash looking at the damned floor of yellow bricks. . . Why could I not get something better for those I loved?
Feelings like this contributed to the cultural, even psychological, pressures driving workers to seek a better share of the rewards of industrial life. All through his subsequent public career, McLachlan continued to idealize the home environment and invoke the social contract of the breadwinner and his family, a contract that must even take precedence over the less sacred contracts between workers and employers. For McLachlan this was more than a rhetorical device, although it is certainly clear that the argument carried such a weight in its time; for it advanced the view that the coal miners' wage struggles were at bottom motivated by the socially responsible objective of protecting the stability of family life. In overcoming stereotypes of the coal miners as disreputable, violent and undeserving of public sympathy, this was an argument that even the Halifax newspapers could understand.
For McLachlan, the ideal of the family wage was not a recipe for the subordination of women but an opportunity to mobilize the women of the coal country around the economic objectives of the miners' unions. This strategy was most visible in the wage campaign he launched in 1917 under the banner "Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Sweethearts of Workmen, Attention!" Women of the coal country were invited to explain how they would maintain a family on a daily wage of $3.50. It was a brilliant tactic, for no one knew the economic needs of the workers' household better than the women who managed the budget. The result was an extended series of letters in the Canadian Labour Leader which explained the miners' case for better wages in exceptional detail while also gaining recognition for the women's contribution to "the economic side of housekeeping". It was not just a matter of adequate food, clothing and shelter; there was the wear and tear on work clothes; there were school supplies; there were insurance policies; there were wallpaper and paint and tobacco and picnics and newspapers to be considered. "What a surprise", concluded one correspondent at the end of her calculations, "his weekly income won't cover the food bill and house rent alone, let alone all the rest of life's necessities. There is two ways out of it. Eat less or earn more". By giving women the public platform on this issue, McLachlan had made the point that the miner's wife was the hero of the workers' household in struggling to make ends meet with such limited financial resources. The men would have to be at least as well-informed in economics and as aggressive in expectations as their women.
The solidarity of the mining community is often remarked upon by outside observers, but too often it is seen as the product of a primarily masculine culture of resistance. It was one of McLachlan's strengths as a working class leader that he recognized the roots of community solidarity in the working class household, which in turn was largely organized and sustained by the women of the coal country. It was not the "complete emancipation of women" called for in the union's reconstruction programme of 1918, but it was an argument for recognition of the value of women's work and the significance of their solidarity. In the great wage struggles of the 1920s, McLachlan would often pay tribute to the miner's wife as "the greatest financier in the world", contrasting their constructive defence of the working class household against the predatory raids on their homes and living engineered by the unproductive financiers who made their homes in the faraway bank towers and office buildings of Montreal and Toronto.
Beyond the home there was the industrial workplace. This was the production site that had called the working class communities into existence in the coal country in the first place. At the same time, paradoxically, as in so many other resource industries, it was also the force that undermined and threatened their very survival. As a young miner, McLachlan soon learned that this deep, dark and apparently mysterious workplace was another powerful site of resistance.
He knew this as early as 1887. When he was eighteen years old, McLachlan participated in one of sporadic local struggles for recognition of a miners' union in Lanarkshire. All over the county the miners were taking idle days and practising what they called the "wee darg", restricting their output in order to back up demands for a sixpence-a-day wage increase. It was a simple but effective demonstration of the workers' control of production in the coal mines. Even in an industry so central to the industrial revolution, the work of producing coal remained, literally, in the hands of the mine workers at the coal face. Machinery was slow to penetrate to this level of production, and for all the power of the pumping, ventilating and haulage installations above the ground, the skills of the individual miners at the coal face still set the pace of production in this industry well into the 20th century. These archetypal proletarians were in fact also industrial artisans, and these workers took it as their responsibility to regulate production in accordance with concerns for safety in the prosecution of the task, equity in the distribution of work and a fair reward for their labour.
When he crossed the Atlantic in 1902, McLachlan's cultural baggage also included the outlook of the independent collier, who considered himself at least the equal in knowledge and skill of the coal masters who controlled the resource and its markets. This legacy in the workplace culture of the coal mines is another clue to his resourcefulness as a union leader. Like Keir Hardie, the labour organizer and socialist pioneer, McLachlan adapted this outlook to the new circumstances of monopoly capitalism and state intervention in the 20th century.
It is also worth noting that when he arrived in Canada, at 33 years of age, McLachlan was considered a veteran of the coal industry. We need to know a lot more about the demographic history of the coal country, but it is clear that in the early 20th century the great majority of the coal labour force in Nova Scotia was less than 30 years of age (and about ten per cent of the labour force was under 16). By these standards experienced immigrant workers such as McLachlan were seniors, and the coal miners turned to him for leadership in negotiating the proper relationship between workers and employers. Hence the authority of his relentless attack on the inadequacy of the existing miners' union, the Provincial Workmen's Association, and the power of his appeal for a new international unionism, in the form of the United Mine Workers of America.
The significance of the workplace as a site of resistance was plainly visible in the struggles of 1922, the year of the coal miners' first great strike against the British Empire Steel Corporation. That year the coal miners were being asked to pay for a crisis of markets and management by accepting a one-third reduction in rates. But instead of going out on strike that winter, they engaged in a slowdown deliberately designed to reduce production by an equivalent one-third. McLachlan identified this as a declaration of war in defence of the hard-won achievements of recent years:
On the one side you have the British Empire Steel Corporation out to invade the homes and living of our people, to pay dividends on 'stock'which do not represent one dollar of real money. . . . War is on, and it is up to the workers in the mines of the British Empire Steel Corporation to carry that war into the "country" of the enemy. There is only one way to fight this corporation and that is to cut production to a point where they cannot any longer earn profits.
The tactic was described variously as Fabianism and sabotage, unBritish and unCanadian; it was even called "McLachlanism" but for McLachlan it was only a modern application of the traditional sanction of the Lanarkshire miners, who suspended the "master's darg" and applied the "wee darg" in response to unacceptable behaviour on the part of their masters. It worked. In the House of Commons the newly-elected labour MP J.S. Woodsworth defended restriction of output as "a natural, recognized mode of procedure" both in the business world and in the workplace. The government agreed to intervene and appoint a new conciliation board to hear the miners' case.
Another tactical manifestation of workers' control appeared in the coal strikes at times when the miners walked out of the pits and closed down the mines, as they did more than once in those years. McLachlan remembered the events of the great strike of 1909 all too well, when the mine operations were taken over by strikebreakers under the protection of the Canadian army and union members were evicted from company houses. That would not happen again. The adoption of the " 100 per cent strike", as they called it, involved the removal of every last worker from the mines, including the men responsible for the operation of the pumps and fans that kept the collieries clear of water and gas accumulation. In these situations the removal of maintenance men again demonstrated the principle of workers' control, and worked to stimulate a resumption of bargaining by the employer.
Control of production was a crucial factor in the long five-month struggle of 1925, when the corporation was determined to starve the miners into submission by closing the company stores and to drive the union out of the coal industry by refusing to meet with union officers. As early as January that year, McLachlan had outlined the miners' choice in these terms: anything less than a 100 per cent strike would mean well-fed horses for the corporation and starvation for the miners' children -- and a lost strike. His policy was not accepted by the union leadership at this time, and the union settled down to a sad struggle of attrition, a game of poker in which the company claimed it was holding all the cards. "Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not; eventually they have to come to us", announced Besco vice-president J.E. McLurg, "They can't stand the gaff". The miners took up the insult as a rallying cry, and they did "stand the gaff". And once more that year, it was the struggle for control of production that brought the impasse to an end, this time in a pitched battle for control of the power station at Waterford Lake. This was the battle in which William Davis was shot by company police, and 11 June ever since that time has been a day of remembrance for the coal miners. It was a tragic outcome that probably could have been avoided by concerted application of the 100 per cent strike months earlier, at the beginning of the strike.
There is another sense in which control of production was meaningful to McLachlan, and that is in the strategic sense of looking for long-term alternatives for the ownership and administration of the coal industry. The British Empire Steel Corporation represented the excesses of capitalist mismanagement at their worst, and in this respect the corporation was an easy target for labour radicals. But McLachlan was a labour radical with roots in the pre-1914 left in Canada, when the old Socialist Party of Canada had campaigned for collective ownership of the means of wealth production and democratic organization and management of industry by the workers. As a union leader, McLachlan regularly kept the issue of alternative economic models on the agenda. During the fuel shortages of the Great War, he proposed plans for the union to manage coal mines in the interest of greater productivity and limited profits. When the union approved a Reconstruction Report in 1918, it included demands for the election of mine inspectors and public ownership of the coal industry. When a Cape Breton Independent Labour Party was formed at this time (with McLachlan as president), the party platform included "working class ownership and democratic management of all social means of wealth production and distribution at the earliest possible date". By the 1920s, when he counted himself a supporter of the Communist Party of Canada, the objective had not changed significantly and was described in party platforms (and on the front page of the Maritime Labor Herald as "Nationalization of Industry with Workers' Control".
The time certainly seemed ripe once the industry fell into the hands of Roy Wolvin -- known to the coal miners as Roy the Wolf -- and the coal miners began to see their achievements and expectations threatened by his strategy of corporate survival at the price of an increased rate of exploitation. By the summer of 1922 the miners were ready to adopt, at McLachlan's urging, a remarkable declaration in favour of "the complete overthrow of the capitalist system and capitalist state, peaceably if we may, forceably if we must". This policy statement had begun with an extended analysis of the crisis of overproduction in the North American coal industry and the unfortunate efforts of the so-called "captains of industry" to "run the coal business". There were also appeals to patriarchal responsibilities and anti-slavery imperatives, and the very phrase "peaceably if we may, forceably if we must" was a direct echo of the Chartist debates of the 1830s.
It was clear enough from this time onwards that McLachlan would not be content with the replacement of Besco by less outrageous representatives of corporate capitalism. Like radicals in the Miners' Federation of Great Britain and the United Mine Workers of America, he was determined once more to carry the battle into the territory of the enemy. At the time of the 1925 strike, as bootleg pits opened around the coalfield in violation of private property and state policy, McLachlan was publishing editorials under declarations such as "Let the Miners Run the Mines" and "More Power to the Mine Committees". By the time McLachlan and Wolvin confronted each other at the hearings of a royal commission later that year, they were wrestling not only with the future of the coal industry but with contradictory assessments of the future of capitalism itself:
Wolvin: Are you looking forward to the time when the workers will take charge of the country?
McLachlan: Yes. Evidently they have not charge now. The question implies that.
Wolvin: Are you still working to that end?
McLachlan: Still working to that.
Wolvin: To the end that the workers will take control of Canada?
McLachlan: Oh yes, I hope so.
The very subject of public ownership or other structural solutions was studiously avoided by the royal commission that reported in 1926 as to the underlying causes of strife in the coal industry. It was a royal commission that included one British knight, one Catholic priest -- and one University of Toronto graduate who, in his youth, had helped put down the rebellion of the Métis in the Northwest in 1885. Their report favoured a compromise that included the acceptance of union recognition by the companies and the acceptance of market regulation of wages by the workers. "Stripped of the sawdust" -- McLachlan said, the royal commission was nothing more than a long-winded defence of the rights of capital: "Profits come first, and these must be maintained even if the present low standard of living of the coal miners has to be reduced still further".
Out of these struggles, the coal miners' union did survive, and it even received protection under provincial statutes that defined a new regime of industrial legality in the coalfields and, later, for all industrial workers. But public ownership did not arrive in McLachlan's lifetime, and when it did arrive in 1967, thirty years after his death, in the form of the Cape Breton Development Corporation, it did so as part of a politics of social welfare under circumstances and structures very different from those he envisaged. In that respect the campaign for workers' control remained unfulfilled. Yet McLachlan would also recognize that the search for more responsible forms of economic organization has not disappeared from the Canadian agenda. As long as workers continue to have a stake in the future of their workplaces, they are likely to engage in similar traditions of counter-planning, and the workplace will remain a site of working-class resistance.
What would be the coal miners' next step? Could they go it alone? McLachlan had no doubt that the coal miners needed allies, and he devoted much of his energy to a strategy of linking the coal miners to movements well beyond their own terrain. This, he hoped, would open up new sites of resistance in the form of alliances with other Canadian workers well beyond the coalfields.
McLachlan had already seen models of solidarity in the relations of the Scottish and English miners who created the Miners' Federation of Great Britain in the 1890s and in the political cooperation that elected the Scottish coal miner Keir Hardie to the House of Commons from a London working-class constituency. As an internationalist, McLachlan supported the replacement of the old Provincial Workman's Association by the international union of the United Mine Workers of America. Of course, from the perspective of Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis, McLachlan remained too much of an internationalist, allying himself with the causes of industrial unionism in the American Federation of Labor and the opposition to John L. Lewis in the UMWA, and, at least briefly in 1922, promoting affiliation to the Red International of Labour Unions as a sign of solidarity with the coming world revolution.
In exploring this strategy within Canada, consider for instance the great year of labour solidarity, the year of the Winnipeg General Strike, 1919. The coal miners had no cause to go on strike in 1919, so it is one of the anomalies of the strike data for that year that the coalfields in eastern Canada appeared relatively quiet compared to the unprecedented numbers of workers going on strike in Quebec, Ontario and the West. This did not mean that the eastern coal miners were more conservative or less radical than the western coal miners; instead, it meant that they were sufficiently well-organized, under McLachlan's leadership, to achieve their goals of union recognition, the eight-hour day and wage improvements without going on strike.
Nor did this mean that the coal miners remained aloof from the action taking place in 1919. Following the arrest of the Winnipeg strike leaders in June 1919, they contributed to the defence fund, and McLachlan accompanied visiting leaders through the coal towns selling Liberty Bonds. When the strike leaders were refused bail in September 1919, McLachlan called for a general strike in their defence all across Canada -- a "gigantic strike embracing every industry under union control". In the House of Commons this was identified as "the McLachlan threat", and two days later the strike leaders were released.
Meanwhile, McLachlan was also pursuing the theme of solidarity within the house of labour, as represented by the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada. It was his hope that labour radicals across the country would unite around a common programme focusing on issues such as unemployment and housing, and that they would be prepared to engage in forms of common action such as general strikes to enforce their demands. He took this plan to the annual meeting of the TLC in Hamilton that fall, but the radical platform went down to defeat, as did their leadership candidates. The radicals had been outmanoeuvred and outnumbered. We now know, for instance, that a business group, the Canadian Reconstruction Association, had spent large sums to support the attendance of conservative delegates from the international unions at Hamilton that year.
And McLachlan could not even depend on a large delegation of coal miners from the west to support his cause. At the TLC in 1919 there were 15 delegates from the Nova Scotia coal mines and none at all from the west. This was because many of the western radicals had left to join the One Big Union. East was east and west was west, and they did not meet at the TLC. Each of the coal mining regions was following the logic of its own local labour history, and for labour radicals such as McLachlan, who saw the TLC as the site for the establishment of a united front of all Canadian workers, this was a source of great disappointment. He repeated similar appeals for a united front in 1922, but the house of labour remained badly divided by factors of region, skill, nationalism and ideology, and this would not change in the near future. In 1919 the united front was an idea whose time had not yet arrived in Canada, but McLachlan had helped place it on the agenda as a theme in the construction of labour solidarity in Canada.
To what extent would the coal miners' agenda be advanced through political action? McLachlan's several entrances into electoral politics were also part of an effort to make new alliances and enlarge the political space available to the coal miners. He had run, with little success and little notice, for the Socialist Party of Canada in 1916. But at the end of the war the tide was running in favour of labour politics, and there can be little doubt that McLachlan could have been easily elected to the provincial legislature in 1920, when labour and farmer candidates took all four of the local seats. He waited instead for the opportunity to enter the House of Commons in Ottawa in the 1921 election. This was one of the most important elections in Canadian history, for it was the first time that the franchise was extended to both men and women and also the first time that no property qualifications were required of voters. It was the election that reduced the old Tory party of big business to third place and enabled the Liberals to begin their tenure as the government party of the 20th century.
Throughout the 1921 campaign, McLachlan spoke optimistically about the prospects of a Farmer-Labour government in Ottawa. It did not happen, but McLachlan himself should have been elected. For when the results were counted he had swept through the mining district with absolute majorities, as high as 75 per cent in some areas. Even in the steeltown, Sydney, he was ahead of the Liberal and Tory candidates. McLachlan fell short of election by about 1,500 votes, but he was defeated not by lack of support among the working class but by the political skulduggery of the Liberal candidate and adverse results in rural Richmond County, which was also part of this far-flung two-member constituency at the time. With almost 9,000 votes, McLachlan had more support than any of the MPs elected in other Cape Breton ridings; he also had more votes than J.S. Woodsworth, who was elected that year in Winnipeg Centre.
In 1921 the coal miners had been denied their opportunity to send their leader to the House of Commons and in doing so to share their champion with other workers. It was a hard lesson in the structural limits of political democracy which tended to reinforce the political isolation of the coal miners and may also help explain their increased support for direct action in the following years.
Certainly Woodsworth greatly regretted McLachlan's defeat and, during his visits to Cape Breton in these years, did what he could to encourage the coal miners to send McLachlan to Ottawa, even if it meant electing him from his jail cell in Dorchester Penitentiary. After all, Woodsworth argued, the coal miners were learning in their struggles the same lessons that the workers of Winnipeg had learned -- that the courts and the military were controlled by government, and therefore it was necessary for labour to "go into politics". In 1926, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King approached Woodsworth with a plan to prevent the nomination of a labour candidate in Cape Breton South in order to ensure a Liberal victory there, Woodsworth rejected the scheme indignantly: "If there is any constituency in Canada in which there should be a Labor representative it is Cape Breton South". King accepted this rebuke, and the Liberal candidate stepped down to allow for a two-way fight between Tory and Labour candidates. As it happened, McLachlan did not accept the nomination that year, and a weaker candidate failed to capitalize on the opportunity, which was probably the first and best opportunity for the election of a Communist Member of Parliament in Canada.
It is tempting to speculate on the national implications of McLachlan's failure to enter Parliament. Had he been elected at any time during the 1920s, McLachlan would have joined Woodsworth as a leader of the small labour and socialist contingent in Parliament and given it a greater national presence and a more distinctly working-class character. Closer collaboration between these two men might well have had considerable influence on the political history of the Canadian left. But by the 1930s the left was more greatly divided, and when McLachlan ran as a Communist candidate in 1935 he was opposed by another prominent labour leader (on the Reconstruction ticket) who helped split the working class vote. The lessons of unity would not be learned again until 1940, with the election of the coal miner Clarie Gillis in Cape Breton South, the first CCF MP to be elected east of Manitoba.
One more instance of the coal miners' search for alliances with other workers can be mentioned here, and that is the story of McLachlan's release from Dorchester Penitentiary. The details of his arrest, trial and conviction in 1923 on charges of seditious libel make up an extraordinary saga, which cannot be told here. But accounts of this episode often pass over the demonstration of solidarity on the part of workers across the country that it provoked.
The announcement of his two-year sentence to penitentiary precipitated a flood of letters, telegrams and petitions from across the country. One of the first resolutions to arrive at the offices of the minister of justice came from a public meeting of the Labor Church in Edmonton. There followed dozens of protests from union locals, labour councils and public meetings in all parts of the country: from the western coalfields, from machinists and garment workers in Montreal, from steelworkers in Hamilton, from railway workers in Moncton and Halifax, from labour councils in Calgary and Montreal. Even the executive council of the TLC put in a word for McLachlan, pointing out by way of advice that his imprisonment "threw discredit upon the more rational leaders of the labor movement". The prime minister also received a letter of remonstration from the aged Phillips Thompson, one of the labour radicals who had influenced King and other University of Toronto students in their youth. From his retirement in Oakville, Ontario, Thompson reproached King with following "the bad example of the degenerate republic across the border, with its judicial frame-ups, its scores of political prisoners and its brutal suppression of free speech". There was different advice from Roy Wolvin of the British Empire Steel Corporation, however: "I have had much experience with this man's activities and I consider him a dangerously clever 'Red'. . . . He is the concentrated cause of past unrest in this district and with him away for a few years, possibly, his teachings may be forgotten".
That was not to be the case, and much to his surprise the warden at Dorchester Penitentiary was completing a report on McLachlan's rehabilitation barely two weeks after his transfer from the Halifax county jail. Released on a ticket-of-leave after serving four months of his sentence, McLachlan received a hero's welcome in the course of his journey home by train to Glace Bay. Obviously unreformed and unrepentant, within hours of his release McLachlan was repeating much of the same seditious matter for which he had been convicted. And he was expressing his gratitude to the workers of Canada for their support:
I want to thank you for the protests and resolutions that were made on my behalf; that is the reason I am here, because of what the workers did, not because of the generosity of the King Government . . . .I am not indebted to them, but to the working classes I am indebted for the freedom I have today . . . I am glad to get out because the workers got me out.
As far as McLachlan was concerned, his release was guaranteed by the workers of Canada, a powerful illustration of the potential of working class solidarity.
And the struggle? The struggle continued:
Sedition . . . is when you protest against the wrongs inflicted on working men; when you protest against the resources of the province being put in the control of men like Roy Wolvin; when wage rates are forced on you without your consent. These things will be given back to the working class and their wrongs will eventually be redeemed. If you say that strongly enough, you are liable to get into jail for sedition.
History continues. The Cape Breton coal industry has been very much in the news for the past year, and I do not need to review the details. The coal industry is to be restructured more or less out of existence. And the coal miners? And their families? Their communities? Them too; for in the kind of restructuring that is envisaged, these people and their institutions and achievements are considered more or less redundant. There has also been an extraordinary response to these announcements on the part of the people of Cape Breton. In those responses, I think you can see something of the spirit of J.B. McLachlan.
And we can see in them the continuing importance of the several sites of resistance that we have looked at today. The fate of the working class household has been front and centre in the protests; in a year that began with huge public meetings in the hockey rinks, the women of the coal country have been prominent in articulating the shared cause of the community to the rest of the country. The past year has also featured renewed debates over privatization, public ownership and alternative forms of economic development; the struggle for control of production was demonstrated most dramatically when workers went underground in January this year and for thirteen days occupied the last remaining coal mine in order to focus the government's attention on the need to negotiate the terms of disengagement in the coal industry. Meanwhile, expressions of support and solidarity from other workers, most notably from the Canadian Labour Congress, have also confirmed that the coal miners do not speak for a local interest alone but for all of us who must consider the relative priorities of the community versus the state and labour versus capital in the modern world.
McLachlan would certainly recognize these events as the latest round in a struggle against dispossession and disinheritance. He would welcome them as evidence that the coal miners have not given up their habit of demanding attention to issues of justice and dignity. It is a way of thinking and acting that has grown naturally out of the conditions of their workplace and their communities. It has been argued that this communitarian social ethic is one of the special gifts of the hinterland regions to public discourse in this country, and we might add that the coal miners represent this ideal of illumination and empowerment at its best.
In his new novel about the fortunes and sorrows of the people of Cape Breton, No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod has quoted the cynical observation of General James Wolfe on his Highland soldiers, who are to be counted among the ancestors of much of the Cape Breton population: "No great mischief if they fall."
But all the indications of Cape Breton history are to the contrary. Human deficits do count, and as before, the coal miners are continuing to struggle for the idea of economic development as if people mattered. The special case of the coal miners, and of all industries based on the alienation and depletion of resources, raises issues of general significance. The coal miners no longer have the power they once had, but the questions they are asking belong to all of us. As long as we continue to listen to their history, those questions will not go away.