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Ninety years ago, there was a desperate story reaching its breaking point in New Waterford, which started a change in our safety culture.
In 1925, the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) was in the process of breaking the union at the No. 12 Colliery. The contract had expired in January and on March 2nd, BESCO cut off credit at their company stores, meaning families were unable to access food and supplies needed to survive a hard winter.
Workers went on strike four days later, with 12,000 on the picket line. Bill Davis was a 37 year-old roadmaker with the colliery. He was married with nine children and had a 10th on the way. He joined his colleagues on the picket line, in spite of the hard economic times and the pressures it must have placed on his young, growing family.
Two months later, BESCO had refused arbitration, and the small number of miners who had continued to work to keep the mines from flooding also joined the picket lines. With 100 per cent of its workforce now on strike, BESCO shut down New Waterford’s drinking water supply and electricity. From this point, the situation quickly deteriorated.
Miners responded by going to the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake and violently expelling company workers with the intent to restart the utilities for their company homes while cutting them off to company facilities.
On June 10th, BESCO countered by sending the company police force to protect company workers and to turn the utilities back on for its facilities, while shutting them off again to company housing.
On the morning of June 11th, the police force began a patrol which led to small clashes throughout the town. Striking miners rallied and returned to the pumping station in an attempt to persuade company workers to join them in their strike. They met company police at the plant gates at 11 a.m. The police charged the crowd of miners and opened fire. Bill Davis was shot and killed instantly, while many others were injured.
In the days that followed Davis’ funeral – one of the largest ever held in Nova Scotia, with over 5,000 people in attendance – complete chaos ensued. Miners attacked company stores and properties, resulting in the deployment of the provincial police force and over 2,000 soldiers from the Canadian Army – the second largest military deployment for an internal conflict in Canadian history, after the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
By November, BESCO relented and settled the strike. District 26, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), set up a fund to support Bill Davis’ wife and children and designated June 11th as an “idle day” in his memory. Today, mining communities in Nova Scotia and beyond observe Miners’ Memorial Day.
New Waterford honours Bill Davis’ memory with Davis Square, established in 1985, and the Davis Wilderness Trail, established in 1996, which follows the route miners took on June 11, 1925 to the Waterford Lake pumping station and power plant.
Related: Cape Breton remembers the human cost of coal - Chronicle Herald, June 10/15