Steve Hewitt, "September 1931: A Re-interpretation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Handling of the 1931 Estevan Strike and Riot," Labour/Le Travail 39 (Spring 1997), 159-78.
THE ACCESS TO INFORMATION ACT has been a major boon to historians doing research on various aspects of Canada's past, in particular those investigating the security actions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Documents, released under Access by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), allow for a more detailed and subtle portrayal of the activities of both workers and the police.
One example of the possibilities offered by this material are the previously restricted RCMP records on the 1931 Estevan strike and riot and what they have to say about the Mounted Police. (1) The importance of the records is two-fold: the material challenges previous historical work on Estevan by disputing the dominant interpretation of some of the most contentious events; and, even more significantly, the records question simplistic notions of the Mounted Police as a monolithic organization. (2) In the case of the latter, many of the officers "on the ground" attempted to be balanced in their assessment of the reasons behind the strike and the course of action to be taken. In fact, some openly sympathized with the striking miners despite their own class and ethnic prejudices. Inevitably, however, in a hierarchical institution like the Mounted Police, they followed the orders of their superiors, a group which strongly espoused the anti-communist rhetoric of the RCMP's political master, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett.
The Estevan riot occurred on 29 September 1931. It was a particularly violent clash between armed members of the RCMP and striking miners, out of work since 8 September. The miners, wielding clubs and bricks, bore the brunt of the violence. Two of their number lay dead from gunshot wounds in the streets, while a third died later in a nearby hospital. Eight other miners were wounded by police bullets, as were several Estevan citizens. The dead were buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of nearby Bienfait, Saskatchewan. The caption on their common grave reads, "Murdered by R.C.M.P." (3)
Recriminations began almost immediately after the riot. Each side blamed the other for what had happened. The attribution of blame by the Mounted Police, however, carried more weight in the eyes of society, including those in authority, and it was their version of events which held sway at the time. The courts convicted several miners for rioting, while members of the Mounted Police escaped any sort of public reprimand.
Historians in the last quarter century, however, have rendered another judgement. In his 1978 thesis on the Mine Workers' Union of Canada, Allen Seager simply describes the RCMP's policing of the strike as a "terror campaign." (4) S.D. Hanson, on the other hand, contributed a more complex explanation in his thesis entitled, "The Estevan Strike and Riot, 1931," and an article based on it. (5) He accuses some members of the Mounted Police of conspiring with town officials in an attempt to justify their actions the day of the riot:
Viewing the carnage, the authorities, like normal individuals, were doubtless horrified lest they be regarded as having failed to take the necessary steps to head off violence, especially violence in which non-participants had been struck by flying bullets. Under the circumstances, they might well panic and begin asking what they could do to make themselves appear as innocent as possible, thereby placing as much blame as possible on the miners. It would appear that they opted for altering the original minutes to state that [the Estevan town] council, meeting in the regular manner earlier in the day, had specifically advised the police to prevent a violation of its edict. Such a change would be very useful. It would suggest that the town council was an alert body of men, making specific, even if unsuccessful, provisions to safeguard the lives and property of their citizens. (6)
Hanson constructs his theory and then argues its validity because no specific evidence to contradict it exists: "That the original council minutes were altered cannot be disproven ...." (7)
Picking up on Hanson's thesis were Lorne and Caroline Brown who, in their anti-Mounted Police polemic, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, offered a harsh assessment of the Mounties' role at Estevan and their activities in dealing with labour in general:
In the weeks following September 29, the authorities and the police carried on a deceitful campaign to exonerate themselves and discredit the strikers. They spread the story that the strike leaders had been informed that the police intended to break up the parade, but that they purposely kept the miners in the dark about it. They also claimed that when the miners arrived in Estevan they were armed with clubs and even some guns ....
The events surrounding the Bienfait-Estevan strike were not at all atypical .... Governments and police and especially the RCMP automatically sided with the employers. The RCMP were used mainly to protect company property and scabs, but they were also often used to intimidate strikers by means of legal or violent acts. (8)
There is a problem, however, with both Hanson's theory and the Brown's generalization regarding the relationship between the Mounted Police and labour: the RCMP records suggest a more complex picture. The material held by CSIS and the National Archives implies that the Mounties were guilty more of incompetence than dishonesty in their role in the Estevan Riot; the documentation also illustrates that while the overall ideology of the Mounted Police was undoubtedly pro-capital, several Mounties sympathized with the workers or at least attempted to be balanced in their judgement. These same policemen repeatedly reported that the real problem at Estevan lay with the mine owners and managers who through the use of "scab" workers were deliberately attempting to provoke violence. Their reports fell on deaf ears, however, demonstrating a division between the Mounted Police at the top, who completely subscribed to the pro-capitalist/anti-communist philosophy of the federal government, and those at Estevan. This divided thinking led to a greater emphasis on the protection of private property and to the ineffective strategy of dividing the Mounted Police contingent on the day of the riot. Such choices contributed to the violence of 29 September 1931.
There has been an array of interpretations regarding the relationship between the Mounted Police and labour. According to historian R.C. Macleod, the Mountie role in the 19th century was one of a neutral arbitrator:
while the police spent much of their time dealing with problems which arose from labour disputes they did not think of it as a special problem apart from the other problems of maintaining peace and order .... It did not occur to any of the parties involved in labour disputes that the police by intervening could be considered to be helping one class exploit another ... The police were effectively neutral in almost all labour disputes. They acted as honest brokers to the general satisfaction of both sides and as often took the part of labour as of management. (9)
In their hagiographic account of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, written to celebrate the centennial of the Force, Nora and William Kelly offered a brief comment on the relationship between the Mounted Police and labour, in the context of the Winnipeg General Strike:
Most of the western press spoke proudly of the Mounted Police, but the western labour press labelled them "strikebreakers." Yet they had only acted on government orders to prevent a forbidden parade and had gathered evidence against certain men, not because they were labour leaders but because they were plotting to overthrow the government, by force if necessary. (10)
The Mounted Police role at Estevan was similar to the one depicted in historian William Baker's excellent study of the Royal North-West Mounted Police's (RNWMP) handling of the 1906 Lethbridge coal strike. That strike began in March 1906 when Local 574 of the United Mine Workers of America District 18 struck for recognition of the union and improvements in pay and working conditions. The strike lasted nine months before the federal government, under the initiative of …