September 1931: A Re-Interpretation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Handling of the 1931 Estevan Strike and Riot

Article excerpt

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. …