As a child growing up in the small coal mining town of New Waterford, Nova Scotia, June 11th was synonymous with having the day of school. As I grew older, I realized that the day signified much more than that. 84 years ago this June 11th, a man named William Davis left his home to pick up milk at the store for his children. A coal miner, Mr. Davis was not working that day as the coal miners were on strike. In 1925, coal miners were making little money and working in very dangerous conditions and the labor dispute was getting uglier and uglier every day, June 11th, 1925 being one of the ugliest.
By that time, the town of New Waterford was under martial law, protests and demonstrations happened almost daily and miners were being evicted from company houses if they refused to go to work in support of the strike, leaving countless families homeless and hungry. All they wanted was what they deserved. Blood, sweat and tears were shed for years for a company that cared little about the men who kept it going. That day, many years ago, they had had enough. The company had shut off the town’s water and power supply in a cruel effort to get miners back to work and a mass demonstration was staged at Waterford Lake. The company had crossed the line and the miners were not taking it anymore. Things got ugly and William Davis, who did not partake in the demonstration, walked right into the chaos that ensued. Company police drew their guns and started firing into the crowd. Davis took one of those bullets and died a short time later. He left behind grieving wife and 9 children and one on the way.
Since that faithful day, William Davis’ name has remained a symbol of the hardships and struggles of Cape Breton Coal Miners. Every June 11th, people gather at the Miner’s Memorial in New Waterford to lay wreaths and remember the sacrifices made by coal miners and their supporters.
This past June 11th, William Davis’ Grandson, Rudy Pheifer of Newfoundland, finally got the chance to attend the ceremony for the first time since his retirement. Brandon MacDonald was also in attendance to celebrate his great-great-great grandfather who he calls his hero. The crowds get bigger every year and this black mark on Canadian History is finally getting the exposure those men deserved all along.
Coal was mined in Cape Breton for centuries until 2001 when the government announced that it would be no more. But the legacy lives on and the people have not forgotten the struggles of their forefathers and a way of life that shaped a people. Most of the former coal miners who were eligible for retirement when the mines closed now work in office jobs or have had to move West to Alberta but I am willing to bet each and every one of them would trade those jobs in a heartbeat to go back to the dark depths of a coal mine again.