Case Study: Coal Mining in Alberta
By: Natalie Zacharewski
Natalie is a museum education professional based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a passion for creating learning opportunities for students of all ages through immersive, inquiry-based experiences. She has worked in museums and heritage institutions across Canada and the United States such as Museums of Burlington, the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum and Colonial Williamsburg. She has held the role of Faculty Instructor for the Public Programs course in the Certificate in Museum Studies Program with the Alberta Museums Association. She has also worked with the British Columbia Museums Association as Museum Education Consultant, assisting small museums develop educational programs. Natalie holds a Master of Arts in History from the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian, American and gender history.
The Nine Hour Movement and the adoption of the Trade Unions Act 1872 will provide a framework for examining labour events across Canadian history.
In this case study, learners will explore coal mining in Alberta, particularly in the southern region of Crowsnest Pass. Coal mining and labour unions experienced both progress and setbacks in the turbulent period of the early 20th century. Coal mining and unions intersected with politics, all of which affected community and family life. By examining the consistent toil of coal mining and its impact on miners, their families, and their union leaders, learners will discover how the coal mining industry continues to have an impactful legacy in the province, even today.
- Legacies of the Nine Hour Movement for Labour Organizations
- Passage of the Trade Unions Act
Case Study Overview
“Working conditions in the Crowsnest mines in the early 1900s were as dangerous as in mines anywhere in the world. Death and injury were commonplace, as was the threat of catastrophic explosions. Ever-present methane gas, which mine fire bosses attempted to measure with inadequate equipment, became explosive when combined with air. A single spark, perhaps from a pickaxe striking rock or from the flame in a miner’s lamp, could touch off a lethal blast. The presence of coal dust in the air could magnify the explosion.”Allan Chambers, “Spirit of the Crowsnest: The Story of Unions in the Coal Towns of the Crowsnest Pass,” Alberta Labour History Institute and the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Coal mining in southern Alberta brought energy and industry. Coal heated homes for the influx of agricultural and urban workers and fuelled the trains that brought them west. Crowsnest Pass was the largest centre of production, and the surrounding cities built communities to house the populations of mine workers. The lack of occupational health and safety measures coupled with poor pay for piecework made coal mining one of the most dangerous professions. Explosions in coal mines resulted in hundreds of deaths in this region alone and occurred regularly, in 1902, 1903, 1910, 1914, and 1917, to name a few.
Although the Mines Health and Safety Act, along with mine safety legislation, was enacted, it was not enforced. From 1890 onward, miners began joining the United Mine Workers of America union (District 18), increasing membership over the following decades. Over time, miners became the largest base for union radicalism and socialist politics in the province, influencing the creation of the Alberta Federation of Labour in 1912 and One Big Union (OBU) in 1919. A major issue for miners was the fight against piecework employment (a fixed rate for each action performed, regardless of time), which kept miners and their families in poverty due to the inconsistent nature of work. By May 1919, all but one of Alberta mines were on strike. However, supported by government and mining companies, and at times protected by police, “scabs” – privately paid workers – replaced the striking union miners, which added to their hardship.
Miners’ struggles continued for decades, whether against mining companies or because of differing union allegiances. Consistent challenges remained, such as layoffs, wage reductions, and employers’ failure to meet basic needs such as decent wash houses (a designated building for bathing) and better ventilation in the mines. Conditions in mining communities did not just affect workers: they and their families lived in shacks with no access to running water or indoor toilets. The Second World War brought increased demand for coal, which meant the industry flourished for a short time again, but directly following the end of the war, railways such as CPR and CNR switched from coal to diesel fuel. Production decreased from nine million tons in 1946 to two million in 1961, shuttering mines and forcing many miners to move out of their communities. Although some coal mining resurfaced in the 1960s and ’70s, the coal industry faced huge hurdles, including concerns around burning coal as it relates to climate change. Coal mining decreased dramatically over the latter half of the 20th century, changing the face of energy in the province of Alberta.
Microhistory of Crowsnest Pass Strike, 1932
Beginning in the Coleman camp in Crowsnest Pass, conflict arose over dividing work equally in the depressed coal mine region – miners wished to divide equally, the companies did not. A seven-month strike involved all but one mine in Crowsnest Pass. Mining companies refused to deal with the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, which was considered militant. The RCMP were required to separate strikers and scabs. In the end, miners’ demands were not met, but this action left a legacy of left-wing sentiment against the RCMP and lawmakers. So much so that between 1933 and1939, the nearby coal-mining town of Blairmore elected a “Red” town council that strongly sympathized with communist and socialist ideologies and who were thought could be better advocates for workers.
As a large class group, discuss these questions:
What is a “scab” or strikebreaker? Find the definition from a credible source and explore as a class.
How did politics, community life, and coal mining intersect in Alberta in the early 20th century? Can you see this as a present-day legacy in Alberta?
Interviews and Oral History
In groups, choose three (3) interviews to listen to from the Alberta Labour History Institute’s “Interviews Relating to Coal Mining in Alberta,” and take notes while you are listening: Interviews Relating to Coal Mining in Alberta, from the Alberta Labour History Institute.
**Note: some interviews refer to domestic violence, racism, and medical trauma, including the interviews with Joyce Avramenko and Lena Shellian.
Respond to these questions in your journals:
- What were some big takeaways for you from these firsthand interviews?
- Did any stories surprise you in terms of what workers or their families experienced in the coal mining industry?
Connection to Current Event
- Read this article:
“Controversial Alberta coal mine could soon get green energy makeover” by Sarah Offin for Global News.
- In groups, discuss these questions and reflect on your responses in your journals:
- Can coal mining operations be replaced with renewable-energy sources?
- What could the renewable-energy industry provide to former coal mining communities?
How Does This Relate to the Nine Hour Movement?
Despite the at-times tempestuous nature of unions and coal miners in the southern region of Alberta, such as in Crowsnest Pass, the progression of unions, which was made possible by the passage of the Trade Unions Act of 1872, improved workers’ lives and communities. The passage of the Trade Unions Act gave birth to a movement of workers’ rights, which influenced the strong labour movement in southern Alberta in the early 20th century. Without the Nine Hour Movement and the Trade Unions Act, working conditions in Alberta coal mines would have continued to deteriorate, potentially resulting in more injuries and fatalities of coal miners. This deterioration would have increasingly affected coal mining communities such as Crowsnest Pass, where wives and families would have fallen deeper into poverty because of the lack of employment options in the region.
- Individually, read the article “Spirit of the Crowsnest: The Story of Unions in the Coal Towns of the Crowsnest Pass,” by Allan Chambers.
- Write a review of this article. When reviewing the booklet, reflect on both its content and your personal response to it.
Structure your article review like this:
- Summarize the content and context of the article (the who, what, when, where, why, and how)
- Identify and describe your personal reaction to the article
- Use proper writing mechanics and reference style, as per your teacher’s request (APA, MLA, Chicago)
Need an example? Check out an example here.
Need a marking rubric? Check this out:
Chambers, Allan. “Spirit of the Crowsnest: The Story of Unions in the Coal Towns of the Crowsnest Pass.” Alberta Labour History Institute. https://albertalabourhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/D4109-Booklet-Spirit-of-the-Crowsnest.pdf.
Finkel, Alvin. “Crowsnest Pass Strike 1932.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/crowsnest-pass-strike-1932.
Finkel, Alvin. “Coal Mining in Alberta.” Alberta Labour History Institute. https://albertalabourhistory.org/coal-mining.
Finkel, Alvin. Working People in Alberta: A History. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2012. https://www.aupress.ca/app/uploads/120194_99Z_Finkel_2011-Working_People_in_Alberta.pdf.