100th Anniversary of the Halifax General Strike

A Militant Tradition of Workers' Struggles in the Atlantic Provinces

May First, international working class day, marked the 100th anniversary of the Halifax General Strike of 1919. Events in Halifax in 1919 and after must be seen within the context of both regional, national and international developments and working-class activity. Between 1916 and 1925 the Maritimes experienced unparalleled levels of strike activity. Significantly this upsurge was not confined to the coal mining communities of the region. Economic militancy often translated into political action. Miners in Cape Breton, Cumberland, and Pictou counties, steelworkers in Sydney, and industrial workers in Amherst and New Glasgow participated in the upsurge of radicalism seen across the country. In March 1919 a "great mass meeting" in Sydney endorsed a resolution by Nova Scotia Federation of Labour organizer C.C. Dane for a strike of all Nova Scotia workers if the provincial government failed to enact legislation for an eight-hour day.[1]

The Halifax General Strike

The Halifax General Strike targeted war profiteering and super-exploitation of the construction trades in the wake of the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917.

When the explosion took place, official figures suspected by many to be understated, say 1,963 residents of the city were killed, another 9,000 injured and 199 blinded -- comprising more than one-fifth of a total population of less than 50,000 -- of whom 5,000 were soldiers and sailors, not including those convalescing in military hospitals from wounds suffered in Europe. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Haligonians were left homeless and destitute, including 10,000 children.

The recounting of the Explosion tends to deny the causal link between the disaster and the stepped up exploitation of the working class and its impoverishment and resistance at that time. For example, under the pretext of dealing with the consequences of the Explosion, the rich recruited unskilled migrant labour, including from China, to replace the fallen longshoremen to keep Halifax functioning as a war port and to drive down wages, split the workers' solidarity, and break down the closed union shop. In February 1918, an Ontario labour paper, the Industrial Banner, referred to a group of Chinese labourers who had frozen to death en route to Halifax and criticized the injustice of employing foreign labour when "[h]ardly a day passes but news comes of men and women being notified that their services are no longer required."

Picking themselves up from the disaster, the Halifax workers rose against the injustices, urban land grabs and profiteering from the misery prevailing after the Explosion by the unscrupulous men of property. This culminated in a general strike of over 1,100 building trades workers launched on May Day, 1919.

Called at the time "The Big Strike," it was the largest strike in the history of Halifax. Along with being the international day of working class unity and solidarity, May First was the traditional date for establishing new wage rates in Halifax.

Impulse to the Development of the Workers' Press

On May 9, 1919, under the auspices of the Halifax Trades and Labour Council, Halifax workers began publishing a weekly newspaper, significantly named The Citizen, capable of "presenting labour's case to the public." On its front page, it noted:

"It is a regrettable and serious thing, but it seems only too true that the large daily newspapers of Canada and, in fact, the press generally, have entirely ceased to stand for the people's interests. They appear to have become tied up with the big interests. They have become advocates of measures and doctrines which, in other countries, have produced military and political domination and subversion of the people's rights.

"Organized labour, during the long struggle for the recognition of its rights, has always stood firm for liberty of speech and action for all classes. This is something which the capitalistic class cannot claim. In fact, the only hope for restoring freedom of speech and action in this country lies in the labour movement. All who believe in free speech, therefor, should support labour."

The Citizen advocated "the principles of independent political action." The Halifax Labour Party was revived by the Halifax Trades & Labour Council, inviting all "workers, whether organized or unorganized, mental or manual regardless of race, sex, creed or vocation." On July 27, 1920, the Independent Labour Party, in alliance with the United Farmers of Nova Scotia, won the greatest electoral support for any left-wing party in the history of the Maritimes with 11 seats, five being labour. Cape Breton itself sent four labour MLAs to Halifax, also with the highest majority.

The Amherst Strike

On May 20, 1919, the locally organized industrial union, the independent Amherst Federation of Labour, called "a general strike" of organized labour in that town, partly in sympathy with the workers of the Canadian Car and Foundry Company who had failed to achieve parity with the Montreal branch, and partly to back the demands for an eight-hour day, union recognition, and improved working conditions in individual plants. With two exceptions, the three-week strike included 4,000 workers in all the town's major industries: foundries, engineering works, textile mills, shoes, luggage, and wood-working factories, and even the local garage. The Amherst Federation of Labour wrote that Nolan Eilly "directed all negotiations with the various companies and organized daily rallies for information and agitational purposes. At these meetings local labour leaders promoted the One Big Union (OBU) as the only organization with the strength and determination to confront capitalism on local and national issues."[2]

Also in May 1919, more than 15,000 paper-mill workers in Canada and the U.S., who produced 60 per cent of all newsprint, struck against a 30 per cent wage cut.

The Halifax Shipyard Strike

High levels of struggle were developed by shipyard workers in Halifax and coal miners and steel workers in Cape Breton against private absentee British owners.

A still larger strike of shipyard workers broke out in June 1920. The shipyards were now owned by the newly-formed British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO), the largest industrial consortium in Canada. At the time, the Sydney steel plant was the largest in Canada. Cape Breton produced 45 per cent of all Canadian coal production.[3]

Centring upon Halifax Shipyards Limited, the strike affected eight companies, an average of 2,000 workers, and lasted 52 working days. With the total loss of 104,000 man-days it accounted for over 12 per cent of the total strike days in Canada during 1920.

It would remain the largest single manufacturing strike to involve one community's industrial workers until after World War II.

The International Typographical Union strike, which lasted from May 1921 until August 1924 to establish the eight-hour day, was actually the biggest skilled-labour strike.

The Citizen, June 4, 1920; June 18, 1920 (click to enlarge).

The Cape Breton Resistance

In the 1920s, exercises of state power against the working class became a regular feature of Cape Breton strikes. The collectives of steel workers, coal miners (many of whom were Gaelic speakers), and the Black community of Whitney Pier of African-Caribbean origin were all in motion.

In August 1922, a strike of the coal miners was declared in which the resolution was put forth that:

"We proclaim openly to all the world that we are out for a complete overthrow of the capitalist system and of the capitalist, peaceably if we may; forceable if we must; and we call on all workers, soldiers and minor law officers in Canada to join us in liberating labour."[4]

The 12,000 coal miners resisted a one-third wage reduction imposed by BESCO with a major strike involving new tactics: restriction of output by one-third, and the enforcement of a 100 per cent strike; all workers left the mines. Ottawa turned Cape Breton into an armed camp, deploying one-third of the Canadian army. Ottawa deployed 4,000 members of the Royal Canadian Regiment with 18-pound field guns to maintain "order" around BESCO facilities. The British Navy deployed a battleship from Newfoundland waters to suppress their militant struggle to organize into the union of their choice. Nova Scotia officials requested an additional 2,000 troops, British battleships then in Newfoundland waters, and an airplane squadron. One commanding officer even called for air strikes. Cape Breton County was declared a police district, with a 1,000-men police force authorized.[5]

Royal Canadian Dragoons occupy Cape Breton in 1922.

In 1923 "The Red Flag," written by Irishman James Connelly, was sung at the first Cape Breton May Day Parade in Glace Bay. James B. McLachlan, the mass leader of the Cape Breton coal miners was also a member of the newly-formed Communist Party and one of the most significant Canadian labour leaders. He described the May Day Parade:

"May Day was held in Glace Bay this year for the first time. Four thousand workers, clear eyed and triumphant, marched with flag and banner in that parade. All day there was a steady downpour of icy rain but it was neither wet enough nor cold enough to dampen the fine spirit of these working men and women marchers. [...] With song and speech, with comradely greetings these four thousand men and women spent one gloriously free eight hours away from the eye of the boss and his heart-breaking job which barely provides them and their children with bread. A glorious day which made one's blood run warmer and faster with the hopeful thrill of the new life when all of the days of the year shall belong to labour and when the accursed words 'master and boss' shall be banished from the earth along with the thing which these represent. On May Day we forgot the barriers of nationalism erected by the masters of bread and sent words of fraternal greetings to the struggling workers of every land. The workers of this land are our comrades and brothers, the capitalists of this land our robber enemies. The complete solidarity of the former is our hope, the complete extermination of the latter our aim. Long live May Day! Long live the solidarity of the World's workers!"[6]

In June 1923 the coal miners struck in solidarity with the steelworkers of Sydney, who were fighting for the recognition of their union.

On June 30, the first of many troop trains was sent to Sydney, including an armoured gondola piled high with sand bags and bristling with machine guns. Provincial police (or "Armstrong's Army") were again sent to Cape Breton and ran riot on Victoria Road on July 1 assaulting residents as they returned home from church. They were soon joined by federal troops. This came to be known as Cape Breton's infamous "Peterloo" or "Bloody Sunday."

J.B. McLachlan circulated a notice urging other mining unions to walk out in support. Branding the Nova Scotia government "the guilty and responsible party" for the attack, he called on his fellow unionists "to spread the fight against (Premier) Armstrong to every mine in Nova Scotia." Eventually, the miners closed not only Cape Breton and mainland mines, but District 18 in Alberta came out as well in support of the steelworkers to protest the renewed use of armed force in the industrial area. Many miners had served in the war that ended only five years before the strike. Many were prepared to fight an enemy that they considered as threatening to their survival as any they had faced across No-Man's Land in Europe.

Glace Bay refused to pay the cost of the military forces, as provided by the Militia Act. "The larger mining towns were no longer company towns; they elected labour candidates, who engaged in protracted disputes with the coal company over taxes and assessments and services, and supported the union in times of crisis."[7]

"Red" Dan Livingstone, miners' president, and J.B. McLachlan, the secretary-treasurer,[8] were arrested and jailed. "Fighting Jim," as he was known in the press, was convicted in December 1923 on trumped-up charges of three counts of sedition -- unlawfully inciting public disorder or promoting hatred of the government -- and jailed for two years at the Dorchester Penitentiary for articles written in the Maritime Labour Herald, of which he was editor. It was little more than a show trial: Attorney General Walter J. O'Hearn, who prosecuted, insisted on a Halifax trial for fear sympathetic Cape Breton jurors would acquit someone with the courage to champion their cause. In his instructions to the jury, Justice Humphrey Mellish of the Supreme Court, a former coal company lawyer, could barely disguise his distaste for McLachlan and the Marxist ideals he espoused. Legal historian Barry Cahill has labeled it a "gross miscarriage of justice."

McLachlan's lawyers managed to have one count dismissed on appeal -- the charge of publishing seditious material in Halifax, since it had emerged at trial that a BESCO official had leaked the notice to the Halifax newspapers. He was sentenced to two years in prison but paroled after serving less than five months. His death in 1937, when he was in his late 60s, was blamed on a lung ailment picked up while confined to the damp cells of Dorchester Penitentiary.


1. Ernest R. Forbes, The Maritime Rights Movement, 1919-1927, p. 41.

2. Reilly, J. Nolan. "The General Strike in Amherst, Nova Scotia, 1919," Acadiensis, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 56-77.

3. Roy Wolvin and a cadre of former Beaverbrook associates combined Nova Scotia Steel and Coal, Dominion Coal, Dominion Iron and Steel, Dominion Steel, a Halifax shipyard, and several other companies into BESCO. Such monopolies arose from the merger of industrial and finance capital. They acquired tremendous individual power but beyond their private power, the monopolies had the full might of the Canadian state and its entire military, judicial, financial and other resources behind them in the battle with the working class. The post WWI period was awash in excess productive capacity. BESCO was determined to save costs by cutting wages; the workers, the producers of wealth, were determined to resist. The venture ultimately collapsed, as it tried to force ever greater concessions from labour.

See also Suzanne Morton, "Labourism and Economic Action: The Halifax Shipyards Strike of 1920," Labour/Le Travail, Volume 22 / Volume 22e (1988).

4. Mellor, "United We Stand, Divided We Fall," A Study of Cape Breton Unionism, 1971, p. 14.

5. In "A Boy Who Went to War," Tom Doucette writes that "BESCO owned the houses and barracks (for single men), stores, hospital, and all utilities, even the town streets. There was little private ownership of property. BESCO's General Manager lived in a company-owned wooden mansion that looked like something out of the deep south. The company built it on an entire block overlooking the main street. His life and comforts were on par with his army counterpart: a General." People were dying of malnutrition:

Infant Mortality Rate     1921        1922

National rate                     88.1           86.8

Sydney Mines                  140.0         156.3

New Waterford                148.1         159.4

Sydney                             175.9         175.8

Glace Bay                        305.9          250.0

6. Maritime Labour Herald, May 5, 1923, p.1.

7. Dawn Fraser, Echoes From Labour's War, p.19.

8. James B. McLachlan, a coal miner of Irish-Scottish origin, had come forward to reject the old ways of trade unionism and promote the closest possible bonds and increasing unity of the oppressed of all nationalities. He held that without such a unity a victorious struggle against the general oppression is impossible. The old craft unions built on individual trades and in isolation from other members of the working class were not consistent with the demands of the times. In also rejecting company unionism, McLachlan advocated and built in practice a mass trade unionism that attempted to mobilize all miners regardless of nationality, immigrant status, state-organized racism, education, specific trade or any other aspect that interferes with organizing and uniting workers as workers.

For more information on J.B. McLachlan's trial, see David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1999), Chapter 8; Barry Cahill, "Howe (1835), Dixon (1920) and McLachlan (1923): Comparative Perspectives on the Legal History of Sedition," University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol. 45 (1996), pp. 281-307.

This article was published in

Number 17 - May 9, 2019

Article Link:
100th Anniversary of the Halifax General Strike: A Militant Tradition of Workers' Struggles in the Atlantic Provinces - Tony Seed


Website:  www.cpcml.ca   Email:  editor@cpcml.ca