Striking workers shot and killed while marching with their families
On September 29, 1931, coal miners from nearby Bienfait gathered with their families, along with several hundred other miners and their families, to parade through the streets of Estevan in order to draw attention to their strike. The RCMP confronted them, attempting to block and break up the procession, then opened fire on the crowd. Three miners were killed and many others were injured and arrested. The Black Tuesday Riot is remembered to this day as a pivotal moment in Saskatchewan’s labour history.
In 1931 the miners of Bienfait Saskatchewan faced down company, government and police when they went on strike to improve their working and living conditions. The miners had joined the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada that same year. The union was an affiliate of the Workers Unity League, a militant labour body founded by the Communist Party of Canada in 1929.
The miners wanted set daily working hours, better working conditions, the end of the company store monopoly, and a wage increase. The mining company refused to recognize either their union or their demands, so the workers went on strike on September 7.
To gain public support for their cause, the miners and their union organized a solidarity parade in the nearby town of Estevan. The mayor and town council quickly declared the march illegal and called in the RCMP to reinforce the local police.
On September 29, several hundred coal miners gathered, along with their families, for the parade. Waving the Union Jack and carrying banners that read “We will not work for starvation wages”, “We want houses, not piano boxes” and “Down with the company store”, they slowly drove from Bienfait into Estevan. They were met by a line of police, backed by the RCMP and a firetruck. Words were exchanged and a scuffle broke out. The police fired, at first to frighten the marchers, but they soon turned their weapons toward the crowd that included women and children. Within minutes, three of the striking miners were dead with more people injured.
The next morning 90 RCMP descended on the homes of the miners, arresting 13 strikers on charges of rioting. Others were arrested in the days that followed. A number of workers, including the leaders of the unions, were put on trial and sentenced to hard labour. The police who killed the three men were never charged.
The riot, police violence and murder of three men – Peter Markunas, Nick Nargan and Julian Gryshko – hardened public opinion and only grew support for the labour movement across the Prairies.
By October 6, the mine owners finally agreed to implement an eight-hour day, a minimum wage of $4 a day, reduce the rent for miners’ houses and end the company store monopoly – but they would not recognize the union (and didn’t until the Second World War).
Today, in the northwest corner of the Bienfait cemetery, there stands a single grave that holds the remains of the three murdered strikers. The tombstone reads “Least We Forget. Murdered in Estevan Sept 29 1931 by RCMP”. Over the years it has been vandalized by removing “RCMP” which was always repainted by those who remember their history.