At my school, from the very beginning, we were taught the very basics about the history of Glace Bay. By rote, we could all recite that, “The Town of Glace Bay was founded (a funny word for a five-year-old) in 1901. Its two main industries are coal mining and fishing.” (Note the word “are;” this was the early 1970s.) And so it was that there, in my elementary school classroom, I was introduced to the name Bill Davis. I wasn’t quite sure who he was, but to my mind, he was as important as Santa and the Easter Bunny in one respect; because of him, we got the day off school. That’s right; Davis Day June 11th, the whole day.
Being a curious child, it didn’t take long for me to dispel the misconceptions I initially had about who Bill Davis was. He wasn’t from Glace Bay, but from New Waterford. We didn’t get the day off to celebrate his birthday, but rather, to remember his death. His death was important. It was so important that even my dad got to stay home from work. Eventually, I even figured out why the kids in Sydney had to go to school on June 11th (And it wasn’t because their principals were mean).
Over the years, I’ve learned as much as I can about the story of William Davis, husband, father, coal miner. It’s an interesting story, and you can read about it in more detail here and here. What you should know, what really you need to know is this: in 1925, during a workers’ strike, the coal company was determined to break the union by any means necessary, and during a march by the workers to one of the company’s locations, the workers were met by armed company police, who fired upon the crowd, wounding several and killing Davis. The incident, rather than discouraging the community, galvanized it, and the organized labour movement continued and thrived in Cape Breton.
The story of Bill Davis is an extremely important one. Not just for Cape Bretoners, and certainly not just for coal miners. And it is especially important today. Too many people take for granted what the pioneers of the organized labour movement achieved, what they worked for, suffered for, and in some cases, even died for. Today, we enjoy safe work environments, vacations, sick days, 5 day/ 35-40 hour work weeks, often without a thought for the price that was paid for these luxuries by those heroes who only sought the dignity to be able to provide for their families and to be treated fairly.
Worse still, we stand by while our current government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and abetted by his Minister of Labour, Lisa Raitt (a displaced Cape Bretoner who has long-since forgotten her roots), declare war on organized labour in this country by repeatedly (I said, “repeatedly”) interceding on behalf of corporations in the collective bargaining process, denying workers their legal rights in the name of “the national economy.”
So, on June 11th, think of William Davis. Though you may have never heard of him, his death had a profound effect on your life. It still does.