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Slim Evans Comes to Princeton: An excerpt from Soviet Princeton

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Here’s an excerpt from Soviet Princeton: Slim Evans and the 1932-33 Miners’ Strike, by Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat, forthcoming in November.

Chapter Two: Slim Evans Comes to Princeton

However geographically isolated Princeton may have been in 1932, its citizens were keenly aware of events unfolding in the larger world. This was the case for the workers no less so than the owners and shopkeepers — Princeton’s miners were well attuned to the winds of change in the atmosphere, and the increasing attention paid to socialism. Many workers knew of the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known in the Pacific Northwest as the Wobblies), the Communist Party, the Workers’ Unity League, and other organizations springing up in different parts of the country and the world. These organizations were being established to look out for the interests of working people caught up in the Depression and lead the masses to a better future. Many miners in Princeton were more than ready to throw themselves into the project of building a new world around the needs of the working class.

And so, in the spring of 1932, when the owners of the Tulameen mine demanded that the previous year’s “temporary” wage rollback be continued into the coming year, some Tulameen miners, who belonged to no union, took it upon themselves to invite someone from the coast to help them in their struggle with the boss. In response to their invitation the Workers’ Unity League dispatched Slim Evans. On September 13, Evans for the first time addressed a group of Tulameen miners.

* * *

Slim Evans on the cover of Unity

Arthur Herbert Evans, or “Slim” Evans as he became known, was an inspiring speaker, an indefatigable union organizer, and a communist — though he denied being a capital-C Communist, i.e., a member of the Communist Party of Canada, since that was illegal.i His biography mirrors the political history of western North America.

Evans was born in April 1890 and raised in Toronto, where after leaving school at the age of thirteen he learned the carpenter’s trade. He left Ontario in 1911 as a journeyman carpenter and headed for Winnipeg to look for work. After a few months in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in December of that year he headed for Minneapolis, joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and was jailed for the first time.ii

Municipal officials in the United States had begun using various public order laws to shut down labour organizers. The Wobblies took up this struggle and insisted upon their rights of association and free speech by organizing a series of “free-speech fights.” Slim Evans was one of many Wobblies arrested and imprisoned for their roles in these protests.

In 1913 he travelled to Ludlow, Massachusetts, to take part in a miners’ strike. That dispute escalated into the famous Ludlow Massacre.iii Evans was himself wounded by machine-gun fire during the attack. After a stay in the hospital he travelled and worked throughout the northwestern states before coming back to Canada through Lethbridge, probably in 1916. He worked as a carpenter in Calgary, the Crowsnest Pass area, and Trail, B.C., and was back in Alberta in time for the founding of the One Big Union (OBU) in 1919. The OBU was a radical new union based on the principal of industrial organization, in contrast to the unionization by craft as practiced by the mainstream labour movement.

Almost immediately, Evans went to southern Alberta as organizer for the Monarch local of the OBU in the Drumheller coalfield.iv There he was elected district secretary, and was soon front and centre in the struggle between the OBU and the established United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The dispute was a bitter one, and was as much between the old, Gomperite UMWA and the radical new OBU as it was between the boss and the worker. In the course of the fight, Evans was accused of effectively taking over the UMWA local. With the aid of UMWA officials’ testimony he was charged and convicted of fraudulent conversion for taking control of the local and its bank accounts, and in January 1924 was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released after serving fourteen months; he moved to Vancouver and joined the Carpenters’ Union.

Evans joined the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in 1926. In 1929 socialist progressives associated with the CPC founded the Workers’ Unity League (WUL) as a central labour organization dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights according to socialist principles. At some point Evans joined the WUL, and when the miners’ call for help came in 1932 he was sent to Princeton.

He brought with him the organizing techniques of the new revolutionary unions: ceaseless struggle; frequent meetings of workers and sympathizers, with no distinction drawn between employed and unemployed; and no union bureaucracy — major decisions would all be “made from below.”

* * *

Evans arrived on September 13, 1932, and met with some of the Tulameen miners at a café. They told him they wanted to recover the 10 percent wage reduction they had conceded in the spring of 1931, which they had been assured would be returned the following September. Seventeen months later, the miners were now working one day a week and earning $4.50 a day. The owners of the Tulameen mine were reneging on their promise.

But Evans advised the miners to delay their demand. The mine was producing lignite coal, which could not be stored — when the weather turned colder, demand would increase and the mine would get back up to speed; when they were working six days a week they would be in a position of strength.

At an open-air meeting that night, Evans said the same thing to a mass rally of miners.v Because many of them were Yugoslavs who, feared deportation, the meeting took place in the dark, in an empty lot in the Tunnel Flats. Evans later wrote “It had got so dark that no one was recognizable, so with nothing but a flashlight to read the notes with I started.” He had them all sit down on the grass, since he intended to speak for ninety minutes or more. Soon, he told them, when winter came and the demand for coal increased, “I am prepared to organize a local here of the Mine Workers Union of Canada.”vi

The authorities were gearing up for trouble. The province’s attorney general, Robert Pooley, ordered thirty members of the B.C. Provincial Police (ten of them mounted) and ten RCMP officers to Princeton in anticipation of a strike. “Evans is gaining a large following of miners and unemployed,” wrote one B.C.Provincial Police officer. His superior wrote to the RCMP for help, saying “This man seems to be establishing himself as quite a danger, and if there is any way of removing him it would help considerably.”vii It would certainly help the mine owners.

The meaning of this large influx of police officers to their small town was not lost on the miners, who understood that the full weight of the establishment was mobilizing against them. Police testimony at Evans’s subsequent section 98 trial testified to the tension and heightened anxiety caused by the large armed force, not just among workers but among many of the town’s merchants and professionals.

Evans, meanwhile, had left Princeton. When he returned on 17 November a period of intense activity began, both by the miners and by the police. The miners held almost-daily meetingsviii attended by two to three hundred people and addressed by Evans. Miners signed up as members of the Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC), and the unemployed workers as members of the Canadian Labor Defense League (CLDL).

Police, as the Princeton Star noted ominously on 24 November, “have been giving the matter considerable attention. They have attended all the public meetings, and checked up otherwise on these activities, and have kept a record. In connection with the campaign and possibly in preparation for a possible demonstration, district authorities of the Provincial Police have been in the district this week.”

A meeting of miners on 21 November was followed two days later by a “smoker,” a more social affair with music, dancing, and a series of wrestling and boxing bouts. It was a rare opportunity for workers and the unemployed to get together and share their experiences over a beer.

This might also have been the impetus for the creation of the Workers’ Center that was established some time before Christmas 1932 — following the incorporation of the union, it rented a hall from William H. Thomas, a Princeton old-timer who came as a carpenter (he may have built the hall himself) and was now a rancher. The hall was christened the Workers’ Center, and housed meetings of miners and of the unemployed. It was also a place where workers could eat for a reasonable price, bed down if necessary, talk with fellow workers, and generally escape their social isolation amid others who lived similar lives.ix The Workers International Relief, a sister organization of the Union and the Canadian Labor Defense League was providing food in Princeton to strikers and others, and it may well have functioned in this Center.

In the Princeton Star of 24 November, Dave Taylor identified Evans as a criminal: “Police state that Mr. Evans was in 1924 sentenced to three years imprisonment for embezzlement of funds of the Drumheller, Alberta, local of the United Mine Workers of America. The amount involved was $2554.27 and action was brought by the President of the Drumheller local.”

Evans’ response? “Let them give it all the publicity they like,” he said. “The more they say about it the better I’ll like it…. I will place all the facts before the workers on Friday evening and let them be the jury.” He did just that: At a meeting the next day he drew attention to the accusation, and explained how the American Federation of Labor-affiliated UMWA had colluded with the coal bosses to rid themselves of a revolutionary opponent. “After giving his version of the incident, he was voted ‘not guilty.’”x

This marked the beginning of the Princeton Star’s growing interest in Evans and the labour unrest. Over the next ten months, Dave Taylor published near-weekly articles and editorials on the matter — between 23 November 1932 and 28 September 1933 only two issues of the Star contained no articles or editorials on Evans or the miners’ struggles. Taylor consistently portrayed Princeton as threatened by outside forces, with right-thinking, responsible citizensxi defending their small industrial town from the alien, hate-filled agitators ranged against them.

Throughout the month the heavy police presence was the source of much tension. Soon Princeton’s residents had had enough: At a mass public meeting, twenty-two merchants (out of approximately thirty in town) and several hundred workers and citizens signed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of “Pooley’s Hooligans” (as they were popularly known):

Whereas the importation of increasing numbers of provincial Police, into the town of Princeton, is primarily for the purpose of intimidating the miners who are desirous of organizing into a union to improve their rotten working conditions and low wages rates, and whereas the imported provincial Police are notorious strike breakers and thugs and who have participated in strike breaking and thuggery at Timberland and Fraser Mills strikes, and whereas in the opinions of workers and citizens of Princeton the importation of these provincial Police is wholly unnecessary, and are to be used in the cause of vested interest to keep the workers under the iron heel of the coal barons of Princeton and not in the interest of worker-taxpayers, and whereas we the workers and citizens of Princeton believe that the tax-payers money squandered in this fashion could be put to better use in the way of raising the subsistence allowance of the unemployed therefore be it resolved that we the workers and citizens of Princeton, assembled this 25th day of November, 1932 in mass meeting numbering ______ [ space left] do hereby demand the immediate withdrawal of all extra police at Princeton. Be it further resolved that the immediate cessation of the use of Provincial or other Police in any and all wage disputes. Submitted and passed, 25th day of November 1932, Chairman of Mass Meeting, Princeton, B.C.xii

* * *

Much has been written about Arthur “Slim” Evans and the events of his life, but little has been written about his two adversaries in Princeton, Percy Gregory and Dave Taylor.

To start with the elder: Percy Gregory was born in England 8 June 1881, and came to Canada in 1908 at the age of twenty-seven. We know little of his training and background prior to his arrival in Princeton in or before 1918,xiii when he appears in the local directory as a land surveyor. He had at that time a wife and three children: a five-year-old, a two-year-old, and a baby born that year.

Gregory seems to have played an important role in the organizational life of Princeton. He appears in the 1919 directory as a land surveyor and a fire insurance agent, and in 1920 as the secretary of the board of trade, a position he holds (except for one year) until at least 1927, when the board of trade listing disappears. Either in that year or the next he becomes its president. In 1921 his description includes “civil engineer,” and in 1927 he adds “real estate.” In 1926, according to local historian Laurie Currie, he was active with Bill Ewart, the hardware merchant, in an unsuccessful campaign to incorporate the town.xiv In 1928, in addition to his surveying, insurance, and real estate business, the directory lists him as manager of British Columbian Properties Ltd., described as “Owners of Princeton Townsite and Princeton mining properties,” and as the managing director of Princeton Waterworks Co. Ltd.

Dave Taylor was born 4 November 1904 in Tarbolton, Dundee, Scotland.xv His family emigrated to Saskatchewan in 1909, and later moved to South Wellington, a coal mining community just south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Taylor’s father was in the grocery business. Taylor attended the University of British Columbia and joined the staff of the Ubyssey student newspaper., He worked there from January 1924 to his graduation in 1926, initially as a reporter and finally as sports editor under editor-in-chief Earle Birney. After a brief stint as a reporter for Vancouver’s Province, he arrived in Princeton in 1927 and began work for Joe Brown, the owner and editor of the Princeton Star. Taylor was fired following a dispute with Brown in 1929, but he offered to buy the paper and Brown accepted. Taylor stayed as proprietor and editor until 1938, when he left Princeton to go to the Far East.

While in Princeton he took an interest in all the sports activities on offer, and played saxophone in the town band. As the editor of the town’s only paper he would have rubbed shoulders with Princeton’s “great and good,” and he may have appeared to his seniors as a bright young man who could be brought along. He became secretary of the board of trade for some years while Gregory was president.

As Princeton was unincorporated at the time and so had no municipal government, it was natural that an informal group of well-off and established senior men would be the ones with the loudest voices. It may well have been that Taylor, having spent only five years in Princeton, was quick to absorb the prevailing wisdom that Gregory and the other senior men imparted, wisdom he then parroted back to them in ever-more-inflammatory articles that had the solid support of the town’s worthies.

We know nothing of the relationship between Taylor and Gregory in the eventful and emotional months from December 1932 to September 1933. But Taylor must have been keenly aware of the extent to which the butter on his daily bread depended upon Gregory: The Princeton Star was dominated by advertisements for Gregory’s many and various enterprises. While this revenue could be seen as implicitly backing Taylor’s increasingly hostile views, Gregory was by no means confined to the shadows — he led the kidnappers in 1933, while Taylor was apparently not present. Though there may have been disagreements on some issues (Gregory’s enthusiasm for incorporation, for example), on the question of red revolutionaries and industrial strikes they stood as one.

Notes:

i Evidence of Const. William Thomson, Rex vs. Arthur Herbert Evans, Adjourned Spring Assizes, Vernon, 11 September 1933 before Mr. Justice W.A. Macdonald & Jury. Trial transcript, p. 7.

ii Jean Evans Sheils and Ben Swankey, Work and Wages! Semi-Documentary Account of the Life and Times of Arthur H. (Slim) Evans (Vancouver: Trade Union Research Bureau, 1977), 6.

iii The infamous Ludlow Massacre, where the Colorado National Guard and guards from the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company opened fire on a camp of striking miners and their families, killing twenty-four people, including women and children.

iv Biographical information from Rex vs. Gregory et al. Coalmont, BC, 1 August 1933 before Norman Craigie, Justice of the Peace. Evidence of the Complainant Arthur Herbert Evans. Department of Attorney-General: n.p.

v By this point Evans was already being monitored by the local provincial constable Thomson, who had advised the owner of the hall not to rent it to Evans: Rex vs. Arthur Herbert Evans, 5, 16.

vi Endicott, 154; Rex vs. Arthur Herbert Evans, 39.

vii Endicott, 155.

viii Meetings were held 17 November at the Scandinavian Hall; 18 November, Orange Hall; 19 November, I.O.O.F. Hall; 22 November, Orange Hall; 23 November, Princess Theatre (a smoker, at which Evans sang “Should I Ever Be a Soldier” and “The Internationale”); 24 November, I.O.O.F. Hall (a wedding, with Evans again singing “The Internationale” and, with others, “The Cops’ll Have a Hell of a Time” and “They are Filling the Town with Bulls”; 29 November and 6 December, Workers’ Centre. All dates from Rex vs. Arthur Herbert Evans, 5–13.

ix It should not be forgotten that the miners were not ethnically homogenous –– though miners of British extraction were perhaps the largest group, they did not constitute a majority, and Eastern European miners (mostly of German and Slavic origins) speaking a variety of languages made up a large proportion of Princeton miners.

x Princeton Star, 1 December 1932.

xi From various issues of the Star: well informed men of reasonable views”; “thinking citizens, devoted to the welfare of the community”; reasonably minded people”; “broad-minded person(s)”; “rational citizens”; “the responsible citizens”; “sincere men.”

xii Cross examination of Constable William Thomson in Rex vs. Arthur Herbert Evans, 52–54.

xiii Much of this information is drawn from the Directories published in Vancouver, mostly on a yearly basis until 1948, with the exceptions of 1906–1909 and 1911–1917. The Gregory family is present in the 1921 Census.

xiv Laurie Currie, Princeton 120 Years (Princeton, B.C.: Similkameen Spotlight Publishing, 1990), 79.

xv Information about Taylor is drawn from Nicholas Mills, Once Upon a Time in Princeton (Chilliwack, B.C.: self-published, 2013).

Copyright 2015 Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat. Please contact info@newstarbooks.com for reproduction requests.