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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.