Some sixty to seventy miners, mainly married men with families, went down into the underground workings at Pioneer Mine for the first mine ‘Sit-down’ in Canada. The men intended to remain there until the company agreed to negotiate a peaceful and just settlement. The step had been forced by the stubborn and uncompromising stand of the management, who have refused to even allow government arbitration of the strike, or make any effort at negotiation. The move was taken mainly to prevent violence and disorder … (March 6, 1940. BC Lumber Worker Union Bulletin. Vancouver, B.C.)
February 27, 1940
At 6:20 in the morning, the sky was clear, and the moon bright enough to see how the heavy snow pulled the fir branches low over the creek, occasionally dropping chunks into the water and then springing the branch into the air, causing the whole tree to shudder. Icicles glistened with the moonlight, even as they stabbed into blankets of sparkling white along the side of the road, marking yesterday’s melt. It would have been bucolic, almost sublime, if it weren’t for blood staining the crushed snow on the bridge over Cadwallader Creek; light from carbide lamps on the men’s helmets, lanterns in the women’s hands made it impossible to ignore.
Helen was always up this early, having made a lunch for her husband before he went into the mine. But today it was she who had left their cabin just prior to the whistle. It was she who stood side-by-side, pram-by-pram, with the other fifty or more wives on the bridge and the road to the mine, bundled in their wool coats and knit scarves. They stood in silence and waited. The men around them, the single men, spoke in voices below the rumble of the creek, kicked at soiled snow, and sucked on their cigarettes. Even the non-union men were there, watching, sensing something had shifted. Even though they hadn’t signed up, they’d vowed to not cross the line.
Helen reached into the pram where her infant slept and traced her bare 29 finger down Louise’s tiny nose and over her lips, bow-shaped like her father’s. The baby puckered and suckled at the air. Helen smiled and slid her bare hand under her daughter’s back beneath warm blankets. She felt the rise and fall of her daughter’s breath, her heartbeat against her hand. She brushed her fingers back and forth slowly so as to not wake her little love. Then she found the wooden shaft, still cold from the shed. The feel of wood was familiar in her hand as she had played an instrument since she was a young girl, but this was not the neck of her cello; the cello that resided with her uncle and not her, the cello that was no longer played at all. That morning, the wood in her hand tucked beneath her sleeping daughter was the smooth wood of an axe haft. She gripped it until her knuckles hurt. If there were to be bloodshed on the bridge today, it wouldn’t only be the men’s. She slipped out her hand, adjusted the quilt and put back on her glove.
When she’d kissed Peter goodbye that morning at four, she’d been gentle with his lip still mending from yesterday’s encounter with a billy club. Though he’d smiled when he said not to worry, she could see him wince with the pain just pulling his lip over his own teeth. He was lucky to still have them all with the blow he’d been dealt. If only she’d been there; maybe she could have made a difference, could have stopped the fighting, talked things out.
The whistle cut through the morning. Helen sucked air into her lungs and held it as she clutched the handle of her pram. She looked to Dorothy, standing next to her. “You okay?”
“Need a cigarette.” Dorothy fumbled in her pocket, then turned and bummed one from Gunnar, a blaster she’d been boarding since the single men had been evicted from the bunkhouses.
He flicked a match and put it to the end of her cigarette and mimed a blast with his hands.
Flanked by two Provincial Police constables, Dr. Ramsey stormed towards the bridge.“Where the fuck are they?” He shook his finger at the crowd. “If they’ve gone and fucked things up down there, there’ll be hell to pay!” He took a step towards Helen, and lowered his voice. “Morning to you, Miss Campbell.” He nodded to her. “Mighty unpleasant, yesterday it was. Maybe you should reconsider your present company, Miss. Your uncle will be here shortly; surely you could see it in your heart and some good sense in your head to go on back home with him.”
Helen’s heart crashed into her ribs. “It’s Mrs. MacDonald.” She enunciated each syllable, the name not yet familiar in her mouth. “I am happy where I am, thank you.” Her jaw ached with the force of her words. “Uncle knows I’m here, Dr. Ramsey, if he wants to see me.”
“Suit yourself, Miss Campbell.” Ramsey huffed, and turned to the men on the bridge, “You heard the whistle! There’s work to be done …”
Constable Wallop, as she’d named him, smacked his clubs into his gloved hand.
“If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, then come and get it.” Dorothy shook her cigarette at the cops. “You’re nothing but a goddamn goon, and you know it.” Her mane spilled out from under her hood and glowed a crimson halo in the carbide light.
“Easy there, Red.” The cop grinned.
Helen took hold of the haft under Louise and tried to slow the tremor in her hand. The haft was heavy in her hand, the adrenaline bitter in her mouth. She looked to the miners behind them, ready for the hand-off.
A car, the company car, pulled to a stop down the road; a man stepped out. She clenched her fingers, and held her lips tight as she looked at his familiar silhouette against the snow, as he leaned sideways on his walking stick. He was talking to a man in a brown coat next to him, to give orders, no doubt. Uncle seemed more stooped than usual; his back must be giving him trouble. She willed him to look up, to recognize her in the dim morning, to see her with her envied new pram and her flawless infant. But he adjusted his hat, gestured at the bridge, and then swung his walking stick toward mine shaft number three, flicking up snow and rubble.
The man in the brown coat then trotted over the snow to Ramsey. They exchanged words, words under the rumble of the creek, the breathing and shuffling of the crowd on the bridge.
“What the hell do you think they’re talking about?” Dorothy drew short quick breaths on her cigarette, spewing smoke and steam from her nostrils like an angry bull.
“Wait, Dot.” Helen rubbed Louise’s tummy and straightened her quilt.
A wail pierced the air.
Helen jumped, and the crowd shuffled, looking for the source of the distress. A mother further down the line lifted her baby from its buggy and patted it over her shoulder.
“Fools!” Ramsey spouted as he turned from the crowd and stormed away. The brown-coat man and one constable headed straight for shaft number four. They unlocked the cage and descended into the mine with the whine and grind of the winch.
“Do you think they’ll cut the power?” Dorothy flicked her cigarette, knocking the cherry free to sizzle in the snow.
“No.” She was certain, she had to be certain. “They wouldn’t do that. There’s a lot of things they’d do, but they wouldn’t do that.” The cage and motor stopped somewhere in the depths of the goldmine.
Helen looked down the road to the car; its engine fumbled and stopped. It whined to a start before failing again. She hadn’t seen him in months, spoken for over a year, and he hadn’t so much as given her a second look, hadn’t come to see his grand-niece. A knot in her throat crushed against her larynx as she tried to swallow, hold back her tears. The car rumbled to life; the headlights flicked on.
“Why do you put up with all this, Helen?” Dorothy rocked her pram on its squeaky springs.
“Jesus, Dorothy.” Helen’s mouth trembled; she was no longer able to control it, “You’d do the same.” She looked away from Dorothy’s wet eyes. Louise began to fuss. Helen picked her up before she could let out the unrestrained cry of a hungry infant.
“Shit, Helen, you could be sitting pretty over poached salmon and eggs, next to a nice fire, and yet you’re here. Either you’re crazy, stubborn, or some kind of a saint.” She laughed and hugged her across her shoulders. “That’s why we love you so goddamn much.”
Helen laughed, cried, as she watched the exhaust from the car evaporate in the morning light. Her life prior to the two years that had brought her here on this road receded into an unreachable distant past as the tail lights of the car diminished to red pinpoints before disappearing all together.
Lorrie Miller lives in Vancouver. Since completing a PhD., she has had a fourth child and decided that a life of creative writing and teaching is a good balance to familial chaos. "Cadwallader Creek" is the opening chapter of her first novel, a historic fiction inspired by the lives of her husband's grandparents.