One hundred years ago, a 21-year-old coal miner and trade unionist named Joseph Mairs died while serving time in prison during the Occupation of Ladysmith.
Mairs was one of many coal miners who went on strike against four coal mines in Nanaimo and Ladysmith in 1912.
Mairs had worked at the Canadian Collieries mine in Extension and was embroiled in a bitter struggle between miners, fighting for the eight-hour day, health and safety regulations and union recognition under the banner of the United Mine Workers of America, and their employers, which lasted from September 1912 to the start of the First World War.
In 1912, United Mine Workers member Oscar Mottishaw reported dangerous levels of gas in one of the mines. He was fired and blacklisted. In response, his fellow miner held a one-day strike on Sept. 12, 1912. The companies retaliated with lockouts at all the mines, and they used scab labour to continue business.
A year later, the miners in Ladysmith, who were still on strike, had lost patience with scabs. Forming into a large crowd and arming themselves with stones and dynamite, they drove out the strikebreakers and police from the town.
The militia was dispatched, and mass arrests followed.
Mairs was arrested Aug. 15, 1913, and sentenced to one year in jail and a $100 fine. Mairs became ill in January, and after receiving no medical attention, he died on Jan. 20, 1914, one month shy of his 22nd birthday.
Mairs rests in the Ladysmith Cemetery beneath a stone cairn his fellow miners erected in his honour with the inscription “A Martyr to a Noble Cause — The Emancipation of His Fellow Men.”
For the past 11 years, the Joseph Mairs Memorial Committee has been honouring Mairs with a formal memorial the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death.
The 12th annual Joseph Mairs Memorial will take place this Sunday (Jan. 19) at 1 p.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Hall at 1135 Fourth Ave. in Ladysmith.
The topic of discussion this year will be “The Next Hundred Years,” featuring a panel of young people discussing the future of B.C., Canada and the globe in the context of Labour and its contributions.
“We’re really aware it’s the 100th anniversary, and we wanted to do something special,” said committee founder Alastair Haythornthwaite. “We thought we’re looking back 100 years, but we’re also looking forward to the next 100 years.”
Five or six young people will sit on the panel this year.
“I think it’s going to be quite surprising,” said Haythornthwaite. “I know we’ve had some preliminary discussions with the panel, and their take on politics and society and change is quite different from ours. I think it’s going to be very interesting to hear what these people have to say and the interaction between them and the audience.
“One of our catchphrases is ‘our common condition’ — with Joseph Mairs and with each other. It will be very good for young people and older people to hear this dialogue. We can teach them a lot, and they are looking at it with fresh eyes.”
The event will also feature live music by local musicians linked to the labour movement, including Art Farquarson and friends, Beverley McKeen and friends, and Charlie Fox, plus new musical addition Lily Haythornthwaite. Mike Gagnon volunteers to do the sound for them.
Piper Frank Nichols, who has been part of the memorial for the past decade, will lead a procession from the church to the cemetery and play a lament for the fallen at Mairs’s graveside.
Haythornthwaite says the memorial is an event for trade unionists to remember Joseph Mairs and miners from the past and also to link their struggles to the struggles workers face today.
“It’s a non-partisan atmosphere, and it’s a place for us to come and discuss our issues,” he said. “We always have a forum so all the audience can participate.”
“Our struggle as Canadians for justice and democracy is an ongoing process, and Joseph Mairs and all his fellow miners, they were taking part in it 100 years ago, and here we are continuing it on,” he added. “We are trying to do our bit in the world, just as they did. Now, I think our biggest challenge is democracy, to get our politicians to legislate in the interest of the population instead of the corporation and the elites.”
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