A Short History of Blame: The Doctrine of Progress

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of essays by Susan Dodd on Nova Scotia’s history of blaming coal mining accidents on the miners themselves — a history that finally changed in the wake of the Westray disaster. You can read the first and second essays here. This week’s focuses on the period from 1880-1969.


Accident reports are one of the places where people who are otherwise erased from history leave their marks on public record. These people—and I focus here on the people who worked in coal mines—did not often write their own stories and they are largely written out of mainstream histories. Accident reports talk about them, and they do so in an anxious way: the reports show us where the government thinks it has public relations problems. This makes accident reports excellent expressions of the dominant mood of a past time as well as sources of interesting facts.

Reports show us how the capitalist way of doing things is rescued from the disaster’s exposure of the ordinary violence of profit. (I guess it is clear that I think Marx is right about the accumulation of capital out of the lifeblood of workers, although he missed other things, like the mutual reinforcement of consumerism and political apathy, and the psychology of bureaucratic control.)

Accident reports manage us: they turn our sharp focus on the violence of the profit drive into a bland complacency – accidents will happen and people are flawed and society will learn from its mistakes.

Albion Mine, Pictou County, NS. (Source: Nova Scotia Archives https://archives.novascotia.ca/)

Albion Mine, Pictou County, NS. (Source: Nova Scotia Archives)


When disaster struck during the period in Nova Scotia’s coal mining that Eric Tucker presents as governed by “weak direct regulation,” accident reports located the material cause in the hands of particular men, but they also started to find the deeper cause within coal-mining communities. The community came to be seen as an even bigger problem than the individual workers.

In 1880, after 44 men and boys died in the Albion Mine in Pictou County, the mines report looked to technology to improve material conditions and, at the same time, to reform miners morally: for example, the introduction of electric lights would provide “the removal of the temptation held out to workmen to tamper with the safety lamp.”

The report seeks to engage our optimism about progress. At the same time, from 1880 up to the 1956 and 1958 Springhill disasters (which killed 39 and 75 miners, respectively) we see reports reflecting the wider trend to regulate all aspects of social life. Material and social technologies combined were going to make life better. This was the great faith of the era.

Illustration of 1891 Springhill Colliery explosion by C.H. Flewwelling (Source: Nova Scotia Archives https://archives.novascotia.ca/)

Illustration of 1891 Springhill Colliery explosion by C.H. Flewwelling (Source: Nova Scotia Archives)

One of the most interesting reports is the 1891 “Report on the Springhill Disaster” that took the lives of 125 men and boys. In it, mines expert Edwin Gilpin carefully tracks the material cause of the explosion back to the hands of one particular shot-layer. Witnesses attested to this worker being “a careful man,” and yet “the weight of evidence appeared to be that there had been an overcharge of powder.” So here is a clear instance of a kind of failure of good practice; however, Gilpin also notes that the pit had been “idle” the day before and so gas had had a chance to accumulate in unusual concentration.

Gilpin then went on in 1895 to conduct a thorough study of the coal mines in Pictou County, presumably to address concerns about the social cost-benefit of digging in those notoriously gassy seams. Gilpin gives great credence to workers’ stories, and notes conflict between the mine manager and the government inspector: the mine manager is presented as lacking “cooperation” with government, endangering “the safety of the pit” and saying he was more of an “expert” than he really was. Gilpin quotes the mines inspector to reinforce the sense that a coal mine is uniquely dangerous and even uncanny: “I only have heard of one place where fire and water will live together”…and that is, in a coal mine.


The idea of what a “miner” is changes during this period: the reckless individual becomes an unpredictable factor in an organization striving to eliminate contingency, and the unruly mining town becomes an organic community purified by suffering.

The goal now is efficiency—production and predictability are seen as ends in themselves. The key move—an aspect of what some writers now call “social construction”—is in taking a bunch of people and writing them up as “miners.” The history of coal mine accident reports is the history of turning individual people into a social category, and then projecting back onto those individuals all the attributes the category of “miner” brings with it.

Carole MacDonald’s helpful letter reminds us that the dominant constructions of character types are always contested: while the reports work to turn vibrant human beings into a problematic social category that calls for monitoring and reform, there are always other ways of talking about the people who do the work in the mines. “Freedom” demands that we constantly work to break free of our socially constructed types into actual, embodied exchanges with one another. But this is precisely what bureaucratic writing tries to prevent.

In the first wave of accident reporting, it was enough to refer to the general presupposition that everybody is sinful, and that certain kinds of people are especially so because they are not-quite mature, not quite white, property-owning Englishmen. The work of this characterization of miners is entirely consistent with some miners’ romantic view of themselves as independent contractors. It is crucial to the whole story that the idea that any worker is a “victim” becomes prevalent only well into the 20th century — and not fully until the explosion at Westray in 1992.

Striking miners, Glace Bay, NS, circa 1945. (Source: Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/dominion-13)

Striking miners, Glace Bay, NS, circa 1945. (Source: Beaton Institute)

As the second wave develops, the policy focus moves to a treatment of miners as a social category through the institution of public insurance, welfare and education programs. In 1916, Nova Scotia passes the Workmen’s Compensation Act, establishing a no-fault insurance scheme just in time for the deaths of 65 Cape Breton workers in 1917, and of 88 workers in Pictou County in 1918.

This was an incredibly catastrophic time in Nova Scotia history, combining as it did these disasters, the massive horror of World War I, the Halifax explosion of 1917 and then the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. (It is surely one of the marvels of history that the doctrine of Progress survived the first decades of the 20th century. How it persists after the horrors of World War II is, for many, simply baffling.)

Worker radicalism is the great worry addressed by mines reports in the 1920s, and especially the 1925 Duncan Report on Nova Scotia’s coal industry. One economist points to “a wage war” “raging in the Nova Scotia coal fields” and threatening to knock the province out of competition with more peaceful regions. The ’30s continue with small-scale losses of life attributed jointly to worker imprudence and regulatory failure, particularly with regards to gas detection, planned ventilation and handling of explosives.

In the 1940s, the Carroll Commission on Coal saw the entire industry as a problem that needed national attention. In the “elaborate machinery” put in place to resolve grievances between workers and management we see that the central public concern about mining was exploitation and/or the coal mine as a hotbed of dangerous politics.

The report calls for an “end to the industrial warfare which has been going on in Nova Scotia’s coalfields for generations,” and instructs the United Mine Workers to “take whatever steps necessary to strengthen its internal discipline.” Coal miners were now dangerous, a political type that needed to be reformed. The report states:

Employee-employer relations are a matter of emotions as much as a matter of fact: they vary from time to time and from place to place, depending upon factors of human personality as much as upon logic and factual circumstances. In one sense the other two main problems [involving the mine workers], living standards and productivity are aspects of the problem of achieving cooperation for there are no more important determinants of the nature of relations between men and management than the trend of earnings of the men and the trend of productivity of the industry. Also important in determining the state of relations at any given time are the history of past relationships and what the men and management each believe to be the present attitude and degree of efficiency of the other in the mutual enterprise. (Report of the Royal Commission on Coal, 1946)

For the Carroll Report, Nova Scotia’s future prosperity depended on “progressive leadership” for “a maximum cooperation between management and labour.”


Injured miner being taken to hospital by helicopter. Springhill, 1958. (Photo by Robert Norwood via Nova Scotia Archives https://archives.novascotia.ca/)

Injured miner being taken to hospital by helicopter. Springhill, 1958. (Photo by Robert Norwood via Nova Scotia Archives )

By the 1950s, coal mining needed to be justified. The report on the 1956 Springhill disaster that killed 39 men, and the one that followed after the deaths of 75 men in the 1958 Springhill “bump,” suggest public skepticism about coal mining as a whole: did its benefits outweigh its terrible costs?

The report on the disaster spoke passionately of mine communities, now presented as bastions of wholesome hard work and organic heroism:


The manner in which the whole of the community of Springhill met this disaster is a matter of particular comment. The great courage and fortitude which was made manifest during the time of the disaster won the admiration of all Canadians. The whole community shared in the united effort that was put forward to save the men who were below ground. For a long period of time it was not known what number, if any, were alive. The Commission wishes to refer to the efforts made by the mine rescue teams, the bare-faced miners as well as the great display of leadership and resourcefulness that was shown by so many officials of the Company, the Department of Mines and the Union officials. The courage and bravery shown by so many during the disaster and following days is a matter of great pride to everyone who knows what took place. At no time was there any dissension as to what steps should be taken in the work of rescue and the efforts of all were united.

We wish to refer to the leadership given by members of the clergy of all faiths, and to the professional skill of physicians, nurses, and to comment on the help of many others who assisted in the rescue and comfort of men employed in the rescue work during the critical days. The fact that so many were saved was wonderful and is itself the greatest tribute that can be paid to all those persons whose skill and bravery will be forever remembered.

The Commission wishes to express its deepest sympathy to the wives and families of the men who were lost. The Commission considers that every effort was made by all those who took part in the rescue work to make sure that everything was done to save as many men as possible.

The emotionality of the report tries to reassure readers that the kind of community that is created by the suffering and honest, hard work of coal mining is a good in itself.

This emotional tone was picked up again after the 1958 disaster. This report addressed a newly attuned public—television brought the disaster, desperate digging towards the faint sounds of survivors and rescues live to “the whole of the continent.” After 6.5 days, 12 men were found alive, and another six men were rescued after 8.5 days. Prince Phillip even showed up to visit some miners’ homes:

The two mines, Nos. 2 and 4, are now closed, and as such mines constituted the main earning power of the community, economic factors have required very serious consideration. The sympathy of the whole of the continent has been made evident…The period of time during which groups of the men were entombed and the subsequent rescue has been a matter of some wonder. There is general rejoicing that a number of the men were rescued after undergoing hardships of an unbelievable nature. To the wives and families and relatives of the men who were lost, very deep sympathy is extended. Little can be said at this time to comfort the dependents. However, it is hoped that investigations of this nature may lead in some measure to understanding the reasons for this tragedy and possibly lead to mining practices and methods which may avoid or anticipate upheavals or bumps.

While the final Springhill report laments the passing of a way of life, it still looks toward a future guided by increased scientific control of the social and natural worlds, but with an inkling, at least, that the doctrine of Progress includes also the ever-reaching expansion of risk: “with the deepening of mines…in all parts of the world it is necessary to correlate all available information in the hope that some conclusions can be reached with respect to the causes giving rise to these situations.”

Together these disasters ended coal mining in Springhill, but they didn’t dampen faith that the “lessons” of disaster would contribute to the betterment of humankind.



Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming)and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, forthcoming.