The first giant mining company to come to Cape Breton was the Dominion Coal Company. This was in 1892. In a sweeping deal with the Boston financial interests who owned Domco, the Liberal government, awarded them the right to mine Nova Scotia’s coal for 99 years. In return for $88 million, Domco won the right to exploit the miners of Cape Breton to their heart’s content.
Quickly Domco whipped the existing mines into shape. Taking over more than half a dozen small and inefficient mining companies, Domco increased coal production enormously. Within six years of the takeover coal production more than doubled, mounting to 1.5 million tons in 1898. By 1902 production doubled again. Domco meant business.
As part of Domco’s efficiency drive, the people of the mining towns found themselves being organized into a modern day feudal system in which every single aspect of their life depended directly on the Company.
The company ran the stores. When you owed money to the store, which was most of the time, the company would take it out of your pay. If you caused trouble, went on strike, or got laid off, the company could cut off all credit at the stores. Since they quickly became the only stores in the area, the company stores were free to charge any price they wanted for the staples of life.
The company owned the houses in the mining towns. They had no trouble collecting rent, of course, since it came off the top of the wage packet. Evictions were a common weapon to keep the miners in line, or to punish striking workers. Many families spent the winter of 1909-10 in canvas tents after losing their homes during the strike of that year.
The company supplied coal to the miners’ homes, and water too was controlled by the company. The local doctors were all company doctors. A manager at one of the mines during the night would show up the next day as a magistrate in court.
To look at the way they all rallied to support the company against the workers, you’d think that the clergy, the newspapers, the army and the provincial and federal governments all worked for the company too. In 1907 more than one-third of the income of the provincial government came from Domco.
What happened to the money Domco made selling vast quantities of coal? A small portion found its way into the pockets of the working people of Cape Breton. Most of this, however, went right back to Domco as rent, or food money, or for doctors, clothes or fuel. Another part was spent on opening new mines and expanding Domco’s ability to produce more coal. Some of it went to the provincial government as royalties and in the form of outright bribes to the political party, in office.
But the biggest part of the money Domco got by selling coal went to the small handful of individuals who owned the corporation. These people either spent the money personally to lead a luxurious life, or invested it in other parts of Canada, in the U.S., in Latin America-- any place they could drive a hard bargain.
One thing is clear. Very little of the wealth created by the coal miners ended up in the, miners’ pockets. As far as Domco was concerned, the people who did all the work deserved nothing more than a meagre share.