Union Hall still serves as heart of community
Even though the Canmore Miners’ Union Hall was built nearly 100 years ago to serve the union and its members, it quickly became a focal point for the community, a role that has continued despite the fact the union stopped meeting when the mines closed in July of 1979.
Members of the Canmore miners’ union, Local 1387 of District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), began building the Union Hall in 1910 on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street as a place to meet and conduct union business.
The hall became a community hall, as it was one of the few locations in town where residents could hold a dance, a ceremony or celebration. Nearly a century later, how the Union Hall is used is unchanged. The hall still hosts weddings, funerals, fundraisers, dances, movies, plays, musical events, community celebrations and parties.
There was, however, a period after the mine closed when the Union Hall saw little use, and during that period, the Town considered demolishing the building to make way for additional parking stalls as part of a plan to turn the corridor from Sixth Street to Seventh Street into parking.
Thankfully, the community and the Town were able to find another way and keep the building from going the way of other historical buildings.
Canmore’s coal mines opened in 1887, but miners did not form their union until 1905. They first began meeting in secret in 1903 with a goal of improving wages, hours and working conditions. At that point in Canmore’s history, miners worked 12-hour days, six days a week, for a $1.25 per day. They had no benefits, no health care and no pension. They also worked in difficult, dangerous conditions.
Once Canmore miners had joined the UMWA, they first met in Finn Hall, a hall located on Mineside in the small Finnish community located on the southeast side of Canmore Creek. Mine Manager Hobart William McNeill, however, evicted the union from mine property in 1907 during a strike, forcing the miners to meet in a variety of places, including out in the bush, as they first did in 1903, and in a couple of Canmore shacks.
Union members began building the hall in 1910. Working in shifts after completing a day’s work at the mine, the miners completed the hall in 1913.
For McNeill and the mine owners, the Canadian Anthracite Coal Co., a unionized workforce would have meant higher costs, which would have made it more difficult to compete against other coal mines in Canada and the U.S.
Without a union to advocate for them, miners would have seen no improvement in their working lives. Canmore has always been a diverse community, home to many nationalities and languages, including Finnish, German, Ukrainian, Polish and Italian, and many of the miners spoke little or no English, leaving them vulnerable.
Louise Mattson, who was born in Canmore in 1923 and whose father, Henry Sherwood, served as the union’s secretary treasurer from 1937 to 1965, knew even as a child the union played an important function in Canmore, especially for those who could not advocate for themselves.
“We knew that the union helped people,” Louise said. “There wasn’t any employment insurance. There wasn’t anything. There wasn’t a pension. I know my dad had to stop work because of his health. In the end, he did get an old age pension.”
It was up to the union and men like Henry Sherwood to help the miners; to ensure they and their families got the support they needed.
“If they had problems or if they needed forms filled out, they’d come and see my dad,” Mattson said. “They used to come at supper time and mom would say, ‘we’ll put dad’s supper in the oven’.”
Jac Miskow, born in Canmore in 1926 of Ukranian descent, worked as an underground miner for 40 years. His parents, Andrew and Barbara Miskow, moved to Canmore in 1912 from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and his father spoke Ukrainian much of the time. His English, Jac said, was OK, enough to get by, but not enough to allow him take on a management position. Both Jac and his father Andrew were union members.
Jac still remembers the meetings, raucous affairs with men shouting and stamping their feet, objecting to increases in rent.
“The union was important, but some of the oldtimers were still there and you didn’t dare speak because you were young and I remember they were going to raise the rent for a company house from $5 a month to $15 a month. The men raised a big raucous fuss, fighting it. ‘No, no, no, too much, too much!” Jac said.
Outside the union meetings, said Jac, the majority of Canmore residents would head down to the Union Hall for a dance.
“I remember going to dances and all the men would be in that corner and the women in that corner and you’d be thinking ‘I’m going to dance with her’ but it you waited too long she was gone!” Jac said laughing. “Some of the guys always had a mickey in their pocket and they’d go into the bathroom and take a swig.”
And during the Second World War, when fights broke out during the dances, the only way to get the men to stop was for the band to break into something patriotic.
“During the war they’d have dances and they’d all get fighting in the hall and they used to play “God Save the King”. That was the only way to stop it, to get everybody to stand up!” Louise said laughing.
Like his father and his grandfather, Gordie Miskow went to work in the mine and, even if it was only for a year-and-a-half, he’s still a proud Canmore coal miner.
“For the year and a half I worked there I was so proud. It was just a question of good, old-fashioned hard work and camaraderie. As much about the yelling and screaming of the union, the camaraderie was a big thing. Think of what you guys did,” Gordie said to Jac. “How many basements did you pour? How many hospitals did you build? The curling rink? All done by union members.”
And while the union and the Union Hall didn’t play much of a role in Gordie’s working life, the Union Hall certainly served as the centre of his social life.
“In my 20s it was the hub for some the best dances I could ever imagine. You look at some of the weddings… and these were true parties. And the New Year’s parties they would put on, you’d do everything in your power to get a ticket. It was the greatest thing. For me, that time from ’72 to ’78… the dances there turned Canmore around!” said Gordie.
While the dances and parties may have been memorable, both his generation and the preceding generations share fond memories of the annual Christmas parties. Each year, the union would host the party and Canmore Mines Ltd. would pay for a gift for each child in Canmore. Parents would go down to the company store – the Rundle Mountain Trading Co. – and add the names of their children to a register. When Santa Claus finally arrived at the Christmas Party, following the Christmas skits, each child would get a present.
Given their connection to the Union Hall and their memories, Gordie, Jac and Louise all agreed it would have been a shame if the Union Hall had been torn down like so many other Canmore buildings.
“For a while there people didn’t seem to think much of it. But for the past few years it’s been used and I’m glad they haven’t torn it down like everything else,” Louise said.
It survived through the efforts of local community groups and passionate community defenders who saw the value of the Union Hall even when it had been all but abandoned.
Pine Tree Players, which produced its first play on July 1, 1978 and held its first play in the Union Hall in 1979, had been looking for a venue. They formed a committee to save and renovate the hall, which raised $48,000 in three months in 1982 through a raffle for a housing lot in Canmore, followed by a $57,000 Canada Manpower grant. Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed re-opened the hall in July 1983, calling the Union Hall a community centre for all time.
Following that, the Union Hall served as a youth centre and a meeting hall for the Canmore Lion’s Club and then in the early 1990s as another youth centre known as The Hub.
Pine Tree Players came back into the Union Hall in 2002. Since then, Pine Tree Players and the Town of Canmore, which owns the hall, have upgraded or replaced the kitchen, bathrooms, windows and front stairs.
An exterior renovation is the next logical step, Union Hall Manager Bob Snape said, and it is one that has been on the books as a long-term goal for a few years now, stemming from the Lamphouse project when the Union Hall was proposed to be incorporated into an arts centre.
When Pine Tree Players took over management of the hall, the newly formed management committee chose to fulfill a commitment to restore the exterior.
Snape said an anonymous donor and the Town of Canmore have each contributed $100,000 towards the project, with another $28,000 raised so far.
“The town really needs the Union Hall and the fact is, restoring it will bring the hall completely back to the community and restore some of the history of the mine in the community,” Snape said. “The Union Hall is now seeing the respect and integrity it deserves and it’s the only building in downtown Canmore with any connection to the mining history. It’s becoming more important all the time. The phenomenal amount of activity that goes on there is a testament to that.”
Canmore still has some significant heritage buildings, such as the Canmore Hotel, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church and the North West Mounted Police Barracks.
The Union Hall, however, is the last remaining building in Canmore directly tied to the coalmines and miners. As the last visible reminder of the town’s mining history, the Union Hall is perhaps the most important of Canmore’s heritage buildings.
“We don’t really have anything left to brand the town as a mining town,” said Snape. “This is the only thing left. You come downtown and what are you going to look at? This is all that is left. You talk of branding: there’s nothing left to ‘brand.’
“The memories are still alive, but there’s nothing left to relate them to. And how do I tell stories… because new people in town won’t understand what that means?”
Which is why the Union Hall and the restoration project is so important, Gordie said.
To that Jac added, “I hope it stays forever, and having it restored back to its original condition would be really, really something. Absolutely. When you talk to people they’re often surprised. ‘This was a coal-mining town?’ Yeah, it was a coal-mining town and an important coal-mining town.”
For more information about the Canmore Miners’ Union Hall centennial restoration project, go to project website athttp://cmuh.weebly.com/restoration-project.html
In order to post comments on our web site, you must validate your email address. An email was sent to you when you registered that included an activation link. If you have not yet done so, please click on the link to activate your account.
If you did not receive your activation email, please click here to have it resent.