Lesson Plan No. 3: Minto, 1932

What can we learn about the history of workers in New Brunswick from the story of a coal mine accident in 1932?

This Lesson Plan is designed to help students understand the way of life in a small single-industry community in New Brunswick. The story involves children, fathers, mothers and other community members and as a result shows the interdependence of working-class life. The story raises questions about the responsibility of employers and governments for ensuring safe conditions in workplaces and also sheds light on the process of social reform in the province. The Lesson Plan uses a small memorial plaque in Minto as a starting point and introduces the role of public memorials in remembering history.

This Lesson Plan offers information about human interaction with the environment as well as insights into economic activity and the interdependence of community life. It is suitable for use in a variety of classes, including Grade 8, Atlantic Canada in the Global Community, as well as other classes at several levels, including those in geography, social studies, history, personal development and English.

The Lesson Plan is based on one of the features on our website. On our home page, go to Labour Landmarks and choose Minto, 1932. Teachers will note that a number of additional sources are identified in the feature, including a longer article in the journal of Atlantic regional history, Acadiensis.

It is common today to discuss issues related to the supply of energy, including the problems of oil and gas supplies, hydroelectricity and nuclear power. Historically, the Industrial Revolution depended on one major fossil fuel, coal, as the principal source of energy. Coal-mining was known in New Brunswick as early as the 1630s, but the focus in this Lesson Plan is on the mining industry as it existed in the 1930s and the people who depended on the extraction of this natural resource for their livelihood. This topic fits well with curriculum objectives for the Grade 8 course on Atlantic Canada in the Global Community. The curriculum guide identifies four areas for students to look at: physical setting (human interaction with the environment and settlement patterns); culture (factors that shape and are shaped by culture, and the varied cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups in the region); economy (the role that basic economic principles play in daily life in Atlantic Canadian society, the sectors of the economy and key economic issues); technology (the effects of technology on work experiences and standards of living and its role in communications, transportation, manufacturing and resource industries, and in recreational, home, and community life); and interdependence with the rest of the country/world.

The main goal for this lesson is for students to gain an understanding of the way of life in a single-industry community in New Brunswick and to understand the place of workers, families, employers and governments in shaping their social experience. By studying a local workplace accident, students will gain an appreciation of the way communities respond to disasters. They will also see how workers have sought social changes to make workplaces safer and to provide more economic security for families. In addition, the Lesson Plan provides opportunities to use primary sources, including both printed documents and photographs.

Outcomes achieved:
Students will achieve an understanding of how people interact with their physical environment and the social and economic conditions that shape this interaction. Students will be alerted to the importance of safe conditions for both play and work. They will also be able to see the value of public memorials as a way of remembering history. The Lesson Plan will develop skills in learning how to read, understand, evaluate, organize and present information about an historical event and will also provide students with opportunities for creative thinking and writing.

Assessment: Students will be assessed on their participation during the group discussions, class reading and exercises, including written work such as the preparation of diaries or letters or short papers that respond to some of the discussion questions raised in class.

Suggested Activities:

  1. To begin, teachers may ask students what they know about the history of coal-mining and in what parts of the world it is an important source of energy. It is possible they will mention the importance of coal in the United States and in major countries such as China; it is also likely they will mention the history of the Industrial Revolution in Nova Scotia or Great Britain. Depending on where the students live, it is possible that none of them will mention New Brunswick as a coal-mining area. The teacher will be able to introduce the idea that coal has been a major source of industrial energy from the start of the Industrial Revolution and point out that New Brunswick has shared in this industry by providing coal for use on the railways and in power plants as well as for home use. The teacher should explain that the class is going to look at one event that took place in New Brunswick in 1932 and use this as a way to understand the way of life in the coal industry in the province at that time. This will involve using a story as well as documents and photographs.
  2. Students should spend some time locating the community of Minto on a map. How far is Minto from other population centres? What is the size of Minto today? The teacher should be prepared to introduce information about the size of Minto in the 1930s and how that compares to, say, Fredericton. Today the population of Fredericton is about 15 to 20 times the size of Minto, but in the 1930s they were much closer in size: the estimated population of Minto was about 5,000 people in the 1930s, at a time when Fredericton had a population of less than 10,000 people. Have any students visited Minto? Have they been to Grand Lake? Are they familiar with the Grand Lake power station that was built in the 1930s in order to burn coal? In discussing the geography of the area, the teacher should be prepared to point out that the area has other natural resources in the woods and waters and farms of the area, but that the Grand Lake district has been known as a source of coal since the 1600s and that this became an important industry in the province in the 20th century.
  3. At this stage, students should consider the plaque commemorating the events of 28 July 1932. The first illustration in the Minto feature on the website is a photograph of the plaque. Read over the text with the class, or have students participate in reading it or even copying it into notebooks. What does the plaque tells us about the events? Are students able to tell the story in their own words? Once a basic understanding has been established, the teacher may then lead a discussion asking students to consider what additional things they want to know about the events.
  4. At this point the class are prepared to read the main story as presented on the website. This could be printed out in a number of copies for individual or group reading, as the students will want to refer to the story later for study purposes and assignments. The teacher may read it aloud, or groups of students may prepare to read the individual paragraphs. The teacher may use Exercise No. 1: Definitions to help students with some of the words or concepts in the story.
  5. A very short comprehension exercise can be completed using the document "No, children could get into it" on the website. The document is an excerpt from evidence given at the coroner's inquest by the mine manager. This is a handwritten document, so it may require close attention to read it through. The teacher could ask students to transcribe it or retype it and compare with their peers to see how accurately they have done this task. There is an important lesson in the use of commas contained in the sentence "No, children could get into it". Show the students how the meaning is completely changed if the comma is omitted.
  6. Another comprehension exercise is available for students who are able to read in French. Note that one of the documents on the website is a news story from a French-language newspaper. In a French-language class, students could try explaining the events in conversational French. Alternatively, they could read the first few paragraphs in French and then discuss, in English, what additional information they have learned from this source.
  7. In order to reinforce comprehension of the story, the teacher may assign students to work in pairs or slightly larger groups to create a basic chronology for the events that took place on 28 July and afterwards. The teacher may suggest that there are five or six stages described in the sequence of events in the story. These can be listed with a very brief description (just a few words or one sentence) after each. After checking on the progress of each group, ask students to make a large-print sheet or card for each event, including a heading for the date and time of the event as well as the brief description. Different groups will probably come up with slightly different lists, and the teacher will be able to lead the class in organizing the selected events into chronological order. The sheets could be posted on a board or the wall to show the storyline that is emerging from the exercise.
  8. Who were the main people involved in this story? Again working in small groups, students could be asked to make a list of the key names in the story. They could do this just from listening to or reading the story. Alternatively, the teacher could use the list of 12 names and accompanying descriptions below in Exercise No. 2: Match the Name to the Description. The teacher could mix up the order of names in the list and ask students to match names to the appropriate description.
  9. There is also an opportunity here to spend time examining the photographs that are presented on the website. These photos can be printed off and one picture given to each of several small groups in the class. Ask the small groups to discuss their assigned photograph and comment on what it "tells" them about the story. Do we know the names of the people in the photos? What do students think these people were like? What were these people thinking at the time the photograph was taken? The students' ideas could then be presented to the rest of the class for discussion.
  10. There is one longer document on the website, "Coroner's Inquest, 1 August 1932". This is an extract from the evidence before the inquest that was convened shortly after the accident to determine the causes of death for the five people. Due to the length of the document, this may be more suited to senior students, but it could be divided into smaller parts for study by less experienced students. In using this document, notice that it is all in the form of Questions and Answers. This lends itself to a class reading in which students take turns in reading the Questions and Answers aloud for the class or even presenting them in the form of a skit. In preparing the students, note that most of the exchange is between two individuals who are identified at the beginning of the document, although other voices are heard later in the excerpt. The questions attributed to "Jury" are posed by the foreman of the jury. The teacher could also remind students that this event took place only a few days after the accident. What do we learn from this document? What seemed to be the main concerns in the questioning? What does the document convey to us, either in words or indirectly, about the way the community felt about the disaster? Does it make us feel the disaster was inevitable? Was the rescue doomed to failure?
  11. The teacher should be prepared to lead a class discussion that focuses on the causes of the accident, the assignment of responsibility for it and the consequences for the families and the community. This should be developed in stages. Consider in turn the cases of the children, and then of the rescuers. Why did the children get into trouble? Why did the miners put themselves in danger? What could have been done to prevent the accident? What could have been done to lessen the danger for the rescuers? To what extent was the employer responsible for the situation? To what extent was the government responsible? Why were the widows denied compensation, and why did the Supreme Court decide otherwise? How would conditions have been affected by the existence of a coal miners' union? Teachers will keep in mind that these are relatively open-ended questions and that the shape of the discussion will depend on the level of the class and the amount of time available. The teacher may have to explain contextual matters such as the nature of the employment relationship, the role of provincial mining laws, the concept of workers' compensation, the process of appealing legal decisions to a higher court, the idea of trade unions or labour organizations. In preparing for more advanced discussion, teachers should keep in mind that further information is available in the article about these events in the journal Acadiensis.
  12. One optional writing activity allows the students to take on the identity of one of the individuals in the story, such as those listed in Exercise No. 2: Match the Name to the Description. The assignment could be to write a diary or a letter explaining the individual's part in the events and their aftermath. This will emphasize that every individual had a particular perspective on the events and that this perspective is related to their place within the larger community. In order to maintain focus, this should be a word-limited assignment, say 200 or 300 words which individuals could read to the class or in small groups before finishing a final version for handing in for assessment.
  13. Another option is for students to write a small paper answering one or more of the discussion questions raised in the class discussion under Activity No. 11 above. Again, for the purposes of focus, two or three pages could be recommended as a limit on length, but students in more senior classes could certainly write longer papers and they could make use of additional sources suggested on the website. As with the letter or diary entries, these papers could be read to the class or to peer groups before a final version is submitted.
  14. Another writing option is for students to prepare a small paper (again two or three pages) about job safety and precautions and rules to follow when at work. In preparation for this activity, a classroom discussion could include questions such as: What kinds of jobs are safe? What kinds are dangerous? Are there situations or jobs that are especially dangerous for young workers? What kinds of precautions and rules do students need to follow when they take on jobs? Students at the senior high school level will probably have had some work experience of their own and may wish to add to the discussion from that perspective. The teachers may also wish to share information about jobs they had when they were students. More information about job safety for young workers can be found at the following site maintained by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
  15. One underlying theme in this Lesson Plan is the idea of commemoration and public memory. Return to the original plaque for the events of 1932 and have the class discuss it again. When was it erected, and why? Note that one of the photographs was taken at the unveiling. Who was present at this event? Note that a second plaque was also unveiled in Minto to commemorate other miners who lost their lives in the course of their employment. By enlarging the photograph, it is possible to read some of the names. Do students recognize any of these names? What do students think of the statement that was made at the time this plaque was unveiled: "We remember our war dead. We should also remember those who died in the workplace"?
  16. Finally, teachers may ask students about the existence of other memorials, monuments or plaques within their community. How many of these recognize the place of workers in local history? If there are examples of additional memorials to workers, what do they commemorate? Note that there are other examples of memorials to workers identified in the Labour Landmarks section of the website. One section, which may also be entered from the Labour Landmarks page, is about monuments for the annual 28 April Day of Mourning. If your class is meeting during April, it may be possible to attend one of the ceremonies in your area or to invite a representative from the local labour council to visit the class.

Exercise No. 1: Definitions


Asphyxiation: death or loss of consciousness due to the impairment of normal breathing, such as by gas or other noxious agents or lack of oxygen; choking, suffocation, smothering.

Disaster: a calamitous or disastrous event, especially one occurring suddenly and causing loss of life or considerable damage.

Memorial: some kind of public art or presentation designed to preserve the memory of a person or event, such as a plaque, monument or even an event such as a day dedicated to commemoration.

Pits: excavations made for exploring or removing a mineral deposit, as by open-cut methods; also used to describe the shaft or entry to a coal mine, which may be either vertical or sloping; the term is also used generally to describe mines.

Seams: Layers or strata of coal or rock within a larger geological formation; seams may be a few inches or several feet in thickness.

Tragedy: A disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life that affects other members of families and communities.

Union: an organization of workers formed to represent them in their relations with employers in order to improve such things as wages, working conditions and safety for employees in a given occupation or workplace; unions also act more generally in the interests of the working class as a whole; sometimes called a trade union or a labour union.

Workers' compensation: an insurance plan, usually administered in Canada by a government agency, which was designed to provide workers with temporary or partial financial support when they become injured or incapacitated as a consequence of their work, and long-term support to spouses and dependents when a worker is killed on the job; originally called "workmen's" compensation.

Exercise No. 2: Match the Name to the Description

** To prepare for this exercise, the teacher should either (1) copy and cut out names and description and allow students to mix and match; or (2) provide each student with a sheet that contains two columns, one that lists the names the other the descriptions in random order.

Alan Gaudine
nine years old, killed in the mine, born in Minto.
Vernon Stack
ten years old, killed in the mine, born in Minto.
Cyril Stack
twelve years old, killed in the mine, born in Minto.
Joseph O'Leary
seven years old, did not climb all the way down into the mine, went to get help for his friends.
Thomas Gallant
forty-three years old, rescuer killed in the mine, originally from Prince Edward Island, a father.
Vernon Betts
thirty-two years old, rescuer killed in the mine, originally from Hardwood Ridge, near Minto, a father.
Bart Stack
eighteen years old, brother of Vernon and Cyril, attempted rescue, collapsed in mine.
Mathias Wuhr
a rescue worker who received a medal for his heroism, in 1937 chosen as president of Local 7409, United Mine Workers of America.
A.D. Taylor
mine manager for the Miramichi Lumber Company, a Conservative MLA for the area, organized rescue efforts.
W.E. McMullen
Inspector of Mines, arrived from Fredericton while the rescue was in progress, later wrote amendments to Mines Act.
Grace Betts
widow of Vernon Betts, fought for compensation to help raise her children.
Greta Gallant
widow of Thomas Gallant, fought for compensation to help raise her children, attended the unveiling of the plaque.

Credits: David Frank and Christina Lowe.

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