Springhill explosion a reminder of long road to child labour laws

Posted on February 21, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments

Col. John Boileau (Ret.) was researching recipients of the Victoria Cross, Canada’s highest award for valour in combat, when he first learned about children dying on the job at Nova Scotian coal mines at the end of the 19th century.

Boileau was working on a book for Nimbus Publishing at the time. His Valiant Hearts: Atlantic Canada and the Victoria Cross (2005) included the story of Pte. James Peter Robertson, born in Pictou County, who died at the age of 34 in fighting at Passchendaele, Belgium. In battle, he left the trenches to run to the aid of two snipers who were revealed and badly wounded. Robertson carried one back while under fire. He died in the midst of rescuing the second man.

But in learning more about “Pete” Robertson, Boileau came across a story from his early life, from one of the more terrible days in Nova Scotia’s history. It was the original Springhill mining disaster, on Feb. 21, 1891.

It was shortly after midday when there was an explosion—really, a torrent of fire, fed by accumulated coal dust—that ripped through two shafts of the Springhill coal mine. Pete Robertson was there, at just seven years old. He was working alongside his older brother, Dannie Robertson, who was 14 at the time.

Mining work in Canada was done by children then, as well as grown men. Nova Scotia legally allowed “pit boys” younger than 16 years of age in underground mines up until 1923. The boys, taken on as “drivers” and “trappers,” would work together to move coal in horse-driven wagons to the central mine shafts, where it could be shipped to the surface. They were paid less than adult workers. And at Springhill, in remembering the 1891 tragedy, it’s worth also remembering that of the 125 people killed in that disaster and dozens more injured, as Boileau recounts in his later book on Amazing Atlantic Canadian Kids (2019), “30 of the dead were pre-teen and teenage boys.” The Robertson boys’ story is among the many to emerge from the day, and always at risk of being lost to history.


Amazing Atlantic Canadian Kids includes the story of “pit boys” and their experience in the Springhill mining disaster of 1891.


As Boileau would recount, a blast of flames threw Dannie from his horse. He was on fire and his horse was dead. Coming to in darkness, moving, he came across another child, 12 years old, who needed help. He carried him, until they found a group of men beginning rescue efforts. His younger brother Pete was already out, safe. And the story stuck with Boileau.

“Here was Pete Robertson, seeing his older brother save someone from the mine bay, carrying him piggyback because of his burns. And then, in 1917, Robertson does the same thing virtually at the Battle of Passchendale,” he said in a recent interview.

“All those years later, the younger brother virtually copies the same act of heroism by carrying someone out of a danger area.”

Boileau said he knew a little about child labour before coming across the story, but mainly in the context of Victorian-era textile mills and mines in England. He recalled stories of children used for their size, with small hands able to reach into machinery and small bodies able to climb into tight spaces, all at a cheaper price than adult labour. That said, he hadn’t known about it in a Canadian context. And years after his book on Atlantic Canadian war heroes was published, when he decided to write a book highlighting stories of inspiring Atlantic Canadian children, Springhill and Pete’s older brother came to mind.

“The striking thing about Dannie’s story is how well known his heroism became known across the country,” he said, recalling from his research that there had been newspaper articles, yes, but also a fundraising drive, led by other children in the region, ultimately providing Dannie with a gold cross that was presented to him by Sir Charles Tupper, Canadian High Commissioner in Britain.

Child miners are a thing of the past in Canada. Looking internationally, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency that in 1973, established the Convention Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (known as Convention 138, or C138). The convention requires member states to set a minimum age for employment of at least 15 years and prohibit hazardous work for anyone under the age of 18, “unless specific measures are put in place,” as the Government of Canada summarized when it ratified it in 2016—43 years on.

The ratification was characterized at the time as signaling by Canada, where obviously the approach to work had changed dramatically over the course of more than a century since the original Springhill disaster. The number of working children dropped as education improved and attendance at school was mandated.

The ratification of C138 and of a separate convention addressing the worst forms of child labour (C 182) addressing forced labour, including sale and trafficking of children, has formalized Canada’s position. But that doesn’t mean the end to the story for Canadians.

Among other things, the country continues to face the risk of child labour in supply chains, with charities including Unicef and World Vision still flagging the issue. The country does have a “forced import labour ban,” applying to all imports, regardless of origin.

Last year, 2021, was declared by the United Nations to be the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. “This is more important than ever, as the number of children in child labour has increased by over 8 million from 2016 to 2020. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to further increase that number as countries around the world experience financial hardships, putting children at an even greater risk of exploitation,” reads a 2021 statement from the office of former Canadian Labour Minister Filomena Tassi.

In the mandate letter issued in December by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to now-Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, Trudeau directed O’Regan to: “With the support of the Minister of Public Safety, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement and the Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development, introduce legislation to eradicate forced labour from Canadian supply chains and ensure that Canadian businesses operating abroad do not contribute to human rights abuses.”

Beyond the horrors of the Springhill mine and issue of child labour, Boileau’s book on Atlantic Canadian children includes stories right through to the modern day. “The point of view of the book generally is don’t sell kids short. They are capable of greatness,” he said.

He added there are many stories out there. He was pleased, for instance, to see Stella Bowles awarded the Order of Nova Scotia in 2020, in recognition for her efforts to halt sewage draining into the LaHave River.

“I don’t think we realize what kids are truly capable of, both historically and contemporarily,” he said.

Boileau is now the author of 13 books. He is currently working on a new non-fiction book, Titanic’s Children, including stories of children who died in that disaster, and stories of those who survived.


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In Book Report, Atlantic Business Magazine highlights non-fiction focused on Atlantic Canada and Atlantic Canadians, and from Atlantic Canadian publishers. These short pieces will offer details from upcoming business biographies, Q&As on new releases and in some cases fresh commentary from non-fiction authors on the subject of their published works.

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