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Manitoba History: An Interview with Mitch Sago

by Jim Mochoruk
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Mitch Sago, who became one of Canada’s most famous radical labour leaders, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on August 6, 1914. Both of his parents were migrants from the Ukraine who had settled in the Winnipeg area in 1907. Like many other immigrants they wanted their children to learn not only English but their native tongue as well. For this reason Mr. Sago—who insists on being called Mitch—not only completed the 10th grade at Wolseley High School but also the Ukrainian language at home. In the course of his Ukrainian studies he often read the Ukrainian Labour News - which was among the most radical of publications available in Winnipeg at the time. Being a voracious reader he also went through his father’s copies of the One Big Union Bulletin as soon as they were delivered to the house. In short, Mitch’s awareness of labour issues began at a very tender age indeed. Upon leaving school Mitch embarked upon a short career as a vaudeville entertainer. It was in this capacity that he first became associated with the Ukrainian Farm-Labour Temple Association, bringing many shows to the stages of U.F.L.T.A. in Transcona, East Kildonan and the North End. Soon after this first contact he found himself helping to organize the social and cultural affairs that were centered around the East Kildonan Labour Temple. At the same time, about 1929-30, Mitch became a member of the Young Communist League and played an active part in recruiting approximately 50 members into the East Kildonan branch of the Y.C.L. Since that time Mitch has worked as an organizer for the Y.C.L. and the Worker’s Unity League (and its many member groups), and as a journalist and editor for the labour and ethnic press. In his various capacities Mitch has been involved in scores of strikes, served as one of the leaders of Winnipeg’s contingent for the famous ‘On-to-Ottawa-Trek’ of 1935, was imprisoned for two years (without benefit of trial) in a Canadian ‘concentration camp’ between 1940 and ‘42, and finally completed the most active part of his career as the editor of The Ukrainian Canadian.

The following interview is an edited version of a three hour taping session conducted by Jim Mochoruk as part of the Flin Flon Oral History Project. Because of the specific interests of this project the questions put to Mr. Sago centered around his work as a union organizer for the W.U.L. and the Mine Workers Union of Canada in Flin Flon during 1933 and 1934—an organizational drive which eventually resulted in the famous month long strike of June, 1934.

Sago: ... The assignment I got, along with Eddie Edwardson, to organize a union in Flin Flon, was at the request of a chap by the name of Sundquist. [1] He said he would take care of our lodging and our food [so] Eddie Edwardson and I were assigned to go to Flin Flon and to organize the miners there at that time. This was in 1933 ...

Q. Was there a big debate in the Workers Unity League about whether or not people should go up?

No. The feeling was that the miners needed a union ... The only problem was, could anybody who was sent—at this time there was no decision that I should go or that Edwardson should go—but could anybody that was sent be maintained, because there was no question of a treasury. You know now-a-days, if you were to talk about sending a couple of organizers into an area for any length of time...that would be a very costly business. So the concern was, and the assurances that were asked for of Sundquist [were], that whoever went would be accommodated with shelter and would also be fed. It wasn’t a question of any wage or anything. And you know, now that I’m talking to you and thinking back, I don’t remember getting a wage. Maybe I should put in a bill today! [2]

Anyway, we were assured by Sundquist that we would live at his place for quite awhile and [that] he would arrange for us to change accommodation if we desired ... [and] that he would look after the feeding of us. We went by train, of course, to Flin Flon [although] at this time it was not incorporated as a city. As a matter of fact, some months after we arrived, there was a big campaign going on in Flin Flon to elect [the first] city council ... I remember an incident that I don’t think happened before or since. Foster, the owner of the hotel—a very fine businessman as far as we were concerned ... ran and was elected as Mayor ... Foster asked me if I could assist him in some of the initial meetings of Council ... because he’d never run a meeting and he didn’t know what the rules were. I told him that I didn’t think it was possible, but he assured me it was and, for a couple of meetings I sat next to him. He had an elevated seat at those meetings—I sat at the side—and when certain motions were made and amendments [proposed], I helped him to handle them. I still don’t believe that happened, but it sure did! Long afterwards I heard he was quite capable of looking after the business of Council himself.

Q. I’m kind of curious, this Sundquist who asked you up, he was Finnish?

Finnish, yes.

Q. Now, was he a representative of some of the other miners who wanted to bring in a union or was he asking on his own?

My understanding was—at the time the request was put forward and after we met him—that a number of miners had been talking for some considerable length of time that it would be very good if someone came and organized a union, because they sure wanted one. It was a “Company Town” you know, until its incorporation and until the union came in. And, as a “Company Town” it was a tough town. Some of the stories I heard there ... were strictly from books, so tospeak. [Flin Flon had] a character named Boxcar Nellie and other characters that just don’t belong to the ordinary run of story that one may have [heard] about this or that town. But it was tough too from the standpoint that the Company had undisputed sway over the town, town affairs and, of course, the workers—the population. So my understanding was that quite a few boys were interested in getting a union launched.

We understood when we came [to Flin Flon] that there was fear that, if it was known that they [the workers] had anything to do with bringing someone down to organize a union, they would certainly lose their jobs. So we had to spend some time figuring out a structure where we could do two things: number one, avoid the problem of going public with attempts to organize a union; and number two, if the worst happened andone of the groups we were proposing ... was exposed by a spy sent by the Company, then the most damage that could be done would be to four people. ... We organize groups of five members and sever members [into ‘cells’ of the union as I remember it, and quite a few hundred were brought together. Because the men knew that their own security was involved they didn’t talk about it. When we said, “please don’t talk about your group to anybody else, even if you feel the other person belongs to another group,” this [silence] was maintained. The other thing [that we tried to make sure of] was that [the Company] could never identify any of the groups by watching Edwardson or myself on the street or visiting [Union members’] homes, or what have you, and talking to them. We were very careful about that.

There were two places where we felt free to talk to people, and we were careful even then. One was the beer parlour at Foster’s hotel ... We would go in and on payday the practise was to put all those tables together for the full length of the beer parlour and each guy would order for the table as a whole. Now, we were allowed to sit in with the boys and many times we sat in with people who had nothing to do with the Union and we had no intention of asking them to come in because we didn’t know them that well. But we did it in order to create an atmosphere and a feeling that we were just there to have drinks and to participate socially. There wasn’t a fixed pattern, so that somebody could identify certain people [as union members]. The other place where we used to meet was in the Red Light district, in the houses of ill-repute, ... up on the “Hill.” The women knew what we were doing. For their [own] reasons they wanted to see a union because they were quite sympathetic to the situation [of] the people who worked for the Company. So I had free access to all these places and so did Edwardson [and] this was where we would meet some of the fellas. As far as anyone was concerned we were in there for a drink, but actually we were in there to have a discussion with one or another person. We were very careful who we sought out in these places, who we spoke with and it proved to be successful.

I should mention just in passing that when the strike was declared [in June of 1934], the women in the Red Light district, they shut down [their operations]. The Company wanted them to continue in order to demoralize and in order, I suppose, to impoverish some of the people. But they wouldn’t [comply] ...

I used to give a twenty minute talk at gatherings that we began to organize in an old vacant Chinese restaurant and then we’d wind up the evening with some socializing, sandwiches and coffee and so on. It worked very well the first couple of times and the place was packed. Miners came with their wives; they listened to the lectures, sang songs and socialized. Shortly afterwards, some of the girls from the Red Light district began to come down and that’s when some of the miners told myself and Edwardson that if this continues they can’t come because their wives were objecting. I mean, “What the hell are THESE women doing here, etc. etc.” So I talked to some of the more influential girls ... and they stopped coming. Shortly afterwards, the whole thing, [the public meetings] stopped anyways because some of the people began to get scared.

Q. Was there a lot of pressure put on the workers by the Company?

Oh yes. I think the focus of that pressure shortly became Edwardson and myself ... with the idea of isolating us from anybody who would care to talk to us and [making] it impossible for us to talk to miners openly.... [The Company began] intimidating us. The intimidation was quite brutal. Edwardson, ... on his way home from some interview he had arranged quietly someplace, was brutally pushed into Ross Lake and warned that if he didn’t get the hell out of town there’d come a time when he wouldn’t get out of Ross Lake—that would be it, that’s where he’d [die]. I had such warnings [too].

Q. Were these threats directly from Company management, or where?

Oh yes, these were Company stooges who were doing the job. That was very clear. You know, I mentioned earlier that I used to go to the hotel ... and sit down with the boys, ostensibly to socialize. It gave us a chance to talk to certain people, set some things up and so on. I remember going to the washroom one day and three of the stooges came up and they told me, “We want you outside, we’re going to fix it so you’re never gonna come in here or anywhere else.” Because the argument went a little too long, a couple of the miners who were close to Edwardson and myself, they came in and immediately grasped what was going on. They told me to go back to the hotel, “we’ll take care of these guys,” and they sure as hell did! They beat the living daylights out of two of them. So there were things like that ... Provocative statements and attempts to draw you into a fight ... were made in different ways. For example, [when] we stayed with Johnny Mansall [3] ... part of his shack—it wasn’t much more than that, very neat and all but still a shack—part of the walls were broken down ... These were deliberate[ly] organized goon jobs and quite provocative.[It was] their way of serving notice that sooner or later ... you’re going to get it. We knew what the score was and what the message was, but we persisted because we felt that if it wasn’t us it was someone else that would continue the work.

But when it became clear to Edwardson and myself that we had such high visibility that we were actually being rendered useless in terms of meeting people, talking to people and being seen with people, we contacted the Winnipeg office. They agreed [that] if you can’t continue working with people because they are afraid they’re going to be fired, “you better come in and we’ll take some other steps.” And that’s when we returned to Winnipeg.

Notes

1. Peter Sundquist was a Finnish-born miner who had worked in Flin Flon from 1930 or ‘31.

2. At one point in the interview, when Mr. Sago was again talking about the lack of funds available for organizational work he noted that he wished some of the rumours about ‘Moscow gold’ being used in Canada were true, because he sure could have used some of it!

3. Johnny Mansall was the local shoemaker.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Mitchell John “Mitch” Sago (1914-1989)

Page revised: 14 January 2017

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