Child Labour

Nova Scotia’s 1873 Mines Regulation Act made it illegal to pay miners in a "public house" (a pub) or a “beer shop,” or anywhere alcohol was sold. Even places adjacent to pubs couldn't be used, due to concerns that miners might get drunk (and rowdy) instead of taking their pay home to their families.

The Act was the first in Canada to regulate safety in mines. It imposed rules related to things like ventilation, daily inspections of workings and equipment, and the use of safety lamps and explosives. It also gave the provincial government’s Inspector of Mines the authority to impose fines and create special rules to address the unique safety challenges of specific mines.

The Act also regulated child labour – not to prevent it, but to impose some limits on it.

Boys under the age of 10 were not allowed to work at mines. Boys 10-12 could not work more than 60 hours per week or more than 10 hours in a day. (Canada did not adopt the standard 40-hour work week until the 1960s.)

Anyone operating equipment, such as an engine, that hoisted people in and out of the mine or moved them within it, had to be “a male of at least eighteen years of age.”

The driver of an animal in a mine, such as a horse pulling rail cars, had to be at least twelve.

While child labour is shocking to us today, it was common in that era, in many industries, and the Act was arguably progressive in putting limits on it.

The Halifax Morning Chronicle described child labour in mines, rather cheerily, on December 4, 1890:

“Long before your city boys are astir the pit boy is awakened by the steam whistles, which blow three long blasts at half-past five o’clock every morning, thus warning him that it is time to get up. Breakfast partaken of, he dons his pit clothes, usually a pair of indifferent-fitting duck trousers, generously patched, an old coat, and with a lighted tin lamp on the front of his cap, his tea and dinner cans securely fastened on his back, he is ready for work. He must be at his post at 7 o’clock. Off he goes, and in a few minutes with a number of others, he is engaged in animated conversation, and having a high old time generally, as he is lowered on a riding rake [a train] to the bottom of the slope.”

In that era, children worked in mines and other industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing, to help support their families. It was common and children were seen as an important part of the work force. In Nova Scotia, there were 5000 people employed at mines in 1890, and over 1100 of them were under 18 years of age.

Children historically performed a range of roles at mines – for less pay than men - both underground and on the surface, such as opening and closing safety doors that controlled air flow, managing animals, cleaning equipment and sorting and cleaning freshly-mined coal.

Compulsory school attendance was introduced in Nova Scotia in 1883, but only for children aged 7-12 and only for eighty days per year. In Cape Breton, where mines were closed for two or three months every winter, pit boys could work in the mines and still fulfill their schooling requirements.

The minimum age allowed to work in a mine was increased from 10 years old to 12 in 1891. It was not until 1923 that Nova Scotia banned boys under 16 from the mines. However, the number of children in mines had been declining prior to that as some of their roles became mechanized. For example, haulage systems (i.e. rail cars pulled by machine) gradually replaced pit ponies that hauled the cars and the boys who took care of the horses.

It was not until 1929 that children under 14 were legally excluded from factory and mine employment in most provinces.

We often say “this is not your grandfather’s mining industry” because the modern industry is so different from what it was historically. Practices that were considered acceptable in the past were rooted in society’s standards at the time, not just the industry’s. The way society looks at things has changed, so of course industry practices and government regulation have evolved to reflect our modern values.

For example, it is hardly surprising that mines established in an era when child labour was common would do a poor job taking care of the environment.

Today, mining and quarrying is one of the most stringently-regulated industries in Nova Scotia. We have reduced our injury rate 90% since the Westray public inquiry report in 1997 and we are one of the safer industries in the province. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

Modern mining has also become a sophisticated, science-based business that takes excellent care of the environment – completely different from what it was in the past. Nova Scotia mines are stringently regulated by the provincial and federal governments. Before getting operating permits, companies must get government approval of reclamation plans and post-reclamation bonds (money in escrow, basically) that ensure funds are available to properly take care of sites. See examples of former mines and quarries at

The need for the Mines Regulation Act was underscored in May 1873, one month after the Act was adopted, when disaster struck the Drummond coal mine in Westville. See the mine’s story at