Buller, Annie (1896–1973)

Annie Buller addressing a crowd in Bienfait two days prior to the Estevan Riot.
Saskatchewan Archives Board (uncatalogued)

Annie Buller was an important figure in the development of the militant, radical wing of the Canadian labour movement and the Communist Party of Canada. She was briefly, but significantly, involved in the Estevan Coal Strike of 1931. Annie Buller was born in Montreal in 1896 to a working class family. At age 13, she went to work in a tobacco factory, 12 hours a day and six days a week. She later worked in retail and department stores until she was in her late teens. While still a teenager she joined the Socialist Youth Movement, which was active in campaigns to promote world peace and keep working-class young men out of conscripted military service.

During World War I, Annie Buller enrolled in the Rand School of Social Science in New York, a centre for the study of Marxist theories, where she developed an interest in and sympathy for the Russian Revolution and trade union organizing. Upon returning to Montreal, Annie, now a confirmed Marxist, set up the Montreal Labour College with a small circle of like-minded friends to instruct progressive people as the Rand School was doing. The College started in 1920 and operated for a number of years.

Annie Buller was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Canada. Beginning in the 1920s she traveled extensively throughout the country promoting the Party and revolutionary trade unionism. In 1929 the Communist Party set up the Workers’ Unity League (WUL) as a trade union central. Annie Buller became an organizer of a WUL affiliate in the needle trades industry; she organized in Quebec and Ontario, as well as in Winnipeg. In the summer of 1931 wage cuts, unsafe working conditions, and squalid company housing caused the coal miners of southeastern Saskatchewan to approach the WUL affiliate, the Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC). The MWUC organized the miners and tried to bargain with the mine owners. The mine owners refused to negotiate, forcing a strike at the end of the first week of September. The WUL asked Annie, who was in Winnipeg, to go to Bienfait and offer support and encouragement to the miners’ wives and families.

On September 27, 1931, Annie spoke to a mass meeting of union miners, family members, and supporters in Bienfait. Her remarks dealt with the inadequate wages and terrible living conditions of the miners. Two days later, during a peaceful motorcade through Estevan, the municipal police and RCMP provoked a confrontation with the strikers and shot three of the picketing miners dead. Annie Buller was arrested for inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, and rioting. She was tried in February 1932 in the Estevan court-house and convicted. She was sentenced to one year of hard labour at the Battleford Jail and a $500 fine; she served the sentence in solitary confinement.

Annie Buller worked with organizations for the unemployed during the 1930s, and campaigned against fascism in the 1940s. She also devoted considerable time to left-wing and labour publications such as The Worker and The Tribune. In 1955 she visited the USSR with her husband, Harry Guralnick. In the 1960s she was active in opposition to the Vietnam war.

Annie Buller died on January 19, 1973. Perhaps the best description of her appeared in a police report following the 1931 Estevan Coal Strike. It read: “Age: 36; height: 5’10”; weight: 140 lbs; build: medium; hair: dark brown; eyes: brown; wears heavy dark-rimmed spectacles; religion: loyalty to the working class. Is a very powerful speaker; very well liked. Dangerous agitator.”

Garnet Dishaw