John Roderick McDougall

John Roderick McDougall, Tunneller

Cape Breton Island, on Canada’s east coast, was a vibrant, industrial area at the turn of the twentieth century. Its primary industries were coal mining and steelmaking. In the early 1900s, immigrants from various regions of the world, including Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, came to Cape Breton to work in these industries and to establish a new life for themselves. The eastern part of the Island in particular became one of the most multicultural regions in Canada, and these immigrants were hard working and supported each other as they worked to carve out a life. Although the region has been described as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, they socialized in their own communities. Life was tough just before the war because Canada was in an economic recession which affected the entire country and especially these industries on the Island.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Britain called for soldiers from Commonwealth countries to help in the war effort. Thousands of soldiers from Canada were recruited, and many played specialized roles as they served their country. As the war progressed, warfare became increasingly subterranean and there was a need to have recruits dig tunnels under the battlefields to transport men and supplies to the front lines without being detected. Canadian miners worked with miners from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand to do this dangerous work.

In this module, you will learn of one coal miner from Cape Breton who responded to the call and used his expertise working underground as a tunneller during the war. As you explore the suggestions for learning and teaching you will learn about his life before the war, during the war, and upon his return home.


“Most men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in the First World War served in the infantry (foot soldiers) or artillery (weapons). Others served in various support units, including engineers, labour battalions, ammunition columns, service units, as well as doctors and nursing sisters in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. A small number also served in tunnelling companies which were attached to the Royal Canadian Engineers.”

The Life of a Coal Miner in Industrial Cape Breton

  • John Roderick McDougall was a coal miner who moved to Donkin as a young boy. The village was also known as Dominion No. 6, after the name of the coal mine there. He began his work at a young age, and except for the war years, he was employed in the mines to support a large family. Life in those days was tough, and people worked long hours in dangerous conditions for very little pay.
  • Locate the village of Donkin on a map of Cape Breton. Within a 50 km radius of Dominion No. 6, there are other coal mines owned by the Dominion Coal Company and each was identified by a number, i.e. Dominion No. 2, Dominion No. 11, Dominion No. 26, etc. Research the internet to learn more about the mines in industrial Cape Breton and if possible, locate as many as you can on a Cape Breton map.
  • Explore the section entitled A Life in Photographs. In the gallery, you will find a photo called “Bank Head, Dominion No. 6 Colliery,” and you can see miners’ houses in the distance. These were provided by the Dominion Coal Company and were called company houses, resembling today’s duplexes, which can house two families. Dominion Coal Company also had company stores where the miners could purchase food, clothing, and other household needs on credit with payments deducted from their monthly wages. This arrangement had implications for the amount of money a miner would eventually receive. Based on this information, what do you think life was like living there? 
  • Research to see how living in a coal mining community affected daily life. Explore the other photographs in this section. Based on your observations, describe the kind of life John Roderick’s family had. How would you identify them? Working class? Middle class? Upper class? How can you tell?
  • Explore the eight scenes in the graphic narrative for John Roderick McDougall. Scene 1 shows John Roderick working in a coal mine in Cape Breton. Describe the setting, including the props you would need to recreate the scene, and the other characters who are included in the illustration. How do you think he feels as he works in the mine? Justify your answer.
  • Scene 2 presents a different image of John Roderick. What do you think is happening in this scene? How do you know? Compare and contrast the expressions on the faces of John, his wife, and his three children. Describe how he is feeling as he hugs his family.

The Tunnellers and the First World War

  • At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, men from across Canada were recruited for the military and traveled overseas to fight on Canada’s behalf. More than 400,000 Canadians served overseas under the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), and close to 60,000 died in service, 52,000 as a result of enemy action. At age 33, John Roderick left behind his wife and 8 children to join the CEF in 1916, and once in Europe he was assigned to the No. 3 Tunnelling Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers and posted to France.
  • Men who served in the First World War under the Canadian Expeditionary Forces served in a number of positions, such as infantry and artillery, and as support units including engineers, labour battalions, ammunition columns, service units, and the medical corps. Research the expectations for each job. Under which category do you think the tunnellers fit?
  • Why do you think John Roderick was recruited to join the No. 3 Tunnelling Company? “Subterranean warfare” was extremely dangerous, and so it required skilled workers like John Roderick. Imagine that you are John Roderick writing home to your wife, Minnie, and you do not want to worry her. Write a letter describing your work as well as life in the area of France where you have been deployed.
  • In scenes 3 and 4 of the graphic narrative we see John Roderick and his comrades working in the battlefield. Compare and contrast the two scenes, taking into consideration the purpose and design of the construction.
  • In scene 4, John Roderick looks worried about the work he is doing. What do you think is the reason for this concern? Based on the research you have done for previous activities, what do you think is the battle for which he was preparing? 
  • In the section, A Life in Photographs there is a photo of men working in a coal mine in Glace Bay. Do you think working in the tunnels during the First World War was similar to working in the coal mines in Cape Breton? Compare the similarities and differences.
  • The Allies and the Central Powers both built underground tunnels. Research to discover the countries represented in each group.
  • In 1917, preparations for the Battle of Vimy Ridge included extensive work by the tunnellers. By that time, working conditions had improved for tunnellers although there was still much danger in doing their job. This would be the first battle in which all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together, and the stakes were high. In all, 24,000 Canadian troops participated in this conflict. Research the Battle of Vimy Ridge to find how the subway tunnels played a critical role in the success of this battle for the Allied forces.
  • The Battle of Messines was catastrophic for the German army. This was due in part to the skilled work of the tunnellers who planted several hundred kilograms of explosives under Messine Ridge, an area occupied by a large contingent of German troops. When the explosives were detonated, more than 10,000 Germans were killed. Research this battle. Where was the Messines Ridge located? View the first three minutes of the video on YouTube: Why do you think this battle was a turning point in the war?
  • In scene 5 of the graphic narrative, we see another form of construction on the battlefield. Describe the setting, and contrast this to scene 3 and 4. How do you account for the contrast? Based on what you have already read, what battle do you think is taking place? Justify your answer based on previous activities.
  • Imagine that you are John Roderick and you are keeping a daily journal. Assuming scenes 6 and 7 took place on the same day, interpret the drawings to tell the story of how his day went. Write your journal entry for that day. Alternatively, put yourself in scene 7 and imagine that you are writing home to tell about your day. Write the letter.
  • Following the end of the First World War, more than 15,000 Canadian troops were stationed in Kinmel Park in North Wales awaiting transport back to Canada. Their stay lasted several months longer than planned, and in early March 2019, frustrated with the delays, the soldiers rioted. Research the revolt at Kinmel and write about the implications of this event. Why did the soldiers revolt? What was the end result? How much longer did the soldiers have to wait to return home? Imagine that you are a journalist giving news of this event. Write your story based on your researched information and the photograph found in the photo gallery in the exhibit.

Life in Cape Breton after the War

  • Before the Great War, Canada was in an economic recession and Cape Breton was hit hard. However, the war boosted the economy for industrial Cape Breton where coal and steel, the two main industries, flourished. Coal was needed to fuel ships that departed Sydney to cross the Atlantic. It also fired the steel mills in Sydney and Sydney Mines where steel was produced for ammunitions, explosives, and equipment.
    • Prior to the war, immigrants from many countries settled in industrial Cape Breton to work in the coal and steel industries. Visit the following website to learn more about those who settled in the Whitney Pier area of Sydney where the Dominion Iron and Steel Company was located: You may wish to explore some of the activities contained in the educational resource for this site.
    • Reflect on the photograph of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company Plant located on Sydney Harbour. Research this company to learn more about their operations in Cape Breton and the long term side effects that steelmaking had on the region that lasted almost an entire century until the plant closed in 2001.
    • In the photograph gallery, locate the image of John Roderick standing at the cenotaph in Donkin in 1946. What is the purpose of cenotaphs and why do you think they began to play such an important role following the First World War? Study the photograph and speculate what the occasion was for this photograph.
  • In scene 8 of the graphic narrative you see John Roderick at home many years after the war. Describe in detail how you think he feels.


  • In 1917, the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) formed to provide support for the thousands of veterans returning from the First World War. In 1926, branches of the GWVA united in a new organization, “The Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League.” In 1960, the Queen of England gave her consent for the use of the prefix, “Royal,” making the organization known as The Royal Canadian Legion. Today it continues to play an important role with its purpose to improve the lives of veterans, members of the Canadian armed forces, and the RCMP and their families. Of late, we have seen a sharp decline in the number of Royal Canadian Legion branches across the country. Can you speculate why? Interestingly, John Roderick was President of the Branch 5 Royal Canadian Legion in Donkin in 1946. This Legion recently marked a milestone. Search the internet for a significant change in the Branch 5 Executive in 2019.
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