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They Cannot Stand the Gaff

A famous saying in Cape Breton, “They Can’t Stand the Gaff,” was first uttered during the infamous strike of 1925. The strike began in March and shortly thereafter Andrew Merkel, a reporter with the Canadian Press interviewed J. E. McLurg, then Vice-President of BESCO. In describing the strike, McLurg boasted to Merkel, “Poker game, nothing, we hold all the cards. Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not, eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.”


“They Cannot Stand the Gaff”

Seated round the table in the Council room of Hell
Sat the secret service agents of the Pit.
‘Twas the regular weekly meeting when they gathered there to tell
Of the things of Earth that with them made a “hit.”
They told of wars and strife and hate in every land and clime,
Of pestilence and murder and despair,
They told of orgies gluttonous in palaces sublime,
And of slums where children lived on scanty fare.

They reported on the grafter and the gambler and the sneak,
Of birds of prey who feast on human kind.
They told of slimy hypocrites with countenance so meek,
And of moral perverts tainting children’s minds
But the Prince of Darkness answered that their tales were small and boring,
There was nothing new in wickedness to hear;
And he showed his grave displeasure by their indolence deploring,
Till each imp began to shrink with timid fear.

Then spoke a lively demon from a land of ice and snow,
And said, “I think I have a good report,
For in Canada I’ve BESCO, Sir, to help me as you know,
And to them oft in sin I must resort.
Their work has been most excellent in many years gone by,
They’ve bee (sic) loyal to Your Majesty, I know;
They’ve made little children suffer and afflicted mother’s cry,
And o’er the land have scattered pain and woe.

They’ve starved and crushed and broken the lives of many men,
They’re as merciless as Hell could have them be;
And though their slaves are starving they cut their wage again,
And laughed aloud their agony to see.”

Then spoke their chief official (who would grace our service here)
As he mocked the suffering children with a laugh;
“From these angry, cursing miners we have nothing now to fear,
For I’m positive they cannot stand the gaff.”
Then Satan’s brow grew gribhter (sic) and loud he laughed and long;
“That’s a joke,” he said, “at which all hell can laugh!
And my blessing rests eternal on the man so brave and strong,
Who mocks at pain and anguish with, ‘They cannot stand the gaff.’”



About Richard MacKinnon

Dr. Richard MacKinnon is the former Tier One Canada Research Chair in Intangible Cultural Heritage at Cape Breton University (2005-2012). His research interests include all aspects of Atlantic Canada’s culture including oral traditions, music, language, material culture and vernacular architecture. He grew up in New Waterford, playing in bands with his brother and friends and still performs with Cape Breton bands, ByGones and Misfit Boys. He is the founding director of the Centre for Cape Breton Studies, a research centre at Cape Breton University that includes a state-of-the-art digitization lab and the Rotary Music Performance Analysis Room that is used by faculty, visiting scholars, undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students.


A “gaff” is used in a number of contexts in Atlantic Canada. In the fishery, it is a large iron hook attached to a pole or handle and used to land large fish. It is also defined as a boat hook or a “stout pole, 5-8 feet [1.5-2.4 metres] long with an iron hook and spike fastened to one end, used to assist a sealer on the ice and to kill seals.” 1[1] Story, Kirwin and Widdowson, 1982, 207. It can also refer to a sharp metal spur or spike fastened to the leg of a rooster for use in cockfighting matches. 2 [2] MacKinnon, 2009, 95. It is also a tool used to capture floating logs during river drives in the lumber world of work. We will never know for certain which definition of gaff McLurg had in mind, but there is no doubt about what he means. His company, BESCO, will stick the striking miners with a sharp object until the miners cannot stand the pressure. The Company will break them, causing their strike to fold. Historian David Frank says that this colloquial insult “became one of the most memorable statements in Cape Breton labour history …. McLurg’s remark was regarded as an offensive slur on the character of the long-suffering people of the coalfields. The phrase ‘standing the gaff’ became a rallying cry of the strike.” 3[3] Frank, 1999, 374. According to another commentator, “‘Stand the gaff’ was to become a household phrase in Cape Breton for generations to come, a challenge to the stubborn spirit of our people.”4[4] Akerman, 1981, 76. Even today, during strikes on Cape Breton Island, the phrase “Stand the Gaff” can still be heard on picket lines as a rallying cry that allows striking workers to withstand whatever dirty tactics or pressure an employer may choose to use in a labour dispute. The phrase has entered the vernacular speech of the Island and is known by old and young alike. This song, “They Cannot Stand the Gaff” appeared in the Maritime Labour Herald (14 April 1925, 4) and is attributed to “E.E.R.” Composers of protest and labour songs often used abbreviations or pseudonyms as a way to avoid being identified. The song is set in hell with the Devil’s workers (imps) discussing all the hates and harms they have done to people on earth. The Prince of Darkness is not pleased with what he is hearing until he gets a good report “from the land of ice and snow” that outlines the work of the Canadian company BESCO. The company cuts wages, treats workers like slaves and tries to starve, crush and break the lives of many men. Toward the end of the song, the chief official of BESCO utters the infamous phrase, “They Cannot Stand the Gaff.” Without mentioning his name, there is no doubt that the satiric song is about J. E. McLurg, who uttered this phrase just a month before the song first appeared in print.


Akerman, Jeremy. Black Around the Eyes. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1981.

Frank, David. J.B. McLachlan: A Biography. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999.

MacKinnon,Richard. “Cockfighting in Cape Breton: Its Meaning and Function,” in Discovering Cape Breton Folklore. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2009, pp.90-103.

Story, George, Kirwin W.J. and Widdowson, John. Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

1] Story, Kirwin and Widdowson, 1982, 207.

[2] MacKinnon, 2009, 95.


[3] Frank, 1999, 374.


[4] Akerman, 1981, 76.

J. E. McLurg

Beaton Institute



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