By David Frank
It is hard to know where to start, but let me try by mentioning two of the people Donnie helped to rescue from the obscurity of local history. Archibald Russell, a labourer from Conception Bay, was one of twelve men killed in separate calamities at the Sydney steel plant during its first year of operation in 1901. His skull was fractured by a loose block and tackle. A generation later there was Eddie Crimmins; in the words of Dawn Fraser that Donnie often recited: “he came from Port aux Basques, Besides a chance to live and work, He had nothing much to ask. And yet he starved, he starved, I tell you, Back in 1924 . . . .” Two men, both drawn to industrial Cape Breton in the early twentieth century in search of work, and both victims of an economy that failed to value their hopes or protect their lives.
Donnie grew up on Park Street in Ashby, the largely Anglo-Celtic working-class Sydney neighbourhood hard by the roads leading to the steel plant, where his father was employed on the open hearth. Unlike most young working-class men and women of his generation, Donnie would eventually go on to university and a career as a scholar and teacher. But this trajectory was not apparent from the start.
When he ran into some trouble with school discipline, Donnie’s father, known to all and sundry as “Duffy”, took him around to see George MacEachern. George was one of the founders of the steel union and known for his radical politics as well as his wise counsel. What was the offence? Was there a matter of principle involved? Will other students support you? Donnie accepted the penalty and returned to school but never stopped being skeptical about the unwarranted exercise of authority. Continue reading