By Linda Kealey
On a recent news broadcast, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chief Medical Health Officer of Alberta, compared the current pandemic crisis to a tidal wave that sweeps all before it out to sea. Tidal waves and tsunamis destroy lives and communities often without warning. Her comparison brought to mind Linden MacIntyre’s recent historical narrative based in the Newfoundland community of St. Lawrence, located on the South Coast of the province. The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of a Newfoundland Tsunami (Toronto: Harper Collins Canada, 2018) is both a historical recounting of events and a personal coming to grips with a legacy not only of a disastrous tidal wave that killed 28 people in November 1929, wiping out buildings and the fishery, but also of the ensuing turn of that community to fluorspar mining. The mines replaced the fishery but left in their wake a history of industrial disease and death, taking the lives of hundreds of miners, leaving families to grieve and deal with inadequate compensation.
As a journalist and novelist, MacIntyre tells these stories as a tribute to the residents and victims of the tsunami and as a reminder of corporate greed as well as government failures to act. His father moved to St. Lawrence in the 1940s to work in mining but stayed only a few years (Linden MacIntyre was born in a nearby community) before returning to Cape Breton. The author’s conversations with his father in the 1960s brought to light the perils of underground mining and the economic factors that led men to risk their lives to earn a living for their families. His book starts with the tsunami and its impact on the community, drawing on archival documents, government sources, interviews and personal stories, setting the context for the community’s eager embrace of a mining proposition in the subsequent hard times of the Great Depression.
The mines at St. Lawrence opened around the same time as the island plunged into financial ruin; a Commission of Government (1934-49) was established with six appointed commissioners (3 each from England and the island) to govern the former Dominion’s affairs, effectively ending democratic government in Newfoundland. Despite the presence of a union from 1939 on, weak labour legislation allowed the employer to fire workers at will when they walked out over lack of sanitation and poor ventilation in the mines. Weak Workmen’s Compensation legislation with limited coverage and stingy payments also caused unrest. Increased demand for fluorspar during World War II, labour unrest and the presence of American troops forced the establishment of trade regulations and a trade board yet the health of the miners was put on the back burner. In the post-war period demand for the mineral increased but so too did awareness of the toll taken by industrial disease. Years of breathing dust underground without proper sanitation and ventilation, the identification of radiation hazards by 1960, and the illnesses that followed became more noticeable in the 1950s and 1960s.
MacIntyre credits the actions of Rennie Slaney, a former mine shift boss and later town manager of St. Lawrence, with galvanizing action and publicity about the miners’ industrial diseases and premature deaths. Slaney compiled the names of men he knew who had died or who were ill and took the five-page list to a committee reviewing the Workmen’s Compensation Act in 1965, noting the lack of safety equipment, poor pay and the hundreds of widows and children who received inadequate compensation or none at all. Personally, he knew 91 who had died and 20 more too sick to work. The committee took two years to report but it was already clear that miners had been working in hazardous conditions and that the compensation system was far too restrictive. Media attention and public pressure forced the government of Joey Smallwood to set up a Royal Commission in 1967 and a public relations battle ensued with the surviving company, Newfluor (Alcan), using newsletters, radio broadcasts, community groups and media professionals to reassure the public. Reporting in July 1969, the Royal Commission put forward 69 recommendations, according to Rick Rennie’s study, The Dirt: Industrial Disease and Conflict at St. Lawrence, Newfoundland (Black Point, NS: Fernwood, 2008). The Commission drew attention to other types of cancer besides the previously acknowledged lung cancer and found serious faults with the Workmen’s Compensation system which left widows without adequate funds to take care of their families. According to MacIntyre, the companies got off lightly while the politicians received only mild criticism; many of the recommendations were rejected by government despite the weak findings and the fact that by 1969 over 200 former miners were dead or dying. Most miners died between the ages of 48 and 55 after an average of 18 years in the mine.
In the aftermath of the Royal Commission, both MacIntyre and Rennie document mounting protests at government inaction as well as contentious labour relations. For the first time St. Lawrence women picketed and blockaded the loading dock in May 1971 determined to get action on radiation monitoring and increased payments for widows. With the election defeat of Smallwood’s Liberals in 1972, the Progressive Conservative government of Frank Moores made changes in 1973 to the Workmen’s Compensation Act to widen the pool eligible for compensation though it took more labour unrest that year to increase coverage of industrial disease. Women once again blocked the loading docks, this time for 12 days in 1975 as the miners fought for higher wages, a cost of living allowance, more radiation checks and union representation on the safety committee. When the company suspended operations, the men occupied the company office and although the company did not shut down until 1978, the intervening years proved difficult with threats of closure, Pierre Trudeau’s Wage and Price controls and back-to-work legislation as well as competition from cheaper fluorspar from Mexico.
Unlike an earthquake, a tsunami or the sudden and unexpected spread of Covid-19, the deaths and illnesses from industrial diseases were in part at least understood and predictable. While the hundreds of thousands of deaths (and still counting) from the current pandemic dwarf the number who perished in St. Lawrence, the tragedy of so many lives lost unnecessarily remains.
Linda Kealey is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswic.