CANADA

A city gripped by fear

Letter from yellowknife

October 4 1993
CANADA

A city gripped by fear

Letter from yellowknife

October 4 1993

A city gripped by fear

Letter from yellowknife

More than a year has passed since the tragedy, but Jim O’Neil’s life is still filled with reminders of the blast that killed nine men at Yellowknife’s Giant gold mine. On the morning of Sept. 18,

1992, O’Neil was one of the first people to reach the site of the explosion, 750 feet underground. There, in an entrance tunnel, the 33year-old mine rescue worker spotted the battered remains of a rail car—and the badly mangled bodies of nine co-workers. Among the dead was O’Neil’s best friend, Chris Neill,

29, who, along with O’Neil and 40 other unionized miners, had continued to work at the mine in defiance of a bitter four-month-old strike. O’Neil says that he immediately suspected sabotage—a theory that gained credence two days later when RCMP investigators announced that they were treating the deaths as a multiple homicide. One year later, however, police have not laid any charges, the strike drags on and O’Neil continues to endure daily abuse from his former colleagues as he drives his pickup truck across an ever-present picket line. He has also installed a home security system and bought an Alsatian police dog to protect his wife and three-year-old daughter. “Life is hellish,” he told Maclean’s. “I dream of taking my kid to the park, but I can’t. There could be a murderer there waiting for us.” The fear of living with alleged murderers in their midst grips the 16,000 residents of Yellowknife. Over the past 12 months, a special 22-member RCMP homicide task force has worked exclusively on

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the case, interviewing more than 600 people and tracking down leads as far afield as Vancouver. Police posters now offer a $307,000 reward for evidence leading to a conviction—the money was raised from individual and corporate donations. But Sgt. David Grundy, who is in charge of the investigation, says that police still do not have enough evidence to justify charges—although they have a working theoiy on how the crime was committed and several suspects, each of whom still resides in Yellowknife. “This is one of the

biggest mass murders in Canadian history,” says Grundy, who also counted Chris Neill as a close personal friend. “We can’t rush it to make a part of the population happy that it is finally over.”

A final resolution—both of the murder investigation and of the 16month-old Giant mine strike—is something that most Yellowknifers clearly desire. Located on the northern arm of Great Slave Lake, 960 km north of Edmonton, Yellowknife is a city built on gold and government. The Giant mine, which opened in 1948, has provided steady and well-paying employment for miners from across Canada (the average annual income among workers at the Yellowknife mine is about $80,000). The federal government’s decision in 1967 to transfer the government operations of the Northwest Territories from Ottawa to Yellowknife lured more job-seeking Canadians northward. They discovered a place where the winters were long and cold, but the neighbors welcoming and friendly. In an era of escalating crime rates, violence and pollution, Yellowknife seemed like an ideal place to put down roots and raise families.

To a shocking degree, the Giant mine tragedy and the strike that appears to have precipitated it have changed all of that. The city quickly divided into two bitterly opposed camps: those who supported the striking miners and those who did not. The battleground extended even into the city’s schoolyards, where the children of striking

miners sometimes traded insults and punches with the children of workers who crossed the picket line.

“Kids are learning how to hate,” laments Yellowknife Mayor Pat McMahon, who blames both the mine’s owners and the federal government for not doing enough to resolve the labor dispute. “It is not civilized to go on like this. We have a working mine, but a totally disrupted community life.”

Like many of her constituents, McMahon—who moved to Yellowknife from Northern Ontario in 1968—traces the city’s current woes to the hard-nosed management style of Peggy Witte, chairman of Vancouver-based Royal Oak Mines Inc., which purchased the Giant mine in November, 1990. The Nevada-born Witte had vowed to improve the mine’s profit margins by, among other things, tying miners’ wages to the price of gold. When the workers voted to strike on May 23, 1992, Witte responded immediately by locking them out and recruiting about 150 replacement workers from Southern Canada—a strike-breaking practice that is rarely used in this country. The new arrivals joined 45 mine workers who defied their union, the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers (CASAW), by refusing to join the strike.

Witte reacted to the Sept. 18 explosion in a similarly uncompromising manner. Describing it as an act of

terrorism, she vowed that the mine would reopen within a week or she would close it down for good.

According to McMahon, Witte has contributed to the tensions in Yellowknife by snubbing the CASAW and insisting that she will only negotiate with the 200-member Giant Mines Employees’ Association, which represents the men still working at the mine. “I’m not sure the company is a good corporate citizen,” says McMahon, who runs a local aviation maintenance company with her husband, Murray. “Mrs. Witte said the town got exactly what it deserved with this strike. She had better re-examine her human values.” Witte, travelling on business

in Europe and the United States, declined to respond last week to faxed requests for an interview.

But the anger of the striking miners is directed less at Witte than at the men who took their jobs. At the mine site, where pickets still maintain a 24-hour vigil, a sign spraypainted on an outhouse says it all: “Scab Café: All You Can Eat.” In the strikers’ makeshift picket office, an unpainted plywood shack, Dennis Moraff pours himself a

cup of coffee after a morning spent hurling epithets at replacement workers entering the mine. “I am frustrated,” says Moraff. “All you can do is yell.” Shirley Mager, wife of striking miner James, complains that, because of

the city’s remote location, the Yellowknife strike has been a low priority for federal Labor Minister Bernard Valcourt, who has responsibility for labor relations in the territories. “The North gets forgotten,” says Mager. “How many votes can backing this American mean to the government? We are their constituents and we mean nothing.” (On Sept. 16, Valcourt released a long-awaited report on the dispute by two federal industrial inquiry commissioners. It set out several areas of possible compromise and proposed that if the two sides failed to reach agreement within 30 days, the commissioners would mediate the dispute and make binding recommendations within another 20 days.)

In fact, the protracted strike has spawned its own political candidate in the current federal election campaign. Former Yellowknife CASAW president Bill Schram is running for the New Democratic Party in the Western Arctic riding, which encompasses the 460,000-square-mile western portion of the Northwest Territories. “I am running because I want to make sure this situation never happens again,” Schram, a striking miner, explained while on picket duty recently. Sporting a T-shirt that reads “CASAW puts scabs on the run,” Schram called on the territorial government to enact a law barring companies from hiring replacement workers during legal strikes. ‘This is a watershed issue for workers,” he says.

Some of the strikers still claim that the nine miners died as the result of a horrific accident, rather than murder. They say that the fatal blast occurred because the mine managers had violated safety regulations by transporting explosives along with the men—a contention dismissed by the RCMP. And the strikers deeply resent that many of their neighbors believe that some of the strikers are responsible for the murder of nine men. “We were pissed off at them,” says CASAW vice-president Rick Cassidy, 39, referring to the men who crossed the picket line, “but nobody wished that fate on them.” Some of the replacement workers are not so sure. O’Neil, for one, says that he recalls pickets tossing paint bombs and shooting ballbearings from slingshots at his truck as he drove past the daily picket line. Other socalled scabs say that their tires have been slashed and that they have been confronted by union members at one of the local bars. “Yellowknife almost has the air of a Middle East situation, like Beirut,” declares O’Neil. ‘We have people here who believe killing is OK, people who believe terrorizing is OK, people who believe whatever it takes to achieve their cause is OK.”

Those who are suffering the most, of course, are the victims’ relatives, most of whom have now left Yellowknife. “After one year, it is still frustrating to think the men who did this are walking the streets,” says Tracey Neill, the 24-year-old widow of Chris Neill. “I can’t get on with my life until I know that the men responsible for these murders are caught.” Neill, who took a one-year leave of absence last fall from her job as an office administrator in Yellowknife, is now living in Southern Canada—although she asked that the location not be disclosed for fear of reprisal. “I am still scared when I hear the phone ring,” she says. “Is someone after me? They killed nine, they might murder more.” That often unspoken fear will also continue to haunt Yellowknifers until the people responsible for the Giant Mine tragedy are finally brought to justice.

JOHN HOWSE in Yellowknife