The action was clearly defiant. At week’s end, seven days after nine men died in an explosion at the Giant Yellowknife gold mine, Royal Oak Mines Inc., the Vancouver-based company that owns the strike-bound facility, once again sent replacement workers down into the shafts. Guards stood by, a testament to the fear that has gripped the Northwest Territories capital since the explosion— and since the RCMP announced that it was treating the deaths as homicides. Royal Oak president Margaret [Peggy] Witte said that the company was losing $110,000 a day during the investigation and could no longer afford to let the mine stand idle. But spokesmen for the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers, which represents the 240 striking miners, disputed the company’s decision. “We did not want the mine to reopen until the cause of that blast was revealed,” said union local vice-president Rick Cassidy. “It worries us that evidence may be lost with the mine working again.” The company’s action, he added, “heightens tensions. Bringing back those replacement workers could mean confrontation.” Now, a federal mediator will try to settle outstanding differences.
Certainly, the reopening of the mine increased the difficulties of ending the oftenviolent strike that began on May 23. On Sept. 24, after repeated entreaties from territorial leaders that he intervene, federal Labor Minister Marcel Danis met with both union officials and Witte. The meetings took place in Edmonton—a setting viewed as neutral ground for both union and management. Later, a haggard Danis said that both sides had agreed to the appointment of the special mediator to negotiate a settlement. But the minister left little doubt that he was pessimistic about the outcome. “Despite all efforts to bring the parties together, they are no closer to resolving their differences,” he said. “I am asking the parties to seriously reflect on their responsibilities to the community, to do some sincere soulsearching and do whatever they can to contribute to the healing process in Yellowknife.”
But with the Mounties conducting a murder investigation, Yellowknife’s wounds remained open. Since the strikers walked off the job in a dispute over wages and safety, there have been numerous acts of vandalism and altercations with replacement workers. And following the blast, union members, who deny any complicity in the explosion, have been threatened and attacked. “People shout into the phone that we are murderers, bastards,” said striker Terry Legge, who has been manning the telephones at the strikers’ headquarters since the walkout began. “Someone called our union president— and all he said was, ‘You’re dead, you f—.’ ”
The threats have forced the union to take precautions to safeguard its members. For one thing, strikers had been asked to stay away from Yellowknife bars. “We feel as bad as everybody else does about this act,” said Cassidy. “We want to get to the bottom of it.” Last week, about 50 Mounties worked on the explosion. Forensic experts in Ottawa, meanwhile, sifted through evidence collected at the blast site. Said police spokesman Cpl. David Grundy: “We are continuing to investigate the blast as a multiple murder.” Murder—the word continued to haunt the families of the men working for Royal Oak. “Of course we’re scared, but we can do nothing about it,” said the wife of one of about 36 miners who have broken ranks with their union and returned to the job. “We have a large mortgage and we need to have a source of income—who else is going to hire my husband at 57?” Grundy, meanwhile, expressed concern that the fear in Yellowknife will increase. He said that anxious Yellowknifers constantly stop him on the street to ask when an arrest will be made. Declared Grundy: “We’ve gone a week without solving this. The longer it goes, people start to wonder, ‘Are these people going to do something else?’” Whoever “these people” were, they had changed the face of Yellowknife—and tragically rewritten the rules on labor disputes in Canada.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.