A small northern community rent asunder by a protracted strike that pits an arrogant American-born mine owner against a hotheaded union boss. Nine miners brutally murdered in an underground bomb blast set by one of their own. The real-life tragedy that was played out in Yellowknife in the early 1990s had movie-of-the-week written all over it. And with this two-hour docudrama, the CBC has taken the bait. Well-acted and slickly produced, the program neatly captures the frustration, anger and outright paranoia that gripped Yellowknife after Royal Oak Mines Inc. president Peggy Witte responded to a strike vote in May, 1992, by locking out her employees at Giant Mine and hiring replacement workers. But in ending the drama with the September, 1992, explosion, the producers provide only a shadowy sketch of the most intriguing character in the whole affair: Roger Warren, the veteran hard-rock miner who perpetrated one of Canada’s biggest mass murders.
Giant Mine is told through the eyes of Jim O’Neil (Peter Outerbridge), a union moderate who is one of a handful of strikers to cross the picket lines. Reviled as a “traitor,” O’Neil emerges as the unheeded voice of reason plunked between the hard-nosed Witte (Alberta Watson) and the rabble-rousing union leader Harry Seaton (Peter MacNeill in fine scenery-chewing form). O’Neil’s early attempts to reopen negotiations are
Yellowknife’s tragedy is powerful fare
thwarted when Seaton delivers a rousing speech to the miners: ‘We’re up against a Yankee carpetbagger. She doesn’t give a damn about us workers, Yellowknife or the North, only profits. She can fire workers. She can lock the gates. But we are hard-rock miners and we will not be intimidated.”
This being television, the producers cannot resist a few fanciful touches. The yuppified “brew pub” that is depicted as the unionists’ favorite hangout is not the sort of place that most self-respecting hard-rock miners would frequent. Meanwhile, the portly and frequently abrasive real-life Witte must be flattered by the casting of Watson, a tall, slim Ellen Barkin look-alike who at least portrays ruthlessness with a regal bearing.
For all that, Giant Mine contains some deeply affecting moments, none more so than when a playmate tells O’Neil’s six-year-old daughter: “I can’t talk to you because you’re a scab.” And as the final credits roll with Margo Timmins plaintively singing, “It feels like I’m dying from mining for gold,” it seems a fitting epitaph to the murdered men. Yet the unsatisfying cameo treatment of Warren— who confessed to the murders 13 months after the blast, and was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder in January, 1995— leaves many questions dangling. Chief among them: what drives a 49-year-old family man with no strong union ties to kill fellow miners? Perhaps viewers will have to wait for a Giant Mine sequel for some answers.
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