Canada

Anger from the Deeps

The last generation of Cape Breton’s fabled coal miners holds out for a better deal

John DeMont January 24 2000
Canada

Anger from the Deeps

The last generation of Cape Breton’s fabled coal miners holds out for a better deal

John DeMont January 24 2000

Anger from the Deeps

Canada

The last generation of Cape Breton’s fabled coal miners holds out for a better deal

John DeMont

Tom Hutchison was just 19 and scared to death. But in 1970, he went down into No. 12 colliery in New Waterford, N.S., anyway. Tradition was part of it: his father, Fred, had been working the coal mines of Cape Breton since he was 15 and even raised his family in a small wooden house bought from his employer, Dominion Coal Co. His dad told Tom good workers could count on a job for life down in the pit. So Tom got married and moved next door to his dad. He stayed in the mines, each day heading into tunnels that stretched 10 km out under the North Atlantic—not missing a single shift for one 15-year stretch on the job. “It was in my blood,” he recalled last week. “It was hard but I loved it, all the camaraderie, all the joking and laughing.” Nowadays, Hutchison hardly smiles. He wrings his hands, worries a lot and smokes too much. Mostly, now that the mines are all but gone, he wonders what kind of future there is for a 49-year-old with a high-school education and early stages of silicosis of the lungs.

He and the others walking the illegal picket lines last week know that the whistle for the last shift sounded last Jan. 28, when Cape Breton Development Corp. announced it was closing one of the islands two remaining coal mines, privatizing the other—and putting most of Devcos 1,600 workers out of work by the end of 2000. Hutchison and his wife, Debbie, cried when they heard the news. Since then, he has tried to keep his spirits up. But it is no easier at home than it was huddled in front of the fires at Devcos last remaining mine, as well as the company’s coal preparation plant, transportation pier and other operations.

Some of his comrades were missing fingers, others bore

still-livid scars on their creased, pallid faces—evidence of the dangers belowground. Even the nonsmokers among them hacked and coughed, their lungs irrevocably damaged from decades of inhaling coal dust. Most of the strikers were in their 40s—but, to the eye, the last generation of Cape Breton’s fabled miners appeared far older. “Ancient ahead of our time,” is how Angus Davidson, 41, the third generation of his family to work the coal face, describes himself and his fellow miners. “Our bodies ruined by the mines just like our fathers and grandfathers before us.”

There is still some fight left in them, though. Last week, 10 miners seized the Prince colliery, the last mine still operating on the island, fearing that Devco was about to close it. Their food and water running out, they refused to surface until the federal government offered better early-retirement packages for Devcos workers. Aboveground, picketing miners offered support—while others threatened to plunge the province into darkness by blockading Nova Scotia Power Inc. generating stations in Point Aconi and Lingan and preventing the delivery of Devco coal as stockpiles dwindled. By week’s end, federal Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale agreed to rip up the old deal, which miners’ unions said would have left all workers under 50 with a severance but no pension, and start negotiating a new package.

The miners voted 83 per cent in favour of ending the strike and sitting down at the bargaining table. Even a sweeter package, however, does nothing to alter the essential reality: only a few hundred miners may find work if Ottawa locates a buyer for the Prince colliery. Yet even if that happens, the industry

that once employed thousands of Cape Bretoners and helped give the island its distinct identity is as good as gone. “The last chapter in this story is being written,” says Don MacGillivary, a social historian who teaches at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney. “The pity is that it could not be done in a more humane fashion.”

Cape Breton, where the 19-per-cent unemployment rate is already nearly triple the national average, is reeling. The steel mills, the islands other large industrial employer, are also on life support. Last week, an American-led consortium slated to buy the money-losing Sydney steel mill failed to make its $1.5-million down payment by the Wednesday deadline—a worrisome sign for employees at an enterprise that the Nova Scotia government had vowed to sell or close by Dec. 31, 1999.

Politicians talk of building an information technology sector on Cape Breton, winning a chunk of the offshore energy supply business, or capitalizing on the island’s spectacular scenery and distinctive culture. But hope for the future seems lost on the young, who are fleeing Cape Breton in droves, or the workers pushed out of their jobs by declining world markets. Over the past 30 years, governments in Ottawa and Halifax spent $4.4 billion in government subsidies to keep the mines and steel mills open. Now, in an era of fiscal restraint, those days are gone.

Not that the jobless miners expect much sympathy outside of Cape Breton. They fully realize that last week’s illegal walkout could harden their reputation, in some circles, as rabble-rousing trade unionists who would rather go on

strike or collect a pension for life than put in an honest day’s work. Even so, with only four walkouts since 1925, the criticism still rankles. “Sure, there are the lazy ones, just like on any other job,” says Randy MacDonald, 39, an underground electrician employed by Devco since 1982. “But coal miners are workers, and we helped build this country.” Often at huge cost: as MacDonald speaks he stands in a New Waterford park before eight stone pillars carved with the names of some 300 men who have died in the mines since 1866. Among them: his father, Alex (Boo) MacDonald, electrocuted in the Lingan I colliery in New Waterford on June I 26,1976, at the age of49. At his fu| neral, a Devco official assured > Randy, then 15, that he didn’t have I to worry about a job when he got 1 older. “My dad got screwed in ’76 I and I’m getting screwed now,” he says with a grim laugh.

Uplifting stories are hard to come by in the tapped-out towns of New Waterford, Glace Bay, Dominion and Sydney Mines, which sprung up in the late 1800s when the mines opened—and where most families can claim a member killed or maimed underground. Things are better than in the 1920s, when buying everything at the company-owned store was a way of life. Unionists, in fact, still treat June 11 as a holiday in memory of William Davis, a striking miner who died after coal company police opened fire during the fractious strike of 1925. But it was not until the 1970s that miners finally started making a decent wage.

By then, the industry, which employed 17,000 during the Second World War, was already sliding towards oblivion, due to the widespread conversion from coal to oil and improved mining methods. And the way things are going, Cape Bretons proud miners may soon live on as cultural icons more than anything else, immortalized by singers like Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps—a chorus made up entirely of miners. Or brought to life in films such as Margarets Museum and Pit Pony, a children’s drama on CBC television, shot not far from where miners walked the picket line.

The real thing is becoming an anachronism. “I’m a coal miner,” Terry McVarish, 46, a 24-year-veteran, explained last week after a long day manning the barricades. “I’m proud to be one. That’s all I’ve ever done.” It was a heartbreaking thought on a cold night at the start of the new millennium. By many people’s standards, life in the pit is hard and dangerous. But McVarish and so many others would give just about anything to have it back. G3