JOHN DEMONT August 6 2001


JOHN DEMONT August 6 2001




The last shift, when it comes sometime in the next couple of months, will likely end the way they always did in the Prince colliery in Point Aconi, N.S.: after eight hours underground, the black-faced men will be bushed. Thank God that’s over, some will think. But Cape Breton coal miners don’t make a habit of whining. They don’t complain about the damp cold that penetrates arthritic joints, for the same reason they’re willing to inhale the same coal dust that killed their fathers and grandfathers, and for the same reason they endure the possibility that at any moment a

methane gas explosion could send a fireball streaking down the mine shaft: it goes with the job. As does having to grab a sandwich at the coal face for lunch. Or moving their bowels in the open at the pit, with a piece of newspaper or an empty lunch bag for toilet paper.

They’ll climb back into the metal cars that earlier in the day had carried them down the tunnel stretching 300 m below the surface and eight kilometres out under the Adantic Ocean.

Some will make small talk, read or play cards like they always do during the 45-minute ride back. But they’ll know this return trip is different. When they reach the surface, they’ll take off their miner’s lamps and orange overalls and shower away the grime of the pit one last time.

A few may linger to chat with the guys, knowing that the next time they see each other might well be in the El lineup. Eventually, though, each of them will clean out his locker and make for the gate. The Prince parking lot will be empty after the last Cape Breton miner leaves. Maybe then, alone in their cars with the mine silo receding into the distance like a memory, will they have a moment to think back to when they were young and scared of nothing—and wonder how in the world they became middle-aged men frightened of the future.

Who can blame them? It’s not just the 500 jobs that will vanish when the Prince colliery shuts down. Prince, located 40 km north of Sydney, is also the island’s last working underground coal mine. Ottawa has ordered it closed no later than this fall. When it does, a 280-year-old industry that has sustained the hardscrabble region through every kind of up and down disappears. “Coal is the reason our families came here,” says Steve Woods, 46, a fifth-generation Cape Breton miner whose great-great-grandfather immigrated to the area from Lancashire, England. “It is who we are, it’s our identity.” Or at least it was. With coal dead, Cape Breton has lost its organizing principle. Soon, the only miners working on the island will be the guides employed at the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum

in Glace Bay, there to tell the tourists what it was like when men still went underground. “It’s a sad thing to be the last of a dying breed,” says Ron Henessey, 48, a third-generation coal miner. f Y Ihe irony of being laid off at a time when the United States seems hungry for Canadian energy is not lost on Cape -JL Breton’s miners. In May, President George W Bush announced an energy plan that championed using coal to generate Americas electricity for decades to come. Bush, moreover, refused to join Canada and 177 other countries last week in signing an accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming. The deal, which must still be ratified by Parliament, should not hurt Canadian coal producers—even those who sell only to the domestic market—so long as they continue to develop new technologies to reduce coal’s carbon dioxide emissions. But it’s unlikely to help a Cape Breton industry searching for a private-sector saviour. After scouring the globe, the federal government, after all, couldn’t find a buyer for the Cape Breton Development Corp.’s (DEVCO’s)

Coal will no longer be king when the last mine on Cape Breton closes in the fall. With it goes a way of life.

Miners paid a high price for steady work in a place where jobs are scarce

remaining coal mines. And the potential for a U.S.-led revival hasn’t altered Ottawa’s decision to get out of the coal business.

So, the miners just feel betrayed. Many can still quote verbatim the words of the personnel manager who hired them in the early 1970s when an oil-price shock spurred a dramatic expansion of the federal government-owned coal mines. “OK, boys, you’ve got a job for life now,” Bill Dewaepenaere, 47, who had spent 24 years in the pit before he was laid off last December, remembers hearing. “So you can go to the bank and get a car and a house and those of you who aren’t married can go and find yourself a wife.”

They had no reason to doubt that promise. Coal has been king on the eastern end of Cape Breton since 1720, when French soldiers first dug for fuel to supply the fortress of Louisbourg. The more than 100 coal mines that followed populated the region by luring hardworking immigrants from Scotland, England, Italy,

Poland and other countries. Settlements like Glace Bay, Lingan, Dominion, Reserve Mines, Sydney Mines—many bearing the same name as the local colliery—sprang up. And generation after generation of families found a hard living in coalfields that at their peak employed 17,000 Cape Bretoners.

Anyone walking through the island’s tapped-out mining towns today can see that life here has never been paradise. The rows of

wooden semidetached duplexes hark back to the grim days in the early 20th century when miners toiled as indentured slaves to the big British coal companies that owned the houses, stores and hospitals. In New Waterford, eight stone pillars are carved with the names of some 300 men who have died in the mines from explosions and other accidents since 1866. Nearby, a statue commemorates William Davis, a miner who died after company police opened fire during the fractious strike of 1925—one of many cases in which police or soldiers were brought in to quell labour unrest—and whose memory is honoured each June 11 by a union holiday.

Economics, rather than the big coal companies, did the miners in. Coal’s importance waned as oil increasingly fuelled the economy. In 1967, when Ottawa took over the money-losing mines from their British owners, 6,300 people were working there. During the next 30 years, the federal government poured $1.75 billion into DEVCO. By 1992, Ottawa had had enough and served notice it planned to sell its Cape Breton coal operations. But after seven years had passed with no white knight appearing, it closed the Phalen mine, one of the island’s last two operating underground coal operations. The final death sentence came in May when the Liberal government announced it had

given up trying to find a buyer, leaving the remaining 500 workers wondering just what kind of severance package they’ll be offered when the Prince mine is finally padlocked. “It’s terrible to be discarded to the junk heap once you’ve outlived your usefulness,” declares Thomas Murray, 46, a father of two from New Waterford, who has spent 25 years underground.

A glance at the miners, with their pale faces forged by darkness, tells the price they’ve paid for steady work in a place where jobs are scarce. “The pit is the worst hellhole anyone could ever work in,” says Glayan Wujcik, 44, a veteran of 23 years. Missing fingers, ruined backs, worn-out knees—few seem to have emerged from the mines entirely in one piece. Everyone, even the nonsmokers, constantly hack and cough, their lungs ravaged by decades of inhaling coal dust. No wonder Steve Drake, a veteran of 17 years in the pit who also served as the president of the regional district of the United Mine Workers of America, calls them “soldiers returning home from a working-class war.”

Civilian life is going to be hard. Some of the laid-off miners have returned to university, college or trade school to retrain. In September, Drake, 45, who has bounced back better than most,

starts law school at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. A few have started small businesses. But it’s not the same. They miss the camaraderie, the sense of common purpose shared by so many men in dangerous professions. “I was always proud to be a miner,” says Leo Scott, 54, who now runs a chip-andhotdog wagon in Glace Bay after 19 years in the mines. “It made me feel good to know that we put the lights on in Nova Scotia.”

Now, the future just looks bleak. Billy Ludlow, a third-generation miner whose father died in an accident underground, was trying not to think about it recently as he sat in one of the old company homes in Glace Bay after a day at the Prince mine. Sipping a soft drink, he wondered aloud what a 42-year-old man with a Grade 8 education and 23 years in the pit is going to do after the whistle blows to end the final shift. Going underground as a skinny 19-year-old, he never thought he would be one of the last of Cape Breton’s fabled miners. Soon, all he’s going to have is a cough, aching joints and a few plaques and photographs hanging on his wall. Says Ludlow: “When my grandchildren ask me what it was like in the pit, I’ll say, ‘Those were the good old days.’ That’s what I’ll tell them.” ES3


Fora chorus of working and retired Cape Breton coal miners, the Men of the Deeps have wowed ’em in some pretty far-flung places: the workers’ halls of China, the mining towns of the Canadian North, union conventions in the American coal fields. But the bombed-out football stadium in Pristina,

Kosovo, was one weird venue.

Serendipity took them there. In the summer of 1999, actor and political activist Vanessa Redgrave was shooting a movie in Nova Scotia. At the time, she was also organizing a festival to celebrate the return of refugees to war-torn Kosovo. Why not, suggested someone on the set, take along the island’s chorus of miners? Their presence would be fitting, since coal miners in Serbia were in the forefront of those wanting to oust President Slobodan Milosevic. An intrigued Redgrave drove to Cape Breton, heard the Men of the Deeps sing and was hooked. The chorus performed the finale at the September concertRise Again, one of their signature tunes-as

the Pristina audience stood and wept.

They have that kind of impact on people.

“They’re singing about their own lives,” explains Jack O’Donnell, former professor of music at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., who has been the chorus’s musical director for 28 years. “There’s a genuineness and directness in their singing and songs that touches people.” The group, formed to sing at the opening of the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay in 1967, now performs as many as 70 times a year-everywhere from glittery concert halls to the smallest senior citizens’ home.

With 26 active members, the chorus is

about half its former size. Otherwise, little else has changed: singers are still required to have the equivalent of about two years’ experience working in the mines. The current crop of singers, who receive expenses and a per-concert honorarium, includes a former union head and his old nemesis, an ex-mine manager, along with a slew of retired miners. Six members of the chorus still work at the Prince colliery, Cape Breton’s last operating underground coal mine. Once it closes, their future with the choir is uncertain: some of them will almost certainly have to leave the area for work; those who find jobs in Cape Breton are unlikely to have an employer as flexible as the Cape Breton Development Corp., which operates Prince, and gives its members time off to travel to gigs. “Singing with the guys is more important to me than the job,” says Jack Beaton, 47, who has spent 23 years in the mines and eight with the chorus. “The day I have to leave the group, that will be the saddest thing for me.” And another reason to curse the death of coal in Cape Breton.