THE FORGOTTEN MINERS
This man is dying—silently, stoically, as have more than 100 other miners in the small Newfoundland town of St. Lawrence. Most die from cancer, mysteriously contracted underground. Almost an entire generation of miners has been wiped out. Their widows and children live on next to nothing. While officialdom leisurely studies the problem, more men will die—for no one seems to care much about
THE SNOW WHIRLS down out of the white void that is the Newfoundland sky, and Jack Fitzpatrick gazes out of his kitchen window, not really seeing the snow. For once his eyes are calm, perhaps because he is unwinding a movie reel of images out of his memory. Fie is talking about when he was 17 and he first went to work in the fluorspar mines of St. Lawrence. Then he mentions the name of a miner, Isaac Loder, a man who is being buried today, and Fitzpatrick is suddenly again in the present. Abruptly, he stops talking. Fie turns his face away from the window. And for a moment that face swings pale and wild, as the eyes, haunted now, dart nervously around the kitchen. Nobody speaks. The only sound comes from a steaming kettle, gently hissing on the stove.
Jack Fitzpatrick is 44 and he is waiting to die. He has already been waiting for four months, and he has perhaps another few to live.
His eyes have come to rest on his hands. Wordlessly, he spreads them over the transparent plastic tablecloth with its design of red roses. They are still a miner's hands. T he fingers are large and square-ended. The tendons are thick and ropy as they move around the knuckles now, as he agitatedly tears an empty cigarette package into tiny strips.
But there are only the hands left. Fitzpatrick was never a big man but his frame is already gaunt. He has lost about 30 pounds. The flesh has left his face, leaving his eyes looking abnormally large. The skin has stretched tight across his skull, revealing the temporal artery, pulsing and swollen across the top of his bald head. His skin, incredibly white and yet feverishly luminous, acts as a veil for the disease that is eating away inside him. Every few minutes Fitzpatrick takes from his trouser pocket a soiled handkerchief and wipes the sputum from his mouth. Then he returns to his brooding. His shoulders hunched up in his blue workshirt. His fingers tearing the strips of cardboard into even smaller pieces.
It is very quiet in the kitchen. His wife Harriet, a big heavy woman, sits with her hands on her knees, looking down at the worn red and white squares of the linoleum. I remember that she has four sons living at home, still going to school. She is no doubt preparing herself for widowhood. She will have plenty of company. For in this tiny community of just over 2,000 people there are 69 widows. And in the wooden frame houses that are scattered around the small natural harbor of St. Lawrence, there is not one family that has not lost a father, a brother, or an uncle to the mysterious and malignant disease that comes from working in the fluorspar mines. And fluorspar mining is the sole industry in St. I.awrence.
In the past 20 years more than 100 men have died, almost a whole generation of miners has been wiped out. And of the few men left in the community who are between 45 and 55 years of age, 17 arc grievously ill. Fitzpatrick is only one of them.
“How do you pass the time?” I ask him.
In this oppressively silent kitchen my words and my question sound absurd. All around me are the obvious signs of a life that has struggled but never quite freed itself from poverty. And there is nothing in Fitzpatrick’s life that prepared him for this period of waiting and inactivity. And what does time mean to a man who is waiting to die? But lie answers me politely, in the soft, pleasing accents of the Burin Peninsula.
“Well, I'll tell you, b'ye. When I'm all right enough I goes down the hill for a ways. Coming back I take a couple of spells ... to rest, y'know.”
Jack Fitzpatrick, the miner pictured on page 21, died of cancer as this issue was going to press.
“You’d think the mine could put something back into the town, but no...not a nickel”
Another long silence. Harriet takes the kettle off. sits down.
“Do you know what it is you've got?”
“The doctor tells me I've a bit of the dust,” he answers, using the miner's term for silicosis. "And I've got something a little better than that ... a little better than that.” he adds with a murmur. Without looking up his wife says gently and matter-of-factly, “He's got what they all had. What they all died from. It's the same what killed his friend who they're burying today.”
On my way over to see Fitzpatrick that morning I had unexpectedly encountered the funeral of his friend. The procession wound its way down the gentle slope of Water Street, past the miners’ ugly wooden square houses, painted in violent yellows and greens. On the left is the harbor, the water a sullen cold grey color. Behind the houses are the desolate snow-strewn hills, barren and stark. Here and there, silhouetted against the winter sky are the lonely spectres of the deserted head frames, still standing over disused mine shafts. And over it all, a cold wind is blowing snow flurries in an almost horizontal direction. At the head of the procession a young miner carries a large unpainted wooden cross. Attached to it arc black and white streamers that flutter in the wind. His fingers are cold and he shifts his grip on the cross. Behind comes a battered, green pickup truck. In the back lies the simple wooden coffin of Isaac Loder. Standing around the coffin, holding onto the sides of the pickup for balance, are the pallbearers. They are also miners and the white sashes they wear around their right arms contrast with their dark winter clothes. Behind the truck come the mourners.
T hey are taking Isaac Loder to the graveyard that lies by the dirt road leading out of this little Newfoundland mining town. They are taking him to join his brothers. There was Peter, who died on September 9, 1963. He was 41. And Verno who died April 13, 1962. He was 40. Isaac was 48. Isaac was a big powerful man of 200 pounds who, unaided, could lift a loaded one-ton ore cart back onto the tracks. But the pallbearers won't / continued on page 40
continued on page 40
THE FORGOTTEN MINERS continued from pane 23
Few agree to surgery. What’s the use?
have much difficulty today, because when Isaac died two days ago he weighed 70 pounds. Isaac died of that terrible wasting disease, cancer of the lung, as did his brothers. A fourth brother, Dave, is in poor health now. “I guess my number could be up next,” he says.
And those are the men of the Loder family. They were all miners.
It is the same disease that is inexorably killing Jack Fitzpatrick, as he sits at his kitchen table, gazing out of the window. I have seen his medical file. He has an X ray that shows a massive darkening growth around the base of the hilum of his left lung. They are the cancerous cells, feeding off the living tissue. A letter in his file, signed by the radiologist, concludes that although there is no valid diagnosis in all probability Fitzpatrick has lung cancer.
When he says no valid diagnosis, he means that no doctor has been able to cut Fitzpatrick open to make absolutely certain that he has cancer. But then in the last three years very few of the miners who have died in St. Lawrence have submitted to surgery. There’s a good reason for it. They have seen too many of their fellow miners go to St. John’s and have a lung removed, only to come home to their families and die horrible, painful deaths. The reason is that by the time the lung is removed, the cancer has already entered the upper bronchial tubes. The
severed bronchia becomes infected, finally ruptures, and the infection pours into the pleural cavity left by the removed lung. The pleura becomes filled with pus, gallons of it, which has to be removed through an external opening in the chest wall. It is a painful way to die. Fitzpatrick knows that. He saw his own uncle die that way.
“1 told them,” he says, “they can take all the tests they like, but they’re not going to get me on the table.”
When Fitzpatrick becomes too weak to be cared for at home he will be moved to the small six-bed male ward of the St. Lawrence Memorial Hospital. That’s where Edward Clarke was when I met him. He had cancer of the lung. A few weeks later he died. And when I visited him there I also met Randall Turpin. They haven't found cancer yet in Turpin, but in 1954 the doctors in St. John’s removed the lobe of his left lung and ever since Turpin has been classed as a pulmonary cripple. Beset by lung infections, pleurisy, pneumonia. bronchitis, he has been unable to work. Turpin has a wife and four children, and somehow they get by on the $166 a month he receives as Workmen’s Compensation.
I asked him if he would ever let any of his sons go to work in the mines. “No sir.” he replied in a quiet emphatic voice. “I’d put a bullet in him first. Better to do that than have him end up like me.”
After a shift, you’d lie on the ground coughing your guts out
If death is that which gives definition to life, then life for the past 40 years in the town of St. Lawrence has heen defined in the bleakest of terms. At 7 p.m. on November 18. 1929. a tidal wave smashed against the rocky head of Blue Beach Point, surged through the narrow entrance to the harbor, and in a few minutes destroyed the small commercial fishing fleet that had kept St. Lawrence a self-supporting community.
In 1932, when a New Yorker named Walter Seibert arrived on the Burin Peninsula, the people were living on welfare handouts — SI.80 a month for each person. Children sutI'ered from rickets; scurvy and pulmonary tuberculosis were common.
Seibert told the villagers that they were living beside one ot the richest deposits of fluorspar in the world, that fluorspar was an essential ingredient in steeland aluminum-smelting operalions. And that if everyone turned to. win. in a couple ot years St. Lawrence would have a booming industry. In March 1933 a freighter arrived with a hold lull of secondhand mining equipment. The men of St. 1 awrence unloaded it without pay . I he St. Lawrence Corporation was tormed. with Seibert retaining full ownership and control, but the people ot St. Lawrence were encouraged to think ot it as "their mine." They believed it. They worked for 15 cents an hour. They waited months at a time tor their paycheques. When they arrived they were only bits of paper, because there was no money in the bank to cover the cheques. The local merchants took the cheques and carried the St. Lawrence Corporation until there was money in the bank. It the cheque was for five dollars and a miner's wife bought four dollars' worth ot goods, the merchant tore off a piece ot brown wrapping paper and wrote her an I.O.U. for one dollar. For years those little pieces of brown paper were better currency than the cheques ot the St. Lawrence Corporation.
The first ore was taken from crude opencast pits, but these tilled too quickly with water. In 1937 the first shaft was sunk, and then began the terrible underground agony lor the men of St. Lawrence. Men who. tor generations, had earned their living on the open sea.
Of the men who sunk the lirst shaft at the Black Duck Mine there is onlv a handt ul lelt. One ot them lives two doors from Jack Fitzpatrick. His name is Rennie Slaney. and although Slaney doesn't get out much now. he's still a very tough old guy.
"How are you?" 1 ask him.
"Ahh . . . staying ahead ot the undertaker, b'ye,” he replies with a harsh, high-pitched laugh.
Slaney is a bandy-legged little man. Before he became disabled he had worked underground for more than 19 years, first as a mucker, then as a shift boss, until he worked his wav up tt-» mine captain. And that was in the days when the miners worked in the most primitive conditions imaginable. He can tell you stories about working hundreds ot feet underground in dritts so plugged
with dust and smoke you couldn't see the man working beside you — you could only hear him. It was a time when the mine owners used costcutting techniques that have long since been outlawed. Ventilation was nonexistent. Dry drills threw dust and dirt back into a miner's face from a distance of two feet. In the hoist
shack, the operator kept a tally chalked on the wall of the number of ore buckets each shift took out of the mine. "If it was 50." sa\s Slaney. "then your shift tried to make it 52. There was no bonus. Every man wanted to show he was as good as the next. And that's the wav we Newfoundlanders are. We don't take am-
thing from any man that we don't pay for in blood and sweat."
They paid. Slaney can tell you what it was like to come off an eight-hour shift and lie on the ground coughing your guts out until you vomited blood for 20 minutes at a time. And you believe it. because when you stand beside Slaney you can hear his bronchial tubes wheezing and straining for air. And you can hear the junk bubbling in his lungs as they strain and bang away, trying to get the air out
In a black-covered scribbler, a grim chronicle of death
again. Slaney suffers from chronic bronchitis, obstructive emphysema, infective asthma, and a condition called corpuimonalc, which means he is prone to heart attacks because the alveoli — the tissue that performs the chemical exchange of gases in the lung — are hardened in such a way that Slaney can get the air in but
he has difficulty getting it out again.
Although Slaney’s condition is directly due to the conditions he worked under for more than 19 years in the mines owned by the St. Lawrence Corporation, he doesn't get a cent in Workmen’s Compensation. The Newfoundland workmen’s compensation act only covers miners who have sili-
cosis or cancer of the lung. Slaney is still fighting to get some compensation, in the same way he has fought over the past 15 years to get it for some 20 of the miners from St. Lawrence — by badgering the Workmen's Compensation Board in St. Joh n’s.
But Slaney is much more than a
fighting survivor. He is a chronicler of St. Lawrence’s dead and the dying. In a simple black-covered scribbler he has lists of names that cover three pages.
The first page is headed: Deceased — Underground Workers. Here are the names of Newfoundland families who have lived on the Burin Peninsula for more than 200 years, and beside each name there is the letter L, which means the man died of a disease of the lung, or there is a short notation:
Joseph Squires I.
Howard Pike I.
Gregory Turpin (cancer of the spine)
Onslo Mullins L
Celestine Tarrant L
Arenle Slaney, Senior 1.
There are 93 men on that list. The youngest was 32, the oldest 60. There is another list of 13 men who were surface workers and who died in the same way. Then there’s a final list of 28 men who are alive but so ill they cannot work.
According to Slaney. only 35 men and their families have received compensation. He first began making his lists in the late 1940s. “That’s when we first started dying,” he says. Miners would be sent to St. John’s to he treated and cured of tuberculosis — which they had — but then they would come home and die. "And." says Slaney, “nobody could explain to us what the men were dying from.” Among them was his own brother. Slaney started to write letters to doctors in the provincial health department and to members of the Workmen's Compensation Board. But nobody seemed to pay much attention.
People seemed to dismiss Slaney as a complainer, a troublemaker. Then in I960, Dr. A. J. de Villicrs and Dr. J. P. Windish. of the federal Depart-
A doctor warned of the danger—but nobody told the miners
ment of Health, discovered that the miners in St. Lawrence were exposed to high doses of radiation from radon gases present in the mine. Suddenly. Rennie Slaney. with his letters and lists of names, made sense, for now there’s no doubt in anyone's mind that the radiation in the fluorspar mines of St. Lawrence has a lot to do with the various forms of cancer that are killing the miners.
Dr. de Villiers stayed on to examine miners and compile data. In 1964 lie published two papers in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine that showed the incidence of lung cancer was 25 times higher in St. Lawrence than in the province as a whole.
In a preface to his second paper, de Villiers w'rote: “It appears that the main factor causing the high incidence of carcinoma among the miners was the high level of radioactivity in the air and water in the mines.”
Yet — incredibly — nobody bothered to inform the miners what was going on. Slaney accidentally came across a copy of de Villiers’ reports in September 1965. He passed them on to Aloysius Turpin, then president of the St. Lawrence Workers Protective Union.
It should be noted here that by I960 the Aluminum Company of Canada subsidiary, Newfoundland Fluorspar. was the only mining company left operating in the area and that, ever since it began mining operations in 1940, it has conformed to all the regulations of the Department ol Mines. In 1958. when the St. Lawrence Corporation, owned by Walter Seibert, closed down its mining operations on the Burin Peninsula. Alcan purchased the St. Lawrence Corporation's properties. It also hired many of the miners who had been working for years under the abysmal conditions of the Seibert mines. In doing so. Alcan inherited the responsibilities of its old competitors.
When the presence ol the radioactive gases was established in 1960, Alcan immediately installed additional ventilating equipment. 'The theory was that the new machinery would ventilate the mine of the radon gases and bring the radioactive level down to what is a somewhat arbitrary set of safety figures given by the Federal Department of Health lor workers exposed to radiation hazards. 1 he truth is that nobody really has very much experience in this area ol radiation. The radon gases are inhaled and are thought to leave behind in the lungs fine fragments of radioactive particulates suspected of causing lung cancer.
With the figures that are available now, from de Villiers studies it seems that any miner who worked from 13 to 15 years underground before 1960 (when the new ventilation equipment was installed ) stands a greater risk ol lung cancer.
No medical authority will guarantee there is no radiation hazard now in the Newfoundland Fluorspar Mine. Dr. de Villiers won’t, and Dr. Brian Hollywood, who runs the St. Lawrence Memorial Hospital, says. "Only in 10 to 12 years will we be able to say definitely yes or no." Hollywood works
for the provincial health department, and no physician has been more personally involved than he in the tragedy of the St. Lawrence miners. It has been his duty to tell miners when they could no longer work, and he has tended them as they awaited their slow, inexorable deaths.
"They are a unique and courageous
people.” he says. "1 have never heard a miner complain. 1 have to ask them. ‘Where do you feel pain?’ and only then will they tell me. And to the end they do their best to remain cheerful." Hollywood has probably been the most outspoken critic of the government's and the mining company’s lack of interest in the miners' families. He
describes the financial compensation that has been paid families as “a mere pittance." A widow gets $75 a month and $25 for each child under 16. The average number of children to a family in St. Lawrence is five.
Since I960 another 25 miners have died of lung cancer. 12 others have died from other diseases that can be directly attributed to working in the mines. Meanwhile, Slaney stepped up his badgering of the Workmen's Com-
continued on page 46
pensation Board. He complained that nothing was being done for those miners who were ill or dying from diseases that were not considered compensable by the WCB. He pointed out that a widow couldn’t live on the present compensation payments. And where, he asked, could a widow with three children find work in St. Lawrence where, aside from a few small
stores, the sole employer was the mine?
Finally, in January of 1965, the Newfoundland government issued an order-in-council to form a committee that would review the Workmen's Compensation Act. Someone asked Slaney to prepare a brief. Slaney sat down at the battered old typewriter on which he had already sent out so many letters to the WCB, and in three terse pages told the committee exactly what the people of St. Lawrence had put 11 p with ever since the first mine
shaft was sunk. But it wasn't until February of this year that Slaney's brief was tabled in the Newfoundland legislature. It was included in the committee's report. The immediate effect w-as dramatic. The St. John’s Telegram thought so much of it that the editor headlined the story, A National Disaster, and ran Slaney’s entire brief. Premier Joey Smallwood immediately put the issue on ice by calling for a royal commission to investigate conditions in St. Lawrence. On a CBC-TV
show he admitted that he personally would never go down any mine, and that he thought the “real problem in St. Lawrence is mainly psychological.”
The miners in St. Lawrence aren't impressed with the royal commission. The chairman is Fintan J. Aylward, a lawyer and former president of Smallwood’s Young Liberals. The members are: Dr. Bliss Murphy, a radiologist for the provincial Department of Health; Frederick Cover, Deputy Minister of Mines; and Dr. W. D. Parsons, consultant with the Workmen's Compensation Board, who worked with de Villiers in 1960.
The miners would be more optimistic about the commission’s objectivity if its members had been recruited from outside the ranks of government supporters and the provincial bureaucracy, which has never exhibited a sense of urgency about their plight.
In the town of St. Lawrence the mine does not exactly enjoy a shining image. Mayor Fabian Aylward says, “There's a debt owed to these people and somebody should pay it. You would think that after all the thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of ore the mine has taken out of this towm, they could put some money back into it, but they haven’t put a nickel back.”
The mine pays an annual grant of $10,000 to the St. Lawrence council in lieu of taxes. It also donates $1,000 every year to each of the two schools. There are about 240 men on the mine’s annual million-dollar payroll.
Every year Alcan takes $2,250,000 worth of ore from the mine and ships it to Arvida, Que., for smelting.
Other than acknowledging that the miners with cancer have died courageously, Alcan has not exhibited any intention of offering extra financial aid to the dying miners or their families.
“Certainly Alcan has the resources to move in.” says I. S. Decarie, Alcan’s co-ordinator of public relations, “but then what would be the commitment to our other 20,000 employees and their dependents? Such a move could have repercussions throughout the whole industry.”
“Perhaps,” said Dr. Frank Brent, Alcan’s medical director, “the solution is in ourselves. Perhaps as Canadians we should each of us reach into our pockets to see how we could help the people of St. Lawrence.”
Meanwhile, in the last few months of his life, Jack Fitzpatrick continues to pay, out of his compensation money, $5.40 into his life-insurance plan which is coupled to his pension fund. He could only draw on his pension if he lives to 65. When he dies, his wife and four sons, aged between nine and 18, will receive $20,000.
After working 27 years underground Fitzpatrick was making $2.16 an hour, until he worked his final shift on October 10 and Dr. Brian Hollywood told him he was through at the mine. He had never been sick in his life before, never missed a shift. He would go months without a day off, because as a pump mechanic he could get in extra shifts on Saturdays and Sundays cleaning out the sumps in the mine. But now he won’t even get an aluminum watch, because you have to be with the Aluminum Company of Canada 25 years, and Jack Fitzpatrick didn't last that long. ★