Things are heating up in Yellowknife, and we’re not talking about the climate. This time the fuel is a civil lawsuit arising from the fatal 1992 bombing during the Giant mine strike.
The 18-month strike not only pitted union against management, but brought tempers to the boiling point among neighbours, friends and families. The situation got out of hand when a bomb in the mine killed nine men. It was one of the sorriest episodes in Canadian labour history.
Now the old wounds are being picked open again as the civil trial into the deaths began last Monday in Yellowknife. It is possibly the largest trial ever in the city’s history, and it can’t help but create another emotional flashpoint.
The facts have been documented in the daily press, books and a CBC documentary movie. Peggy Witte’s Royal Oak Mines bought the property in 1991, and set out to make it profitable. Management’s demands frequently put it head-to-head with the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers union. The desire to downsize the workforce polarized the two; neither would compromise. When workers were locked out of the mine in May 1992 a day before a scheduled strike, the standoff began. It was to last 18 months during which time management hired strike-breakers from other northern towns. To cross or not to cross the picket line tore apart the Yellowknife community. Mine gate confrontations were violent. Fights broke out in town. Arrests were made.
Sept. 18, 1992, was a black day, indeed. That was the day a bomb planted on the 750 level of the mine, perhaps intended only to scare the replacement workers, killed nine of them. In October 1993, striking miner Roger Warren was charged with second degree murder in the bombing. He confessed, then recanted. He was convicted in 1995 and is now serving a life sentence. Earlier this year, Warren again admitted to setting the bomb.
The hurt and anger have been kept alive for over a decade as the strike became the catalyst for a public commission inquiry and numerous lawsuits. The current civil lawsuit was brought by the families of the dead men and seeks $35 million in damages. The plaintiffs claim that Royal Oak (which went into receivership in 1999) and Witte (who now uses her maiden name "Margaret Kent") failed to provide a safe working environment for the dead men. The defendants claim there was no reasonable way to foresee what Warren would do.
The trial is being held in a specially-built courtroom before a judge, without a jury. A lease has been taken on an entire floor of a local conference centre. The space, and the judge’s chambers, staff offices, plus witness and interview rooms is rumoured to be costing the territorial government $325,000. Another $655,000 has been earmarked to pay court staff. The trial might drag on for a year.
What is to be gained by going over such painful events again? The fast answer is $35 million. The families of the dead miners deserve compensation for their loss, and the territorial Workers Compensation Board has paid them an undisclosed amount. I doubt, however, that either the defunct Royal Oak Mines or Margaret Kent can cover a multi-million-dollar award. Other defendants named are Pinkerton Security, the government safety inspector, the union president, and the convicted bomber. We sincerely hope that the bones of that strike will be put to rest once and for all.
At the conclusion of the case, will the families be able to find closure and get on with their lives? Can Yellowknife, torn apart by the violence in 1992, ever become the close-knit community it once was? After more than a decade, some residents admit to being numbed by the events of the strike. If this lawsuit causes as much bad feeling as the strike, it will merely perpetuate the anger that underlay the violence.
I can’t take one side or the other in this messy business because I just don’t have enough information at my fingertips. My concern that is another protracted legal trial can only lengthen the sorrow of all involved. Murder is hard to forgive and impossible to forget.