A miners’ life is one of the most difficult and dangerous working people face anywhere. Only miners themselves know the real cost of coal. A man’s life is cut short by the strain of working underground in the dark. Thousands of Cape Bretoners have suffered serious injuries in the mines. Hundreds have perished in underground disasters.
On July 26, 1917 a sudden explosion in the Domnco mine at New Waterford took the lives of 65 men and young boys. The townspeople were enraged; a coroner’s jury ruled that both the government and the company were guilty of gross neglect of the workers’ safety. A government inquiry was forced to agree.
But the miners refused to let the issue die a quiet death under a mound of official condolences. Direct action had to betaken to drum the message into the heads of Domco and the Liberal Party -- the value of human life is far greater than the market value of coal.
In October the union took it’s stand – all the men would walk off the job twice a week until those responsible for the explosion were dismissed. Faced with an ultimatum like this, the usually slow ‘normal channels’ immediately charged three Domco officials with manslaughter, while the company itself as charged with ‘causing bodily harm’ to it’s employees.
-“Mining is a tough job,
really tough. God knows
there’s many people be-
ing injured and getting
killed. Well, if that’s
not going to make them
militant,. I don’t know
Once the affair got into the courts, the govern1nent’s real strategy became clear. When the fight was taking place at the level of the mine -- when the miners were actually threatening profits and the orderly operation of the mines -- the government was anxious to appear sympathetic. But as soon as the fight could be switched to the government’s ground --the courts -- it was a different tune.
Twice the trials were delayed. It was more than a full year after the original tragedy that a court considered the cases.
The name of the judge was Mellish, a Justivce of the Supreme Court of the province. This was his first important case. But Mellish had a good background for the job. At the time of the actual explosion, Mellish was a lawyer for the Dominion Coal Company. If he hadn’t been sitting in the judge’s chair, he would have been busy preparing the defence.
After three days of evidence in which it was shown that the explosion was caused by the accumulation of dangerous gases in the shafts -- something Domco and the safety inspectors were supposed to keep close, watch on -- Mellish told the jury to return a not guilty verdict. They did.
Domco was off the hook and so was the government. But the miners would continue to go back day after day to face dangers which could be kept under control. This could only be done if the priorities of the coal owners, and their friends who run the governments and the courts could be changed. For them a miner’s life was only a small sacrifice.