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The aftermath of a tsunami that struck Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula on Nov. 18, 1929. The waves, up to three storeys high, killed 27 people and left hundreds homeless. But the mining scheme set up to give them a new livelihood would also have deadly consequences in decades to come.

Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, QE II Libraries, Memorial University Newfoundland

Linden MacIntyre is an author and journalist whose books include The Bishop’s Man, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His most recent book is The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of a Tsunami. He was born near St. Lawrence, N.L., where his father worked as a miner periodically between 1942 and 1965. Dan Rory MacIntyre, an itinerant hard-rock miner from Cape Breton, died suddenly in 1969 at the age of 50, after years of work-related ailments, including silicosis.

The Newfoundlanders were apparently amused by the slick young chap from New York. He was good-looking, well-dressed and personable. He was accommodated and entertained for weeks at the stately Farrell home, not far from Farrell’s store on the west side of St. Lawrence’s harbour. In the evenings, there was food and music – the American could even play the Farrell family piano passably. More significantly, there was conversation about ideas, dreams and possibilities.

It was the summer of 1931, and the visitor, whose name was Walter E. Seibert, was an accountant who worked for a Wall Street financial institution. Visiting St. Lawrence, a small town of about 900 on the remote southern end of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, he could almost forget the depressing economic realities of the world in which he usually lived and worked. He was 29 years old, full of optimism and ambition and a vision that went well beyond the contemporary economic turmoil, into a future that was rich with opportunity.

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He obviously didn’t know much about St. Lawrence – that less than two years earlier, the town and dozens of southern coastal communities just like it had been practically wiped out by a tsunami triggered by an earthquake that registered 7.2 on the official scale of magnitude. That 27 people died that day, Nov. 18, 1929. It’s unlikely he’d have known that, in the wake of the tsunami, the fishery collapsed and people on the southern coast in particular were living in the shadow of starvation, many of them subsisting on public “dole” amounting to $1.80 a month.

Or maybe he really did know these miserable details. And maybe it was awareness of the desperation of the people in the region that inspired a plan that promised hope for them and vast wealth for himself – an audacious dream that would require considerable risk for him and unimaginable sacrifice from them.

Whatever might have transpired in those few weeks, by way of business, Seibert and the Farrells obviously bonded. And in the course of the next two years, they would come up with a scheme that would transform the small community. It would introduce modest, mostly unreliable periods of prosperity. It would also launch the beginning of what, one day in the distant future, anthropologist Elliott Leyton would describe as “an industrial carnage.”

The waves in the 1929 tsunami drove houses out to sea and devastated the fisheries that Burin Peninsula residents depended on.

Father James A. Miller / Courtesy of PANL, Parsons family collection

It was a simple scheme. The Farrells – a deeply rooted, highly respected local merchant family – would help young Seibert, who had hardly any working capital, launch a labour-intensive industry without any labour costs at all.

Seibert had acquired potentially valuable mineral rights from a Newfoundlander the year before. Aubrey Farrell, who was also in his 20s, promised Seibert he would recruit a work force to help launch a mining venture and that he would support the miners with food and basic necessities if they would agree to work for Seibert without wages for as long as it would take to get the business going.

When (and if) Seibert’s venture started making money, he’d pay the miners – minus the cost of feeding them while they were working. Farrell and Seibert agreed that the value of the miners’ labour would be set at 15 cents an hour.

Even by the standards of the time, in the middle of a global economic crisis, it was an absurd if not abusive notion – persuading hungry men to work hard for nothing more than food and the prospect of meagre wages if and whenever the theoretical “joint venture” with the New York capitalist happened to succeed. But the Newfoundlanders were in a bind. They were idle. They were hungry. And if they turned down employment of any kind, it would jeopardize their access to the dole.

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In March of 1933, Seibert delivered a boatload of second-hand, dilapidated mining equipment to St. Lawrence. Local volunteers with horses and oxen dragged it from the dock to a location in the bush, about a mile away – the future Black Duck Mine.

By then, Seibert had a commitment from the steel plant in Sydney to buy 2,000 tons of the local mineral – fluorspar, an essential ingredient in steel, aluminum and chemicals – if its chemists verified its quality.

One year later, the local men, whose prior work experience had been almost entirely in the fishery, had dug, with picks, jackhammers and shovels, the 2,000 tons and delivered it by wheelbarrow and ox-drawn sleds to the St. Lawrence waterfront for shipment.

The steel-company chemists approved it – St. Lawrence fluorspar would turn out to be of extraordinary quality – and Seibert got his money. Months would slip by before he got around to paying Farrell, who by then was having reservations about the scheme he and Seibert had concocted.

It was a rough start. But the local workers could reasonably anticipate that, having fulfilled their end of the bargain, corporate earnings would be invested in equipment and improvements in a workplace that, even to people who knew nothing about the mining industry, was barely tolerable. The mines would expand. Seibert would have lucrative deals with the U.S. government. The Americans were building an inventory of St. Lawrence fluorspar for military purposes, including the development of the first atomic bomb.

But it would be almost a decade before conditions in what would become a cluster of fluorspar mines owned by Seibert would even approach accepted standards in the rough-and-ready mining industry. Even paydays were irregular. Cheques regularly bounced. Things improved over time, but by then, miners working in St. Lawrence were locked into a dreadful destiny that few, in their darkest moments, could ever have imagined.

Children 'from a poor section of the city' of St. John's, circa 1937. Newfoundland in the 1930s was still a British dominion that had not joined Canadian Confederation, but its economic woes gave bankers and bureaucrats in Canada and Britain formidable power over its fate.

Courtesy of St. Lawrence Miners' Museum, Wallace Collection

The first signs of trouble in the St. Lawrence mines were obscured by larger problems in Newfoundland. The island was, politically, a country – a colony of Britain for centuries, later a dominion in the British Commonwealth. But by the early thirties, the place was almost bankrupt, with decision-making increasingly dictated by Montreal bankers and politicians in Ottawa and London.

Just as Seibert’s dream of a mining “empire” was taking shape, Newfoundland’s existence as a democratic country was coming to an end and would, by 1934, be totally extinguished. For the next 15 years, the island would be governed by unelected bureaucrats and former politicians, all appointed by the British government.

The policy priority in that period was economic growth through industrial expansion. Political ideals, such as democracy, were on hold. Worthy notions about the health and safety of workers were considered luxuries to be indulged when Newfoundlanders could afford them.

Seibert’s timing couldn’t have been better – for him. For Newfoundlanders, the picture wasn’t quite so promising.

Isolation and the vagaries of the international fishery had for centuries left Newfoundland vulnerable to economic crises, which in turn left Newfoundlanders vulnerable to extremes of poverty and illness, especially in remote areas such as the southern coast, where conditions had been exacerbated by the disasters of November, 1929.

One of the most serious problems on the island was an epidemic of tuberculosis that continued for decades. A study for the U.S. government at the beginning of the Second World War found the mortality rate among Newfoundlanders with TB was almost 200 per hundred thousand, which was significantly higher than in “any portion of the British Empire inhabited by white people.” (The mortality rate for people with TB in England, Scotland and Wales was 70 per hundred thousand and about 40 per hundred thousand in “the white population of the United States.”)

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Lung problems were common among miners in St. Lawrence, and the illness was inevitably declared to be tuberculosis. But there was a difference in how the miners were affected: While many people recovered from TB after treatment, the miners usually died. Eventually, the cause of the unusual mortality among miners would turn out to be a deadly hybrid: tuberculosis and silicosis.

Tuberculosis really wasn’t anybody’s fault. Silicosis was. It was a pernicious, devastating illness directly attributable to conditions in the workplace. From the outset of mining in St. Lawrence, the mines were notorious for dust. It would be the early 1950s, after Newfoundland returned to the democratic fold as a province of Canada, that there would be a grudging recognition that dust and silicosis were a peril directly caused by inadequate ventilation in the mines.

But by then, the anxiety about silicosis had been displaced by fear of an even more sinister presence in the community: lung cancer.

Compared with cancer, the silicosis problem should have been easy to resolve. Everybody knew about the dust. You could see and taste the dust. From the dawn of medical practice, it was recognized as perilous, often fatal. You didn’t have to be a genius to know that workplace dust requires effective ventilation.

But now there was another question: Was the prevalence of tuberculosis also masking cancer of the lung? There were no reliable statistics. Early death was caused by sickness or bad luck – or both. Until the early 1950s, there was no hospital in or near St. Lawrence. There was a small establishment in Burin, but there was no road to get to Burin from St. Lawrence. Clinical postmortems were impossible in St. Lawrence before there was a hospital.

But, regardless of the cause, the cancer couldn’t be ignored. There was too much of it. For a town its size, St. Lawrence had a cancer problem 29 times the rate for Newfoundland.

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And yet, for years, the politicians, bureaucrats and doctors dithered over epidemiology and investigation, debate and jurisdiction. But there was an undeniable reality: While cancer deaths were rising steadily, there was nothing in the nature of fluorspar that would normally cause cancer. Uranium miners were vulnerable to cancer because uranium is radioactive. Fluorspar isn’t. So why were fluorspar miners falling ill and dying of the disease?

There was, eventually, an answer. In the end, the cause was obvious and easy to address.

A survey of geological studies dating back to the forties would have revealed that the local granite was unusually rich in deposits of uranium. Water flowing through fissures in the granite absorbed radon gas and delivered it into the notoriously wet caverns and drifts in the St. Lawrence mines, where it released deadly radioactive particles known as “radon daughters.”

It took only a few weeks in 1961, after years of study and delay, to mitigate the cancer-causing problem. As was the case with silicosis, it all came down to ventilation.

Workers test for radiation in the St. Lawrence mines in 1957.

Courtesy of St. Lawrence Miners. Museum

By the time the mystery had been explained, in the early sixties, the worst of the damage – the human toll – was unstoppable. By then, scores of men were dead. Hundreds more were doomed to die or live out their lives struggling to breathe, compromised by damaged hearts and crippled lungs.

Seibert’s company would also die around the time the radiation mystery was solved, and, in 1961, Seibert himself died of a stroke at the age of 59. His widow and sons swiftly wound up the business in St. Lawrence.

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In 1969, a royal commission recommended, among other measures aimed at reducing the financial burdens on the families of dead and dying and disabled miners, a special fund financed by contributions from the governments of Newfoundland and Canada, Alcan Aluminum Co., which also owned mining operations in St. Lawrence, and from the Seibert family, which had profited hugely from their business there.

Ottawa declined. From the Seibert family, there was only silence.

Workers end their shift in the Director mine.

Courtesy of St. Lawrence Miners' Museum

By early 1978, all mining in St. Lawrence had ceased. But former miners there were still dying of work-related illness. The mournful funerals would continue well into the nineties. Families to this day continue grieving – widows, young adults who grew up without fathers, children who never knew a granddad. The personal and social continuity in an ancient, tight-knit community has been forever broken.

But the community itself survived, somehow strengthened by its woeful history.

There have been periodic efforts to revive the fluorspar-mining industry in St. Lawrence. The latest, backed by a U.S. hedge fund, seems to be successful. And for decades, each time a new, invariably optimistic mining operator would show up, the people optimistically lined up for jobs, just as they did when Walter Seibert came to town, almost 90 years ago.

Now there is democracy in Newfoundland. There are rules and regulations. There is public oversight of the health and safety of the workplace. The likelihood of “carnage” in the future should be lessened now.

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But for the many places in the world where there is flawed democracy or no democracy at all, where there are people desperate for work and mine promoters promising prosperity, there are graphic lessons to be learned in the tragic history of St. Lawrence about toxic outcomes when vulnerable people submit to exploitation in the cause of livelihood.

Linden MacIntyre as a child at the Iron Spring mine site in 1945, and as an adult. His most recent book is The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of a Tsunami.

Courtesy of Linden MacIntyre; Joe Passaretti

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