Donkin Mine Violations: Failures of ‘Learning?’

New Waterford monument to victims of 1917 explosion in No. 12 Colliery. (CBC Photo/Olivia Adlakha

New Waterford monument to victims of 1917 explosion in No. 12 colliery. (CBC Photo/Olivia Adlakha)

“It was tragedies like that, unfortunately, that led to better health and safety regulations in the mines and made it a lot safer for generations to come,” said Bob Burchell, the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) interim international representative for Canada, on the eve of a July 25 ceremony to remember the 65 men who died in the New Waterford No. 12 colliery explosion 100 years ago.

Just days later, when confronted with the CBC report that the current Donkin mine management had been caught by government inspectors for multiple health and safety failures, Gary Taje, international staff representative of the United Mine Workers of America, said:

If we don’t learn the lessons from the past and apply them, we are going to repeat it.

But, really, were the failures to meet the province’s safety regulations in the Donkin mine failures of “learning?”


Reasonably safe

Do experienced mine operators like the Illinois-based Cline Group that owns Donkin  have to “learn” that before they put people at rock faces with spark-making equipment, they need a backup energy source for the fan that disperses explosive methane gas?

Do their mine managers in Cape Breton or anywhere else have to “learn” to keep emergency “self-rescuer” breathing equipment where workers can find it in a hurry—not tucked down some unmarked manhole? To have supplies of emergency stone dust handy? To install fire and explosion-inhibiting barriers of the right size, in the right places? To keep exit ways clear? To make sure walls and roofs are not being hit by equipment and weakened? To check air monitors daily and flammable gas monitors weekly? To keep the required records? To put in place a communications protocol for emergencies? To inspect their fire suppression system? To assign someone to keep rescue equipment in working order? To maintain refuge stations? To ensure that the people paid to instruct workers are trained themselves?

The managers of New Waterford’s No. 12 colliery knew they should have done all these things to the fullness of their technical ability in 1917. Paul MacEwan, in his Miners and Steelworkers: Labor in Cape Breton, describes a Provincial Department of Mines Special Report on the disaster as “a lengthy and technical document” that “accused the Dominion Coal Company, as a corporate entity, of responsibility for the deaths…” Charges were laid against the company and a number of its officials but were later dropped.

After 88 workers died in the Allan Mine in Stellarton, Nova Scotia in January 1918, the Nova Scotia Mines Report concluded with the banal recommendation that the Coal Mines Regulations Act should be enforced, especially with regard to the measurement and records of gas conditions, and government inspectors should monitor compliance by company mine examiners more closely. These same recommendations would be made in 1980, following the Devco disaster. They would be repeated in 1997, following the Westray disaster.

No, more learning is not what mine operators need. Any mine operator knows what they should do if they want to run a reasonably safe coal mine. When they don’t do these things, it’s because they don’t want to run one, or they don’t want to pay what it costs to run one. And if nobody makes them, they won’t bother to run a reasonably safe mine — and that’s on us for letting them get away with it.


No More Westrays

In light of this, it is heartening to see the attention the NS Department of Labour and Advanced Education is giving to the safety slackness at the new Donkin mine. And it is great that the CBC is keeping an eye on our regulatory body for us.

Westray commemoration, 9 May 2002. (Photo by Peter Boyle via

Westray commemoration, 9 May 2002. (Photo by Peter Boyle)

If either the Department of Labour or the “free” press had performed their roles in 1992 in Pictou County, or if the Westray workers had unionized in time, those 26 men would not have died.

As Justice Peter Richard’s The Westray Story: a predictable path to disaster (the report of the Westray Public Inquiry) says:

Westray is a stark example of an operation where production demands resulted in the violation of the basic and fundamental tenets of safe mining practice.

Neither the New Waterford explosion 100 years ago, nor the Westray explosion in 1992 were failures of know-how. They were moments when the drive for profit, unchecked by any form of regulation — governmental, trade union or the personal consciences of the mine operators — became anti-social; became deadly.

When the family members and supporters gather to remember Westray every May 9, they carry the banner:


It could as well say: “NO MORE UNREGULATED ‘EXPERTS.’”

To be an “expert” at making a profit is very different from being an “expert” at making a business work in and for a community.

Government failure to regulate opens the door to the inevitable corporate drive for profit, with all the concomitant costs — human, ecological and economic — to the host community.

Nobody heeded workers who predicted the impending disaster at Westray: the inspectors turned a blind eye because the government believed in unimpeded economic “development;” the managers bullied workers to meet production targets; and most everybody in Nova Scotia thought getting a job at Westray was a God-send in a time of high unemployment. Richard’s report continues:

The first drive to unionize the workforce at Westray was officially begun on 2 October 1991 by local 26 of the United Mine Workers of America. The union was defeated by 20 votes in January 1992. In the spring of 1992, the United Steelworkers of America succeeded in its drive to unionize the workers, but certification was not granted until after the 9 May explosion.


Last word

Maybe the only people who really “learn” from the injuries and deaths that workers suffer in industrial disasters are families, friends and coworkers from other parts of the organization. Even for them, it may be more a matter of realizing something they knew all along, but somehow couldn’t face. In any event, neither the company nor the government “learn” anything from an industrial disaster except the levels of risk that a community is willing to accept.

I give the last word here to one of the Westray families, whom I interviewed in 1997 for my doctoral study. This discussion took place just before Justice Richard’s report was released.

Interviewer: Did you know it was bad over there?

Mother:  …not as far as gas went. They’d come home talking about falls…they never said anything about gas. But [our son] would come in and his face would be all red, like he just got out of the shower, like he had a hot, hot shower. But now that I think of it, it might have been from the methane. He was scared the last week. ‘Cause that was the week he was up in the shop and he was on the phone and the union rep was in from New Brunswick, and [our son] was calling some of his friends to come and sign union cards in the shop up there. And his father said, “Well, what’s Gerald [the underground manager and friend of the family] gonna think of that, [Son]?” He said, “Well, I’d rather have a cold shoulder than a cold casket.”

Father: Four days later he was dead. That’s what he got. A cold casket.




Dodd, S. (1999) Unsettled Accounts After Westray. In C. McCormick (ed.), The Westray Chronicles (pp. 218–249). Halifax: Fernwood.

Dodd, S. (2001) The Writing of ‘The Westray Story’: A Discourse Analysis of the Aftermath of the Westray Coal Mine Explosion. Ph.D. Dissertation. Toronto: York University.

Dodd, S. (2006) Blame and Causation in the Aftermath of Industrial Disasters: Nova Scotia’s Coal Mines from 1858 to Westray. In E. Tucker (ed.), Working Disasters: the politics of recognition and response. New York: Routledge.



Susan Dodd


Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), and co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).




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