A Father’s Day Gift to the Donkin Mine

Is there no editor at the Cape Breton Post?

Has the Saltwire Network, which owns the paper, instituted some sort of buggy, beta, artificial intelligence app to vet its stories?

How else to explain a front-page Father’s Day feature that began like this:

Just in time for Father’s Day, five sets of fathers and sons have been unearthed at Donkin Mine.

Surely no human being read that line and thought, “‘Unearthed,’ nice use of a mining metaphor.”

 

Duped?

Like every other mash note to the owners of the Donkin Mine posing as a news article in the Post, this one was written by Sharon Montgomery-Dupe.

Montgomery-Dupe loves the Donkin Mine (owned by the US-based Cline Group via its subsidiary Kameron Collieries) and the Donkin Mine loves her. She, alone among local reporters, seems to get unfettered access to miners and managers alike, although really, they’d be fools not to give her unfettered access given that when she returns to her desk after a visit to Donkin she invariably reports something like this, from Donkin VP Shannon Campbell:

Campbell said he thinks about the kids whose parents don’t have to leave Cape Breton for work anymore.

“Now, through this organization and through this mine, these kids are going to be able to see both mom and dad at the ballet practice or up in the stands at the bronze medal game. It’s going to mean so much for these kids and that’s what touches me.”

(Just in passing, does the “ballet practice” reference make you think Campbell is confusing real-life Cape Breton with Billy Elliot? And why the “bronze-medal game?” Does he not think these children of brave coal miners capable of winning gold? And did the word “nepotism” pop into anyone else’s head at the part where Wayne Scheller of Gardiner Mining — who “wears many hard hats including hiring” for Donkin — talks about hiring his own son?)

 

Context

But you can answer those questions later, right now I have something I want you to do for me. I want you to try reading Montgomery-Dupe’s touching accounts of fathers and sons working side by side in the Donkin Mine while holding three other pieces of information in your head: first, the mine is non-union; second, the mine has been continually found in violation of provincial safety regulations, as the CBC’s Frances Willick has so thoroughly documented; and third, back in the fall of 2017, the mine fired many of its experienced miners. (Canadian Press reporter Michael MacDonald spoke to one of those miners, who didn’t think the mine was unsafe, but who believed the company had “chosen to stick with inexperienced miners to quell dissent.”)

In that context, I guarantee one of the first things you will notice on re-reading Montgomery-Dupe’s story is that none of the sons has any coal-mining experience — they have fished, they have worked on pipelines, they have been linemen and bricklayers, they have “always wanted to work in a coal mine,” they are descended from coal miners, but Donkin is the first actual coal-mining gig any of them has had.

Back in 2017, when Donkin underwent its “restructuring,” the Spectator asked Jody Dukart, auditor/teller for Canada of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), what he made of it all. Dukart replied in an email:

First of all…I feel the Cline Group has one goal and that is to mine the coal as cheap as they can…putting the health and safety of its workforce on the sidelines.

The group has proved that in the last week by letting its 49 experienced miners go. Now what they have is no experience and a cheaper workforce. Bottom line more money in the pockets for Chris Cline and his investors.

And Dukart warned of the dangers of letting experienced miners go:

The mentality in any coal mine is, there are older, experienced coal miners and then there are the younger generation, inexperienced miners. The experienced miners always have a voice and always watch the younger generation’s back when it comes to hazards. I feel the management team took the voice away from the inexperienced guys leaving them to defend for themselves, which I hope [doesn’t] have a bad outcome.

Dukart’s predecessor as auditor/teller, Bobby Burchell, was even blunter about the Cline Group’s motives, telling the CBC:

They will bring as few qualified miners in as they can to train the younger guys and then let those guys go and keep the younger guys and inoculate them into their way of mining so that they’ll dance to their music.

 

Mining gene

As she did in an earlier ode to Donkin, Montgomery-Dupe in her Father’s Day feature places great emphasis on the coal-mining “heritage” of the young Donkin miners. As I said last time:

…according to the Post, the UMWA needn’t be so fussed: just because a guy has never been in a mine before doesn’t mean he’s inexperienced. A bachelor of arts in community studies and experience as a bricklayer is just as good as mining experience if your father and grandfather and great-grandfather were miners…

Of course, that mining “heritage” is mixed — as one Donkin miner (actually a pipefitter and welder) acknowledged to Montgomery-Dupe:

My father and grandfather were coal miners and I lost an uncle in No. 26.

Was his uncle one of the 12 miners killed when Glace Bay’s No. 26 colliery — a unionized, Devco-run mine — exploded in 1979? Does he consider the death of a family member in a mine just another aspect of his mining “heritage?” Do any of them acknowledge the fight for fair pay and safer work conditions as part of that heritage? Are they concerned that Kameron Collieries was conspicuous by its absence from this year’s Davis Day ceremonies, honoring miners (like the pipefitter’s uncle) killed in the mines?

I personally wonder whether that absence indicates how sure Kameron is of local public opinion — or how very little it cares about it.

 

Failure to learn?

Asked for comment on Kameron’s safety violations, VP Campbell told the CBC in a statement:

“The government of Nova Scotia has some of the most stringent underground subsea coal mining regulations in the world and we work closely with the local regulator to quickly resolve issues as they are identified.”

But “stringent regulations” are only worthwhile if they’re enforced. As Susan Dodd, a professor at the University of King’s College and author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil, wrote in the Spectator in 2017:

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.

In this context, it’s interesting to read the LinkedIn profiles of some of the Kameron employees tasked with ensuring mine safety. Udo Helmut Renk, a consulting engineer based in Grande Prairie, Alberta, who serves as a “designated ventilation engineer” at Donkin says he has:

…shown his commitment to world-class safety and exceptional cost control and production results during his career. Mr. Renk’s commitment to world-class safety, productivity, cost-effectiveness and budget control together with his proven experience and dedication will ensure that your operation or project will be on a path to world-class results.

But should the person charged with ensuring mine safety also be tasked with achieving “exceptional cost control and production results?” I asked Dodd who replied in an email:

You can’t leave him alone with the responsibility to balance competing outcomes—he needs help doing the right thing, and that’s what regulators are…or should be: help in making decisions that let profit-seeking also benefit the community (or at least not devastate it).

According to Frances Willick’s account, during the Donkin Mine’s first year of operations, Nova Scotia’s regulator issued it 35 compliance orders and 71 warnings for safety violations. And despite what Shannon Campbell says about working to resolve issues “as they are identified,” Willick reported that:

Six months after the mine opened, an inspector noted the company still didn’t have an air quality monitoring program that met provincial regulations — even though the Labour Department had already reviewed it and made recommendations on how to improve it.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the employer has acted on any of the recommendations or advice provided,” the report reads.

None of this, needless to say, merits a mention in Montgomery-Dupe’s Father’s Day gift to Donkin. In fact, the Post didn’t report on Donkin’s full-year tally of compliance orders and warnings and in response to Willick’s initial report last year, published a story headlined, “Safety first, says Donkin Mine manager.”

I asked Dodd, who conducted extensive interviews with the families of miners killed in the 1992 Westray mine explosion, what she made of Montgomery-Dupe’s story. She told me she couldn’t even bring herself to read the whole thing:

It is worse than a puff piece for the company—it’s a perverse form of community identity rooted in blood sacrifice to Mammon across generations.

That’s a very serious note to end on but what can I do? When your local daily chooses to focus on “storytelling” — showcasing warm and fuzzy tales of fathers and sons working together in a coal mine while ignoring ongoing safety issues in the same mine — even the Spectator has trouble finding the funny.

 

 

 

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