The Ocean Ranger 40 Years Later: Politicization of Grief?

I was visiting my mother a few years ago, in the seniors’ home where she now lives, in BC.

Mom introduced me to a well-dressed lady:

“This is my daughter. She’s come from Nova Scotia to visit me.”

“Oh!” the lady offered brightly, “my husband used to run oil rigs for Mobil Oil on the east coast.”

“Mobil?” Mom furrowed her brow—she’s forgetful these days. “Mobil? Didn’t Jim have something to do with Mobil?”

The Ocean Ranger

The Ocean Ranger in a photo taken in the 1980s by David Butcher, one of the 84 men who died when the rig sank in February 1982. The photo was one of a series donated to the Rooms Provincial Archives in St. John’s in 2015. (Source: CBC)

I smiled at the lady: “My brother Jim worked on the Ocean Ranger. He was on the rig the night it sank.”

“Well!” she stared at her watch. “Would you look at that! I’m late for an appointment.”

“Yes.” Mom sipped her wine as the lady turned away. “I’m sure Jim had something to do with Mobil Oil.”


Next week in the Spectator, I’ll reflect on the Ocean Ranger disaster of 1982. It has been 40 years since the whole crew of 84 men died in a terrible storm off the coast of Newfoundland, my 24-year-old brother Jim among them.

To mark that February 15 anniversary, I will recall what happened that night and consider the legacy of the Ocean Ranger disaster for me, personally, but also for our thinking about oil and profit in the context of our preoccupations with “safety culture” and climate change.

But maybe we could prepare for our commemoration with a little honest self-reflection?

Don’t we all love oil? Really?

Maybe you hate cars, airplanes and free delivery of affordable goods from China and Bangladesh but I’m betting that right about now you love your centrally heated home.

Who doesn’t love that gust of warmth from a forced-air furnace? So fast compared to the creaking and groaning of a baseboard heater. So easy compared to the smoky, messy, full-time job of stoking a fire.

With oil, you just tap your thermostat, and the cold goes away.


But of course, we all know that such easy comfort comes at a cost—to our pocketbooks and to the planet and to the people around the world who have been exploited, injured and killed in the profit-driven oil industry.

I’ve made a career out of exposing the costs of putting profits ahead of people, especially as they become horribly obvious during industrial disasters. In their suddenness and brutal facticity industrial disasters like the Ocean Ranger, the Westray coal mine explosion or the Deepwater Horizon and Gulf oil spill have always seemed revelatory to me; tearing the veil off the exploitation and domination at work in everyday capitalism around the world. More and more, the global costs of oil are visible as our seasons and storms grow increasingly extreme.

Still from Netflix movie, Don't Look Up

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, Don’t Look Up

I am a professor (a source of enduring wonder and gratitude to me) and my scholarly focus these days is on the ways depictions of the end of the world help us to live with our anger, anxiety and guilt about the approaching death of our planet. The phenomenal popularity of Don’t Look Up is a fine example: even acknowledging that the heavy-handed parody of climate change deniers satisfies smug, middle-class superiority, we can see that vicarious enjoyment of The End helps us in these anxious days. Apocalypse entertainment shows us the worst perpetrators—never us—facing cosmic judgment.

There is a direct link between the kind of comfort we take in fictional accounts of the end of the world and the ways we remember the very real costs of our comfortable self-destruction especially via fossil fuels. But more on that another time.


If you want to begin to think about the cost of oil as it became evident 40 years ago, when the total disregard for human life of the profit-seekers was manifest in negligence and cynicism, read the Ocean Ranger inquiry’s account of the evacuation and rescue attempts on that night. Not one single man was saved and the rig itself was a total loss.

As we prepare to commemorate that dreadful night of 40 years ago, I just want to give voice to my continuing confusion about the relationship between emotion and activism, mourning and politicking, suffering and pragmatism.

Can deploying our grief in contests over public policy ever avoid being distasteful, indecent, even sleazy?

Or do the dead demand we honor their memories in the fight for justice, for the planet, so that what happened to them never happens to anyone else?

A decade ago, I gave the families’ thanks at the annual service that is hosted by a St. John’s high school. (Text is at Our Times Magazine, behind a paywall.) I was angry and more than a little unhinged. I really let fly at the oil companies, the government and the industry regulators, all of whom regularly attend that memorial service and share responsibility for that terrible loss.

After the service, a man whose father had died in the disaster came up and said, “I’ve been waiting 30 years to hear someone say what you just said. I’m glad my daughter was here to hear you.”

On the other hand, a few years later, one woman whose husband had died confessed that she had been upset, even horrified by my politicization of the memorial service.

Could they both be right?


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), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, 2018) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, 2017. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”