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B.C. and Nova Scotia commemorate coal mining disasters

by Greg Klein | May 7, 2017

Two anniversaries six days apart serve as grim reminders of the sometimes deadly work of extracting resources often taken for granted. May 3 marked 130 years since the No. 1 Esplanade coal mine explosion in Nanaimo, British Columbia that left a death toll estimated between 148 and 153 men. May 9 marks the 25th anniversary of Plymouth, Nova Scotia’s Westray disaster, which killed 26 workers.

The 1887 Esplanade disaster ranks as Canada’s second-worst, after the June 1914 explosion at a Hillcrest, Alberta coal mine that killed 189 men. Esplanade was just one of many disasters that gave the Vancouver Island coal fields international notoriety for deadly working conditions. The loss of so many breadwinners devastated a population estimated between 2,000 and 6,500.

B.C. and Nova Scotia commemorate coal mining disasters

A monument to Westray displays 26 names as rays of light under
a stylized miner’s lamp. (Photo: Nova Scotia Federation of Labour)

“There would have been not one living soul in Nanaimo at the time who didn’t lose a family member, in-law, workmate or a friend,” local historian Tom Paterson told NanaimoNewsNOW.

In parallel with Esplanade and Vancouver Island, the 1992 carnage at Westray was one of a number of Pictou County coal mining disasters. Although not as lethal as many of its predecessors, Westray took place under supposedly modern conditions and enlightened attitudes.

The mine was owned by privately held Curragh Inc, whose board of directors included former federal cabinet minister and short-term Liberal prime minister John Turner, and Ralph Sultan, now running for re-election as a BC Liberal MLA in a vote coinciding with the anniversary. A five-year inquiry brought a report entitled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster.

Curragh declared bankruptcy in 1993. As CBC reported, criminal charges against two mine managers, as well as 52 non-criminal charges against the company, went nowhere.

The disaster did bring about the 2004 federal Westray Act, which “provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job,” CBC added.

Every May 3rd Nanaimo City Hall flies flags at half mast. Among May 9th events near Plymouth will be a morning vigil and evening memorial service at Westray Memorial Park in Stellarton.

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