Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks: Inco and the Sudbury Media in the 1970s – by Mick Lowe (Part 2 of 3)

This article (original title – Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks) was first published in the August 1976 issue of Content magazine. Mick Lowe is a well-known retired Sudbury journalist with a keen insight on labour issues. From 1975 to 1988 he worked as a freelance journalist, becoming a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail.

In 1977 he became a staff reporter for CBC Radio News where he helped to open the network’s Northeastern Ontario News Bureau. From 1995 – 2002 Mick Lowe was a regular columnist for Northern Life.

Dropped into the safety office at the Steel Hall this afternoon. Tempers thee were high and rising over the death of James Cullen. I talked with John Higgison and Tom Gunn, the co-chairmen of the Local 6500 inquest committee. Both men really feel the rising fatality rate because theirs is the grim responsibility of investigating the accident scene, interviewing eyewitnesses, and doing what they can for the widows. (Cullen had a wife and four children.)

They show me colour Polaroid snaps of the accident. About all I can make out is the tram, a squat mining vehicle with the wheel-base of a five-ton truck, nearly buried under muck. Higgison tells me that Cullen was not crushed by the ore. He died of asphyxiation when the muck covered the back of his neck, forcing his chin against his chest and cutting off his wind. He died at the wheel of the scoop, pinned into the driver’s seat.

Higgison is shaken because a witness that he interviewed told him that Cullen was still alive after the cave-in. The witness came running when he heard the roof come down and he called out to Cullen in the darkness and the dust. Cullen revved the scoop’s engine three times to show that he was still alive. It took 10 minutes for the rescue party to clear a way into the tram. Cullen was dead when they got to him.

Gunn and Higgison are angered at the Cullen death because the union has been complaining about the working conditions at Frood for months. Gunn reels off a list of fatal and near-fatal accidents at Frood to back-up his contention that the ground is rotten. This morning the union demanded that provincial mining inspectors investigate the conditions at Frood immediately. I checked with Mac Keillor, my boss at the Globe and Mail, and he says he’ll take the story about the investigation demand from the Steelworkers, using that as a news peg for the fatality.

CHNO news is already reporting that some of the working areas at Frood’s 660-foot level have been closed, but I’m unable to confirm by the 6 p.m. deadline for the Globe’s bulldog edition. Barry Davie, a Ministry of Natural Resources spokesman, will say only that “We have one of our engineers on site now doing an investigation on the underground workings.”Don Hoskins is unavailable for comment before deadline. He’s on his way to Toronto with a half-dozen local reporters for the annual Inco shareholders’ meeting tomorrow. I lead with the Steelworkers’ demand for an inspection.

An hour after deadline Davie calls back. “As a result of our investigations we have closed an additional three places on the 660-foot level…. We mean there is no active production mining going on in these areas. They are reconditioning the ground in these areas. But until such time as the reconditioning is done to our satisfaction, production will not take place.” I ask Davie if that means conditions were bad when Cullen was killed. To my surprise he replies in the affirmative, “In some localized areas they’re into sound ground problems.”

It’s as close as I’ve ever heard a ministry spokesman come to stating on the record that the company is at fault. Hoskins finally returns my call. He denies that any working areas at Frood were closed down, which doesn’t surprise me since I’ve only just learned of the closings and Hoskins is in Toronto. He did offer the ritual company explanation of the fatality.

“Now, Mick, this isn’t for publication of course, but I’m told that Cullen was driving with the scoop of the tram up when it happened. He bumped into the back (the ceiling of a drift or horizontal shaft), and pulled the whole thing down. That’s off the record, of course.” Of course, since the coroner’s inquest has yet to be held. The implication, though, is clear: the accident was caused by the dead man when he violated some common sense safety practice. It’s too bad, but the poor dumb bastard brought it all on himself.
I thank Hoskins and knock off for the night.

I wait until late in the afternoon before calling the mines branch to get the latest word on the closings. I get Balfour Thomas, the man who actually did the investigation. He’s just come up. He says the Frood mine manager suggested one more area that the company feels might be unsafe and offered to close it in addition to the three areas the ministry asked to have closed yesterday. Thomas accepted the offer. Other than that, only the three other areas have been closed. That’s my lead for tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Inco annual shareholders meeting took place in Toronto. That’s the really big Inco story of the day. Ernest L. Grubb made his annual “State of the nickel world” address, and it received copious coverage in the local media. It should have. For local news people the annual meeting is an excuse for what the news staff at one TV station affectionately refer to as “an Inco debauchery trip.”

The recipe is simple enough: Hoskins gets the luxurious Inco recreational vehicle (telephone and bar equipped), loads it with booze and Sudbury reporters, and leads a magical mystery tour to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Toronto. Wine, song, the limitless resources of Canada’s biggest mining multinational at the disposal of half-a-dozen Sudbury media managers. On this trip are the news directors of CKNC-TV and CHNO radio, a radio hotline host, a reporter from CKSO-TV/AM/FM, and a senior reporter for The Sudbury Star.

A representative of every mainline media outlet the city has, except for Radio-Canada. A sprinkling of station management also attends the meeting at Inco expense.

At one local TV station a buddy of mine is putting together the late-night news package when he gets word that two Inco representatives are there to see him. He goes to the reception area and they tell him they’ve just rushed the videotaped interviews with Inco President Grubb up from Toronto. It’s news to my friend, but he takes the tape from the Inco runners and goes back to the newsroom. He gives no more thought to the tape in his scheduling until he starts getting from management: “Did the Grubb tape arrive yet? Oh, good, good.”

The tape runs on the 11 o’clock news. The closing story runs on the provincial page of the bulldog. My assignment today is the coroner’s inquest into the death of Leslie Simard, a 21-year-old man killed in the same general area as Cullen two months ago. I’m just settling in at the courtroom when Ken Curtis of CHNO slides in behind me. “Hey,” he whispers, “have you heard what Hoskins is saying? He’s denying that any areas were closed and Judges is backing him up.” (Harvey Judges is the chief mining inspector for the Sudbury region. Until January he was Inco’s supervisor at the Levack Mine.

The appointment of an Inco man to supervise the ministry’s mine inspectors at Inco brought protest from the Steelworkers and the NDP at Queen’s Park, but to no avail.) I don’t take the news too seriously since my sources are iron-clad and all of the other media carried the same story, but during the first break at the inquest I hurry across the street to CHNO.

In the newsroom, Curtis plays me the tape of the Hoskins statement and I phone the Globe to tell National Editor Arthur Rowson about the unexpected denial of our story. Art’s got the story on the wire, but he’s not impressed. “It seems to be the company trying to save face. It looks like a semantical question of the ministry ‘ordering’ the place shut down. I don’t think we want to do anything on it.”

While I’m taking with Art, Hoskins has located me at CHNO and he’s waiting on another line. I told him I’d heard the statement, and of Rowson’s response. “If my statement isn’t published,” Hoskins blusters. “I’ll have to reconsider further co-operation with the mop and pail.”

“Don. I’m just telling you what my boss told me. I only work there. If you want to take it further why don’t you call Art Rowson at the Globe?” “That’s not my job.”

“Well, he’s my boss and he made the decision.”

I question Hoskins about the meaning of his statement. Is he denying that any working areas have been closed by the ministry? Yes. The only areas affected would have been closed for the routine investigation that always follows a fatality. No, the company has not been told to recondition the ground and request a mines branch check before resuming production.
“I’m not saying that you were at fault for that story, Mick.” The implication is that Davie and Thomas spoke out of turn, and now their boss, Harvey Judges, has corrected them.

Mine inspector Thomas is attending the inquest on behalf of the ministry, and back at the courthouse I seek him out in the crowded lobby.

Is it true, I ask him, that he ordered the closing of three working areas? Thomas replies that he pointed out several unsafe areas to the Frood mine manager during his inspection. He gave the company the choice of closing them or the ministry would issue a formal order.

The company agreed. Is it true that the areas cannot be reopened without ministry permission? It is. Is it true that the areas would have been closed as a matter of routine after the Cullen mishap? The areas would not have been closed, and he draws a map in my notebook to show me that the closed areas were not located in the immediate accident area. Thomas is obviously nervous during the interview, and out of the corner of my eye I see several unionists edging closer to hear our conversation.

The inquest resumes. Simard’s work partner at the time of the accident testified that the ground at Frood’s #3 660 is very bad. “A lot of places are cracking up. There’s a lot of cribbing around.” (Wooden cribbing, used only in places where the ground is shifting.)

Like Cullen, Simard was killed by a “fall of ground.” But Simard’s workmate admits that he isn’t sure that his partner placed himself beneath protective screening while drilling was in progress. The evidence indicates that Simard’s body was several feet in front of the screen.

For some reason, (ignorance, inexperience?) Simard was standing in harm’s way when he didn’t have to. Simard’s mother takes the stand, unusual in itself since mothers and widows rarely testify at inquests. “I’m not a speaker,” she apologizes after taking the oath, before making a statement that touches the heart of the class relationships here in the nickel capital of the world.

“My son wanted to be a good miner. When he first went into that job he felt that miners were dumb. His father was a miner and he’d tell him ‘Don’t grow up to be like me.’ But when he’d been there a while he told me that he had a growing respect for the men who worked underground. They were tough and they had guts. He was becoming proud of his profession, and that’s what he thought of it as.”

Mrs. Simard believed that her son was killed by his inexperience and by the poor training given Inco’s underground employees. She testified that her son never complained about the brief two-week training period, “but I thought at the time that it was inadequate for the job that he was doing. I thought, ‘I guess Inco knows what’s best.’ I realize now that I was wrong.”After filing a story on the inquest I encounter Thomas once again in the lobby. He’s worried. “Look, I don’t want to get into a public argument with Inco, he falters.

“I understand,” I tell him. “Don’t worry about it. The Globe and Mail isn’t publishing any more on it anyway.” Thomas seemed relieved.

Continued in next posting.