This obituary was published in the Lives Lived section of the Globe and Mail on November 17, 1999.
Union leader, municipal politician, Liberal Party functionary, historian, author, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Born Oct. 2, 1918, in Coniston, Ontario. Died Oct. 19, 1999 in Sudbury, Ontario of heart failure, aged 81.
Near the end of his long life, it was my pleasure to record Mike Solski’s oral autobiography for posterity. One of his earliest memories was talking his father’s lunch to him at work, on the floor of the old nickel smelter in Coniston just a long stone’s throw from the family home.
In 1935, at the age of 17, Mike followed in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather and went to work in the Coniston smelter. Mike well remembered the days when the smelter manager was automatically elected mayor of Coniston, and when shift bosses would arrive at workers’ homes unannounced demanding their annual Christmas tribute – cash or a bottle of booze.
Mike married on May 28, 1939, and he and his wife, Irene, had one daughter, Sandra. Mike had three granddaughters and a great-grandson. Irene died 12 years ago.
Mike played a key organizing role in the Coniston smelter for the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter workers from 1942 to 1944. He chaired some of the earliest public meetings of smelter workers in the open air, because landlords were too fearful of company reprisal to rent the fledgling union hall.
After Local 598 of the Mine Mill was certified at Inco in 1944, Mike rose quickly through the union hierarchy, eventually moving to the presidency of Local 598 in 1952. Back then, the local boasted nearly 20,000 members and was the largest single union local in the country. He was still president in 1958 when it struck Inco for the first time. The dispute lasted for three months, and set the stage for the later raids on Local 598 by the United Steelworkers of America.
Although he was defeated in his bid for re-election as president after the 1958 strike, Mike remained a loyal Mine Miller until the bitter end of the Steel raids. As an Inco employee, he reluctantly became a member of the Steelworkers union, at which time his career as a union activist ended.
Mike then turned to another love, municipal politics, a career that began when he had first been elected to the Coniston town council in 1944. Mike ran successfully for mayor of Coniston in 1962, a position he retained until 1972. Mike also became a prominent member of the Liberal Party of Canada.
During the early 1970s, he oversaw both the amalgamation of Coniston into the new municipality of Nickel Centre (he was elected its first mayor), and the creation of the Regional Municipality of Sudbury (he was its first vice-chairman).
At his last council meeting in the mayor’s chair in the fall of 1978, Mike became one of the few Canadian politicians to become the target of an assassin’s bullet. A disgruntled ratepayer shot up the Nickel Centre council chamber, and Mike was taken to hospital in critical condition. His recovery was slow and painful, and he would suffer partial paralysis in one arm for the rest of his life. But Mike returned to community service.
After retiring from Inco, he turned to yet another lover – history. In 1983, he was chairman of a local group that published a pictorial history, The Coniston Story, in 1984, he co-authored, with Jack Smaller, Mine Mill: The History of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in Canada since 1985.
Mike was still on the board of the Coniston Hydro Electric Commission at the time of his death, and, at 80, was a high-profile member of the Sudbury Municipal Restructuring Association, which lobbied for the amalgamation of all seven Sudbury-area municipalities into a single, one-tier government.