Excerpt from Until the End – by Adelle Larmour (The Story of John Gagnon-Health and Safety Union Activist)

Adelle Larmour is a journalist at Northern Ontario Business and Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal. Contact her at  untiltheend.larmour@gmail.com  to order a copy of Until the End.

Chapter 1 – John Gagnon Introduction

Millions of tiny crystal particles hung in the bitter northern Ontario air, daring the adventurous traveller to make his or her way through them on that frigid Monday morning, February 9, 1951. John (Jean) Gagnon, son of a farmer from Fabre, Quebec in a family of eight siblings, walked a mile through that minus 49-degree Fahrenheit cold. His eyes carefully followed the sidewalk as he walked from the flour-mill area to downtown Sudbury, listening to the cars drive by, wondering how they could see where to go.

He left the Park Hotel where he was staying, eager to catch the bus and arrive on time for his first day of work at the mining giant Inco Ltd., the largest nickel mine in Ontario, and at that time, the world.

The 24-year-old John was no stranger to colder climates, but this bone-chilling frost caused even him to hasten his pace while every suspended frozen droplet felt like a burning pinprick on his numbing cheeks.

Steady employment was John’s goal. If he spent a few months working at Inco, he could scrape up enough cash to pay back money owed to his friends and buy a ticket to Vancouver. He’d already pawned his guns and rifles to get to Sudbury. A full-time job supporting this westward trip was definitely the order of the day. 

When he arrived at the bus stop in front of S. S. Kresge’s department store, other half-frozen people stood impatiently waiting for their transit. Steam from their breath blended with the surrounding fog and ice crystals formed on beards and eyebrows, now glistening white. It was not long before the store’s custodian, Mr. McCoshen, saw the need to provide some relief to the shivering bodies in front of the glass doors.

The man must have been completing his night shift duties, thought John. He opened the doors and allowed the small group to step inside between the two sets of doors, providing refuge from the biting cold. It took the edge off: a simple act of kindness John never forgot.

Once the public transit appeared amidst the morning haze and billowing clouds of exhaust fumes, the group filed in. As John sat on the bus trying to feel his toes, he sympathized with the driver while the bus crawled along the downtown streets. Buildings, stoplights and road signs vanished as quickly as they appeared.

It did not seem long before the bus turned into the drive at Copper Cliff, where the small village had erected its many buildings responsible for transforming nickel ore into a shiny nickel concentrate. Administration buildings, the sintering plant, and the smelter with its towering stack looming above, were partly hidden in the cold fog. If buildings could speak, John supposed they were laughing right now in winter’s game of hide and seek.

He had heard many rumours about the mining complex, its unionization being one. John paid little credence to labour organizations. His former employer’s union at KVP (Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment) Canadian International Paper in Espanola did not serve him well. Being a company union, there was no representation. During the last two years of the five he contributed, his previous years of hard work were ignored. He received endless transfers, and was eventually laid off with a guy who had no service.

Initially, he had moved to Ontario to learn English. He knew he wasn’t going to learn the language working at the paper mill in Temiscamingue, Quebec, where he started at the ripe age of 15, so he left. Now, Sudbury seemed the obvious and closest choice for a fellow with the equivalent of a Grade 10 education, if one included two terms of technical school. Job choices were limited and Inco was hiring. If he had to go underground in the mines to acquire enough funds to see him out west, so be it.

Well seasoned in the work world for almost ten years, he was not afraid of hard work, nor of speaking his mind. Foremen, superintendents, and bosses: they were no different than he. The fancy title meant a few more pennies for Revenue Canada to siphon off, and more responsibility. He was content with his labour employment. For him, it was about the people and relationships established while performing the work.

One never knew what the future had in store; only God knew. Therefore, he would let the great Creator guide him to where he was needed, and he would continue to live in faithful service.

Squeaking brakes and the clank of the bus door opening jarred John out of his reverie. He exited into a plume of mist as the warm air from bodies inside the bus met the bitter cold outside.

John and about 14 other men shuffled over to an administrative building through the fog where they were greeted by Mr. Brown, a human resources officer. He escorted them to another larger building called Number One Change House. There they were equipped with safety boots, masks, gloves, safety glasses, and blue work coveralls. In the chaos of obtaining their work clothes, alarms suddenly screeched throughout the complex. John looked around as did the other men, curious to know the cause. People came into the change house to retrieve blankets and other first-aid type items.

Mr. Brown stepped out to another building, only to return a few minutes later, appearing pale and anxious. “I have to excuse myself. I’m needed in Coniston. A train hit a busload of workers from our smelter there. Wait here. I’ll be back.”

So they waited, not knowing the full impact of the accident and number of people hurt or killed. Later, it was reported the steam whistle on the engine had frozen shut. No warning sounds were given and the train collided with the bus. Seven of Inco’s workers died that day, and another 32 were injured. Several days later, local papers added two more fatalities to the list. Certainly not a good omen for John’s first day of work.

The grim reaper must have been hovering over old man winter that morning, because two Local Lines busses rear-ended one another due to poor visibility. Equally important was that he continued to be in a grumpy mood, for he did not ease up on the frigid temperatures. The thermometer rose only a few degrees, despite the sun’s effort to make a presence. Consequently, Inco’s Copper Cliff complex remained devoid of life, so empty was the yard.

When Mr. Brown returned at 12:30 p.m., he walked the group of men through the smelter to the Sinter plant in the interest of staying warm. Once through the smelter, the men scurried about 200 feet toward the Sinter plant door, trying to get indoors as quickly as possible.

As the door opened, the warm air in the building and cold outside air collided instantly, creating an even thicker mist than the bitter haze outdoors. Mr. Brown shouted to the group: “You can’t see anything, so keep a little distance between each other, but follow the head of the one in front of you.”

Filing through the doorway, John was sure the air would clear once they were further inside, but it did not. He carefully followed the fellow in front of him, squinting to make sense of his surroundings.

“My God, this is certainly not the place where I’ll get any long-term security!” John thought. “Impossible.”

Looking up, he could see the glare of a light between the nickel oxide dusts and vapour until they arrived at an office some 250 feet inside.  

He and the other 14 newcomers crammed into the office, where Mr. Brown presented them to Lewis Swanson, the foreman, Sylvio Merla, the superintendent, and an office clerk who kept payroll. Once the last person squeezed in, they closed the door, shutting out the noisy machines and dust.

They received their badges and brief instructions about the job and what to expect. Swanson and Merla looked them over, assessing the quality of their newest staff. Each man was quizzed about his home or where he came from.

John did not really care whether or not he made an impression. All he knew was that he would not be there long enough for it to matter. He only needed to make enough to pay his debts and get out west. The rest, as they say, would be history he’d rather forget.

Not long after the polite interrogations, they were taken downstairs and shown where the work was performed. Shovelling nickel oxide required little instruction. “You’re here to clean up and shovel,” Swanson said. “Clean up under that pan and dump it onto the conveyor.”

The men grabbed the shovels and began the back-breaking work of shovelling the very substance that made the corporation one of the richest mining companies in Canada. 
Wearing the filtered mask over his nose and mouth, John adjusted his safety glasses while examining the grey-black nickel oxide. It looked like ashes with the consistency of gravel. He dug the blade into the mix and heaved it onto the conveyor, where it was taken up the elevator to the upper levels of the three-floor building to be mixed with sulphide and coke for reroasting.

He continued to shovel, all the while glancing around at his co-workers. Most of them worked without their masks. Even some of the new guys shoved the masks in the back pocket of their coveralls. What was this about? Why were they not wearing their protective masks? Could they not see and understand what this dust would do to them in the long run?

John dug, lifted, and tossed the black-grey substance repetitively, wondering if he was missing something about the people around him or the work environment. It did not make sense, and briefly, he wondered if this was just a convoluted nightmare from which he’d soon wake up to find all these people in a different setting wearing their Sunday best.
After an hour, he walked up to one of the more seasoned workers and asked him why he wasn’t wearing his mask, as he motioned to the airborne dust throughout the building. The man’s response was gruff and abrupt. “Seems to me you should be worrying about yourself,” he said, turning back to his work.

John looked over at another worker he didn’t recognize and asked him the same question. “You need to wear your mask,” John insisted, in his broken English. “It is not good to breathe the dust.” This fellow straightened his bent frame, stood up to his towering six-foot two-inch height and pointedly said: “Didn’t they just hire you?” John nodded, holding the mask in place on his face.

“Who in the hell comes here on the first day and starts preaching about the dangers of the place?” he said, wearing an expression mixed with disgust and surprise.
The man walked away shaking his head, stopping to tell a few other workers his interaction with “the new guy.”

John picked up the handle of his shovel and began his work again, dumbfounded at the total lack of concern these men had about their work environment and the inevitable effects it would have on the body over time. He placed his hand on the air filter mask once more, making sure it was snug to his face. He finished the remainder of his shift with many questions tumbling in his mind about the mentality of the people in this new workplace, the company itself, and how long it would take him to make enough money to pay off his debts and get to Vancouver.