Historic strike recalled – by Kevin McSheffrey (Elliot Lake Standard – April 16, 2014)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

ELLIOT LAKE — It was a clear, but cold morning when two bus loads of United Steelworkers stopped at the intersection of Highway 108 and what was once the turnoff to Denison Mines, about 15 kilometres north of Elliot Lake on Wednesday.

This was the second day of a three-day forum that began in Sudbury and will end here Thursday. As many as 90 people from across the country and parts of the United States took part in the forum to remember and commemorate an event that took place in Elliot Lake four decades ago.

The visit to Elliot Lake was to mark the 40th anniversary of the Denison Mines wildcat strike that started on April 18, 1974, and lasted three weeks.

The wildcat strike was to protest the deplorable and unsafe working conditions. One of the biggest issues was ventilation. Underground mineworkers were breathing in dust contaminated with radon daughters, resulting in many getting silicosis and lung cancer, and ultimately dying.

When the group arrived at the intersection, they spoke about the strike and how it changed working conditions across the province. They then headed to the Elliot Lake Nuclear and Mining Museum for a tour.

After lunch at the Renaissance Seniors’ Centre in Elliot Lake, which used to be the United Steelworkers of America hall, they went to the Miners’ Memorial Park. The three panels on the Miner’s Memorial bear the names of all the mineworkers who died on the job or perished from a work-related illness or injury in Elliot Lake’s mines.

John Perquin, assistant to the international secretary treasurer of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, was a main organizer of the forum.

“Forty years ago, the men did what they believed was their human right to go on strike,” Perquin said. “It was a wildcat strike, an illegal strike. But to them, their lives, their health, was more important than whether or not they ended up in jail.

“They wanted to be able to go home to their families everyday as healthy as they were when they started the day. But that wasn’t happening … they were dying by the scores of silicosis, lung cancer and many other illnesses, as well as the traumatic deaths from ground falls, cave-ins and rock bursts, accidents and so on.

“The mines knew what they were doing, and they just let it go on.”

However, after the 1974 strike, conditions started to change, he said. The wildcat strike and the pressure put on the province led to the government creating the Royal Commission on Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, also known as the Ham Commission.

For two years (1974 to 1976), James Ham, a Canadian engineer, university administrator and president of the University of Toronto, chaired the commission and looked at working conditions in Ontario mines.

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