I am an Inco brat. I was born and raised in the shadows of those tall industrial smokestacks that tower over the city of Sudbury, Canada. In the days when I turned 18 in the late 1970s, if you didn’t go to university, then it was almost a rite of passage to work for “Mother Inco,” as it was affectionately (or derisively) known.
For most students today, the prospects of a good-paying summer job to help finance post-secondary education has become an elusive dream. Skyrocketing tuition fees combined with minimum-wage work equals enormous debt at graduation.
I truly feel sorry for these students, as my own experiences in the decade of disco included a wonderful combination of affordable tuition fees and blue-collar union employment that made a major contribution to my post-secondary education costs.
During my college years, Inco regularly hired summer students to take the place of vacationing workers. The sons and a few daughters of employees would be given preference for those well-paying union jobs that could finance your expenses during the entire school year.
Inco is one of the largest employers in Northern Ontario and operates numerous mines, mills, refineries and a major smelter complex in the Sudbury region, one of the largest concentrations of mining infrastructure in the world.
Students had two choices: underground or surface facilities. The distinction was important because, every summer, a few students could not handle the claustrophobic atmosphere of working underground. The tunnels were often very narrow in some locations, and the thousands of feet of pre-Cambrian Shield above your head could make anyone a little nervous. The company would simply re-deploy these students to a surface facility. I chose the mines.
As I walked through the entrance gates on my first day, with my brand new aluminum lunch pail, I was extremely nervous and excited. I was going to be working for the same company that my father and most of our neighbors labored for all their lives. This was a badge of honor, proof of my manhood. My parents were very happy that I decided to spend the summer working for Inco, reasoning a few months of hard manual labor would give me extra incentive to study hard at college.
The full-time miners could always spot the student by their clean clothes and spotless rubber boots and hard hats. They always made sure that our clothes did not stay clean for long. I had big dreams of being a tough, hard-rock miner for the summer, even though I only weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet. But after trying to lift one of the 80-pound “portable” drills that all the miners regularly used back then, I quickly forgot about that idea.
Instead, on my first day of work at the 1,400-foot level of Frood-Stobie Mine, I found myself working in the ditches that lined the tunnels or drifts. As we dug and shoveled, our crew leader took great joy at making us work as hard as possible. He quickly let us know that we had traded our books and pens for picks and shovels, and were learning what the real world was like at the University of Inco. By the time the summer was over, I felt I had earned my PhD in ditch digging.
I quickly learned that you cannot be late when you work in a mine. The only way of getting to your work site was by the cage (elevator). If you missed your scheduled time on the cage, you were severely reprimanded. And, obviously, there was no way to sneak out early.
We were usually packed into the cage like sardines or Tokyo subway riders, our lunch pails between our legs, as we rapidly descended 1,400 feet below the surface to our work level, our ears popping along the way. Once we entered the dark cool tunnels, the only light we had was the battery-operated lamps attached to our safety hard hats.
The sparkling sulphide ore, found throughout the Sudbury Basin mines, contain nickel, copper iron, sulphur, cobalt and small amounts of gold, silver and platinum group metals. I have seen tiny bits of the ore used in the tourist trade as earrings, broaches, tie clips and even cuff-links.
To get that valuable ore to the surface entails a lot of drilling and blasting with plastic explosives. This was the only time I felt uncomfortable underground. During these blasts all safety procedures were strictly followed and all personnel accounted for. The ground shakes like an earthquake for a few seconds and the powerful air concussion that follows carries an acrid smell that lingers in the air for 10 to 15 minutes. I was always happy to reach the surface at the end of my shift.
During the summer that I worked at Frood-Stobie, there were fatalities in the gold mines of northwestern Quebec. News of mining tragedies immediately pre-occupy the men. They know their work is dangerous which is why safety issues are always a tremendously important issue.
Whether the men are working in the diamond pipes of South Africa, the coal seams of Poland or the copper veins of Chile, there is a solidarity amongst the members of the mining fraternity.
I look back on those University of Inco days with fondness. I still have my hard hat, my aluminum lunch pail with its union and safety stickers and a chunk of sulphide ore: poignant reminders that will never let this Inco brat forget where he came from.