On Feb. 15, 1965, a retired miner named Rennie Slaney sat down at his kitchen table in St. Lawrence, Nfld., and typed out a five-page, single-spaced document that, as Linden MacIntyre writes in The Wake, would reverberate “across the land.” The 58-year-old Slaney, who could no longer work because of severe health problems, laid out what had happened in recent decades to the people of his small community on the Burin Peninsula.
Addressing his testimonial to a special committee appointed by the government of Premier Joey Smallwood, Slaney mentioned a miner who died in hospital that very day, while another lay nearby, “just awaiting his time.”
Slaney himself, having worked in the mines for 23 years, was suffering from chronic bronchitis, obstructive emphysema, infective asthma and “a usually terminal heart disease caused by lung failure.” The man could step forward because, MacIntyre tells us, he had nothing left to lose: “His lungs were shot.”
Having toiled mostly as a foreman, Slaney described how each day, after surfacing from the smoke-and-dust-filled underground mine, he and the other men “would throw up for as long as an hour and then some. After a while the throw-up would be mostly blood.”
The ensuing deaths, Slaney wrote, left hundreds of children and women destitute, struggling to survive on minuscule government handouts. Yet, the most powerful part of the report came at the end, when Slaney presented a list of 91 men he had known personally who were now dead of mining accidents or illnesses. He cited another 20 who were so sick they could no longer work.