Linda Diebel is a National Affairs Writer for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. Linda Diebel is originally from Sudbury. This article was published on Sunday, June 6, 2010.
COPPER CLIFF, ONT.—My grandmother, Lillian Rose, was the sweetest person I’ve ever known. She gave up more than youth and beauty to leave England and come with her husband to the nickel mines of Canada’s Precambrian Shield. The Sudbury region, some 400 kilometres north of Toronto, is an unforgiving place for a fragile English rose.
During the last 40 years of her life, she had a disease that turned her once-pale skin red and left it blistered and scabbed. The constant flaking embarrassed her and, on bad days, the pain sent her to bed. My earliest memory — and I was no more than 18 months — was of being on her bed on Jones Lane in Copper Cliff, understanding even then I had to be gentle.
Doctors couldn’t help because they believed her allergic to the air she breathed, a soup of industrial pollutants. Sometimes the sulphur was so thick it seared the throat.
Move away, they said, and your skin will clear up. But they didn’t talk about that publicly. My grandfather Reg was an electrician at the Copper Cliff smelter and his job, and the livelihoods of the physicians themselves, depended on what was then King Inco, the world’s biggest producer of nickel.
Lately, Lillian Rose has been on my mind. Last Sunday, I was preparing to fly north to write about the 11-month-long strike against Inco, now called Vale, by 3,000 members of the United Steelworkers Local 6500. The pending trip evoked memories, and I found myself staring at a faded photo of my grandmother and me.
Still, I had no intention of writing about her.
My story would be about the culture of a company town from the perspective of generations of men who went down the mines, or worked in the smelter or refinery, at what used to be Inco. That seemed the best place to start, given that Inco’s owner since 2006 — Companhia Vale do Rio Doce — insists the working culture of its new operations must change.