This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Elliot Lake wildcat walkout
Ontario government representatives 40 years ago presented research linking radiation to lung cancer at a conference in Paris, France. In the audience were several members of the United Steelworkers of America (USW), whose organization had been fighting the mining industry and the Ontario government for improved health and safety at the Denison and Rio Algom uranium mines in Elliot Lake, Ontario. In addition to a high incidence of injuries, hundreds of miners were ill or dying from silicosis and lung cancer, which the union believed was caused by silica dust.
The union representatives were shocked to discover the government had found there was another cause behind the high rates of lung cancer – radiation – and had not bothered to inform miners or to take any action to protect them. The USW members shared the news with their co-workers back in Elliot Lake, and this proved to be the last straw. On April 18, 1974, about 1,000 miners from Denison went on a three-week wildcat strike.
“I think the conference, combined with the general dissatisfaction with the occupational health and safety regulations and laws in the province at that time, caused the strike,” says Fergus Kerr, now vice-president of operations at Global Atomic Fuels Corp., who joined Denison in 1977 and became its general manager a decade later.
The strike drew the attention of the media, the public and Ontario’s politicians. Mining health and safety suddenly became a hot-button issue.