Before We Had Any “safety nets”

Starting to feel a little “stroppy” with all this wearying COVID-19 stuff? Can’t shake hands, no hugs. Staying social distances apart from your closest and dearest. Wearing a mask if you’re anywhere near a crowd – and a crowd is more than two or three people.

Has any generation before today ever had such a restrictive lifestyle, such day by day, stressful living conditions?

Take a deep breath before you answer because the factual answer is that although we are a generation in frightful crisis, we have never had it so good. We have never been so cared for; never had a government so determined to keep a dollar in our pocket if health protection restrictions have shut down our job or are threatening the survival of a business.

Last week in this space, I reminded readers of times when life was really tough and those who lived well cared little about those less fortunate. I was talking about the days before Canadians, and a few other maturing nations started to become aware of the concept of community responsibility and recognize the need to prepare for disasters before they happened.

Young folk groan when grumpy old men start talking about the past. They shouldn’t because if we ever forget how bad we old folk were to each other when we were young and uncaring, we might find our world slipping back to those dark times.

You know … those were the times before we had Employment Insurance and before we had Old Age Security pensions (pitiful though they remain). It was a time when company pensions were few and far between. Those were the days when you couldn’t get a cent in compensation for on-the-job injuries, and health care was unaffordable for millions.

When I wrote last week of 148 coal miners dying in 1887 in a series of massive explosions on Vancouver Island, did you wonder what happened to the dozens of instant widows created by one negligent workplace act – an ill-placed explosive charge? Did you consider what happened to all the children left fatherless?

Mine owners were not entirely without pity. They had an old understanding with miners’ wives made widows. If there were male children in the family of working age, they would get selection privileges if they applied for the vacancy created by the death on the job of their father.

In mining accident records, it is not unusual to find 13- and 14-year-old children as breadwinners.

I have focused on Nanaimo in BC because I once lived and worked there, not because it was the only province caring less for its miners than it did for the value of the product of their labour. (Alberta topped BC in accident magnitude. In 1915, 189 miners were killed at the Hillcrest mine.)

Among the more bizarre BC mining tragedies shamefully scattered along the provincial timeline is the May 9, 1915 explosion at Southfield Mine, South Wellington.

Just before noon, a controlled explosion was fired too close to the old flooded Southfield Mine. Official reports bleakly note the shot “broke through into the old workings … As a result of this inflow of water, 19 men lost their lives by drowning.”

A coroner’s inquest followed the first investigation into the Springfield drownings. It was followed by manslaughter charges against two mine officials and finally heard before a jury on October 27, 1915.

And, that prestigious jury cleared the two officials – Mine Manager John H. Tomkin and Chief Inspector of Mines Thomas Graham – of all legal responsibilities. Graham resigned as chief inspector; Tonkin returned to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Within two years, the “drowning pit” was closed with all workers being transferred to the new Morden Colliery, which is now a historic park and dedicated to all deep pit miners whose dangerous work sustained the mining industry and kept the rest of us warm in winter.

Far more important is the “safety net” they and their miners’ union started to build so long ago, and we now take for granted.

Today, as I have written before, we are living in an “inconvenient,” but not hard, time. For a look at hard times, Google the Report of the BC Minister of Mines 1887; the Ladysmith and District A Tragedy of Error; and anything written by Lynn Bowen about mines and miners.

One comment

  1. By coincidence a house opposite ours is being re-roofed today. It is a steep, but the roofers are wearing fall-arrest harnesses that are well-secured. I don’t expect any accidents.

    This is how we do things today in our health and safety conscious society. Unfortunately, we also buy imported products that are cheaper than domestic because their countries of origin often forgo health and safety regulation.

    Some might view this as hypocritical.

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