Industrial Disease and the St. Lawrence Mines
Major economic transformations, such as that which took place in St. Lawrence, always carry with them certain costs. One way of life is often eradicated or substantially altered by another, and crises of various kinds arise as people try to cope with rapid change in their economic, social and cultural worlds.
In St. Lawrence, for example, mining meant a fundamental change in how people worked and lived as families. Whereas previously families often worked together in collective enterprises such as inshore fishing or farming, now men and women took on very different roles in the family economy. Indeed, it could be said that the sharp distinction between "work" and "home" arose and was reinforced by industrialization. Also, people accustomed to working according to the dictates of the seasons or the weather, with some measure of control over the hours and rate of work, now had to get used to working on strict schedules and under direct supervision.
An industry such as mining is also highly stratified, and divisions of skill and wages are more stark than in, for example, an inshore fishing economy. Until a lot more research is done, it is difficult to measure or even to describe how such changes impacted on families, workers, and the community as a whole.
Health Problems Caused by Dust
The clearest and most devastating price the people of St. Lawrence, Lawn, Little St. Lawrence, and the surrounding area paid for the apparent prosperity of the mining years, however, was widespread industrial disease and numerous deaths. While the record shows that as early as 1936, miners were concerned that the large amounts of dust generated by drilling and other activities was affecting their health, it was decades before anything was done. Ironically, the move from open-trench mining to underground in the late thirties, while it brought some protection from the cold and other elements, exposed the miners to a lot more dust. The St. Lawrence mines are notoriously wet, and flooding is a constant problem. Luckily, the groundwater that the miners cursed for making them wet and cold also suppressed the dust in some areas.
For those exposed to the dust for prolonged periods, however, there was no escaping the consequences. The "dry-drills" which the miners used until the 1940s (as opposed to the more modern type where a steady stream of water is supplied to the drill bit) produced a great deal of dust from which miners had little or no protection. Over time, this "silica dust" accumulates on the lungs and other bronchial areas, and scar tissue builds up. As the process goes on, breathing becomes more difficult, and lung capacity decreases, until the victim in effect suffocates from a condition known as "silicosis".
While the first case of silicosis was officially confirmed in the late fifties, many had suspected the problem long before that. In 1941, for example, the St. Lawrence Mine Workers' Protective Union (registered in 1937) asked a government tribunal appointed to settle a strike, to arrange medical examinations to be conducted on the miners. During the fifties, a St. Lawrence resident named Rennie Slaney began keeping a written account of the ages and work histories of those growing ill and dying, and he urged various company and government bodies to take action. Various levels of government wrangled over administrative responsibility. Many miners, suspected of having tuberculosis, were treated for that disease but died shortly after. Nothing was done until it was far too late for those already dead or destined to get sick and die from prolonged exposure.
New technologies in drilling and other methods, and a new awareness on the part of the workers and especially the union, did a great deal to eliminate many of the problems associated with dust. In the early sixties, however, the presence of a new and even more deadly enemy was confirmed. It was discovered that miners and ex-miners suffered from an abnormally high incidence of cancer, a condition which could not be explained by exposure to ordinary silica dust. A team of federally-appointed experts then confirmed the presence of high levels of radon gas in many underground areas. The gas was apparently released during mining operations, and tended to build up in non-ventilated areas. Efforts were then undertaken to adequately ventilate the mines, to remove the threats of dust and radon gas, and regular air monitoring was introduced. Again, however, for many it was too late.
The lack of medical facilities and accurate record-keeping in the period before the fifties, in addition to the questions raised by the presence of other diseases, such as tuberculosis, make it difficult to say exactly how many miners died from working in the St. Lawrence mines. Taking the official and unofficial estimates together, however, the figure is somewhere between two and three hundred. While their numbers have diminished, ex-miners continue to grow ill and die today.
Safety and Compensation
In 1969, a Royal Commission appointed to investigate and make recommendations on the St. Lawrence situation released its report. The report documented the history of industrial disease in the area, and made some key recommendations concerning safety and compensation. Among them was a call for regular air monitoring, conducted by a team of medical, company, and union representatives, to be carried out every 24 hours. Seeking workers' compensation and widows' benefits has been a long and sometimes frustrating experience for many, and the money received does little to make up for the loss of so many husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. The people of St. Lawrence learned the hard way that the apparent prosperity that comes with industrialization can bring with it a heavy price. The town's two overly large cemeteries bear witness to that fact.