Chapter VI: St. Lawrence Town: Its Triumph and Tragedy (continued)
It is not the desire of 'Once Upon a Mine' to dwell upon this unhappy aspect of the St. Lawrence mines. The subject has been covered by innumerable newspaper and magazine articles, documentaries, books and reports, some of which have tended to exploit the town's tragedy for the purposes of academic theses, sociological studies or simply good sales. Perhaps the best publication concerning the matter is the Royal Commission Respecting Radiation, Compensation and Safety at the Fluorspar Mines. Thanks largely to the then St. Lawrence Member of the House of Assembly, Alex Hickman, the document emerged from its government stronghold in 1969 to be printed and distributed. The reader is referred to this excellent report for an investigative and yet humane account of the problem.
Two points are critical to understanding why ALCAN withdrew from Newfoundland; Mexican fluorspar was cheaper and of higher quality than St. Lawrence fluorspar; and ALCAN was concerned, not with losing money, but with maximizing its profits.
Before the 1975-76 labour dispute, ALCAN paid the higher price of the St. Lawrence ore in order to ensure a captive supply of fluorspar for its Arvida aluminum smelter. The prolonged 1971 and 1975-76 disputes, however, forced the company to buy and experiment with Mexican fluorspar. As ALCAN officials compared the two ores and as the 1975-76 dispute dragged on, the economic advantage of having a captive fluorspar market was making ALCAN anxious to find means of reducing its expenditures.
On 23 March 1977, a small notice appeared in the St. John's Daily News: "ALCAN will go ahead with the construction of a new (aluminum) smelter in Grande-Baie." The announcement sounded the death knell for the St. Lawrence mines. Four months later the Newfoundland government received notification that the new smelter was designed to use Mexican-type, not St. Lawrence-type, fluorspar and that ALCAN accordingly would cease mining activities in Newfoundland on 1 February 1978.
Provincial government representatives spent weeks trying to persuade ALCAN to reconsider its decision or to extend the lifespan of the mines. Their efforts were futile. They travelled to Ottawa to solicit an import tariff on foreign fluorspar. The Canadian government refused the request in spite of having just allotted $11.3 million to protect the 250 jobs of employees of a chemical company in Valleyfield, Québec. ALCAN, it seemed, held more sway in Ottawa than did the Newfoundland government. As one provincial government member said: "If St. Lawrence is so cheap to Ottawa, that it can be sold for the favour of one large company, then our membership in the Canadian confederation is indeed expensive."(29)
Little remains to tell of the St. Lawrence mines. ALCAN closed down all mining operations on 1 February 1978 after a prolonged debate with the provincial government over the disposal of the mining equipment and mineral lands. In the end (and against the government's wishes) an American firm bought and removed the equipment; the land question is still unresolved.
What will become of St. Lawrence? Time alone will show the success of the town's new fish processing plant, designed in 1978 to encourage the revival of inshore fishing. One thing is certain: having suffered through troubles of the previous decades, the townspeople possess the courage and experience to survive whatever their future holds in store.