ON THE MORNING OF May 9, 1992, an explosion ripped through the Westray coal mine in Nova Scotia's Pictou County, killing 26 workers. In the spring of that year, Goodyear Canada held a "Team Appreciation Day" at its new high-tech tire plant in Napanee, Ontario. These two books trace the processes that led to these events in the "backcountry" of Canada.
Dean Jobb, a reporter with a Halifax newspaper, has meticulously documented the story of greed, politics, and dependency that led to the Westray tragedy. He lets the facts he unearthed tell the tale so that readers can make up their own minds about why 26 men died in the underground darkness. Bryan Palmer, who teaches history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, overloads his account of the coming of the tire plant to rural Ontario with so much ideological and academic freight that it sinks out of sight. One three-page chapter has more than 40 references. Six photos illustrate a minor strike by workers building the plant. Palmer's message in Capitalism Comes to the Backcountry is clear: "Capitalists, bad. Workers, good."
Goodyear, a company with a paternalistic style of management ill-suited to an educated work force, panicked when Sir James Goldsmith tried to take it over. It accumulated a massive debt, and had to restructure its operations to survive and remain competitive. So the company closed a plant at Etobicoke and opened a new one at Napanee. The company thought it was trying to remain in business and generate employment in a declining rural area. Palmer sees Goodyear as engaging in "a massive hegemonic act of primitive accumulation." He seems constantly surprised that the company, and the local people, sought to make as much money as possible from the venture. Goodyear incessantly promoted its corporate image. Palmer describes the "phallic-like" Goodyear blimp as penetrating the peaceful rural landscape; and this is how he sums up what the tire company did:
Scrutinized in context, with its symbolism -- internal and external -- read analytically as expressive of particular social relations, the company's construction of its own field of vision widens out into unintended meanings.
In Jobb's book you can feel -- even taste -- the gritty life of miners in an unsafe pit. Calculated Risk also offers a devastating critique of what passes for regional development in Canada. Economic theories and bureaucratic imperatives fly out the window as politicians wheel and deal to please entrepreneurs bent only on accumulating wealth. The book begins with the celebrations in 1991 that marked the opening of the Westray mine. Then it moves forward swiftly and dramatically to the explosion and its immediate aftermath. The rescue workers who risked their fives to search for their friends found only 15 bodies. Eleven miners still lie entombed in the shattered workings.
Jobb then traces the roots of the disaster, focusing on Clifford Frame, Westray's promoter, and his vision of creating his own mining empire. Civil servants in Ottawa tried to thwart Frame's scheme, but he secured the help of key people in the prime minister's office -- and local politicians -- to press for a large loan guarantee Playing the political game to the hilt, he secured millions of dollars for a mine that studies had shown could be profitable. The 12-metre Foord seam, which Westray tapped, is the world's thickest deposit of coal. But it generates methane and coal dust, and the faults fracturing it make it difficult and dangerous to mine. Greed, political manipulation, lack of training, bureaucratic inertia, and reliance on experts and technology all played a part in the explosion that killed the men of B shift.
Jobb has a weakness for journalistic cliches. And his book has a middle-passage problem: the central part tends to be overlong and repetitive. But Calculated Risk brings to life the people of Pictou County, their land and their history. Highlighting the common decency of ordinary Nova Scotians, Jobb shows how young people in the backcountry want only a decent job and a stable life among family and friends. Working at Westray seemed to offer that. So the miners put up with dangerous working conditions, until something went wrong on that May morning.
An investigation into exactly what happened at Westray has been put on hold -- after spending $1.8 million -- while the trial of two mine managers on criminal charges proceeds. In effect, Jobb has done the inquiry's task. In the past, however, such inquiries have proved financial bonanzas for lawyers, experts, consultants, and others who fatten on the public purse, so this one will doubtless proceed. Westray cost Canadian taxpayers about $ 100 million, with the Nova Scotia government losing the $12 million it "invested" in the mine. The Bank of Nova Scotia recovered its loan from the federal government. Frame's mining empire has crumbled, but he retains a great deal of personal wealth.
The Westray tragedy is but one example of how regional development policies have gone drastically wrong in Canada. The Goodyear plant in Napanee -- which also received government largesse -- has created several hundred jobs. The Nova Scotia government has sealed the Westray mine and restored the landscape around it. But the shadow of what happened there will hang over this land for many years to come.