- Danger, Death, and Disaster in the Crowsnest Pass Mines, 1902-1928
I work at a job that I like to think has some hazards - eyestrain, backaches, repetitive strain injury, high levels of stress - but it requires the kind of enormous mental leap that Karen Buckley makes us take to imagine living with the fear of death on the job that faced coal-miners every day. From the turn of the century to the eve of the Great Depression, 451 men died in [End Page 361] mining accidents in the Crowsnest Pass region along the Alberta-British Columbia border. Two-thirds of these deaths occurred in three major explosions, one in 1914 at Hillcrest alone taking 189 lives, but the others were spread out through the period as persistent reminders of the occupational risks. A further 1500 men were seriously injured over these three decades. This is a staggering human cost for extracting one of the country's most important mineral resources. Yet no one, it seems, believed that such danger could be substantially reduced, and, as, Buckley argues, it permeated the consciousness of everyone at the coal face as well as in the miners' households and shaped a range of personal and institutional responses that were deeply etched in community life.
Working coal seams exposed wage-earners to particular natural dangers - notably the accumulation of highly inflammable methane gas and coal dust - but human practices often precipitated the disasters, especially the use of open-flame lighting and coal-face blasting. Both were eventually regulated to some degree by provincial legislation, but managerial pressure to take risks in order to maintain or increase production levels was relentless. Coal companies in this region seemed reluctant to make the mines safer - or sometimes even to respond to miners' predictions of 'bumps' or 'blowouts' - and dragged their heels in introducing mine rescue procedures and equipment. Learning about and anticipating these dangers was a key part of learning to be a miner, whether as a boy or as an adult recruited from the ranks of new European immigrants. Some soon left, but most stayed and developed a deep attachment to the occupational culture of mining, into which they wove a regular concern with workplace safety - for themselves and their workmates generally - and an acceptance of risk.
Buckley calls this 'fatalism,' but I wonder if that is the most appropriate label for a more watchful consciousness, collectively re-inforced among the men themselves. I wonder too if she might not have widened her lens and linked that attitude to danger to two other aspects of working-class life in the period - first, the cultivation of particular working-class masculinities that highlighted the abilities of proletarian males to confront risks to their bodies with skill and courage (these men loved to watch prize fights, for example); and, second, the central role of 'luck' in the consciousness of working-class families, which tried to cope with the unpredictabilities of disease or unemployment, and which made gambling such a fascination for working-class men.
Outside the mines, the author tells us, a dense array of institutions and practices were in place for handling the frequent deaths. The rituals of burial and mourning came to be controlled by professional undertakers, whose diverse business profiles in this region are outlined here. Mutual-aid organizations, especially fraternal societies and unions, played an important role in covering the costs of funerals and otherwise helping widows and their families (it would have been helpful to know more about the [End Page 362] impact of workers' compensation legislation on these families). Buckley takes us through other patterns of grieving - identifying the dead, organizing a funeral, choosing grave markers, and so on. She describes (and richly illustrates with photographs) the public signifiers of mourning, including the funeral processions and the language of gravestones.
Buckley's closing line encapsulates the passivity and fatalism that she claims predominated in coal towns: 'Men died and families grieved. Life continued.' That seems like an incomplete assessment, for two related reasons. First, by isolating deaths...