“The Forgotten Miners of Newfoundland” is a piece of literary journalism written with powerful, quiet rage.

Ian Adams, “The Forgotten Miners of Newfoundland,” Maclean’s, June 1967

By Ronan O’Beirne

As powerful today as it was when it appeared in Maclean’s in 1967, Ian Adams’s “The Forgotten Miners of Newfoundland” is a textbook example of exposing an outrage without devolving into hysterics. Adams takes readers to the town of St. Lawrence, N.L. (population at the time: about 2,000), where miners who take fluorspar out of the ground are dying of lung cancer, silicosis and other illnesses. “Almost an entire generation has been wiped out,” he writes, introducing the reader to several characters—Jack Fitzgerald, who has silicosis; Ronnie Slaney, who has bronchitis and a host of other respiratory afflictions and Randall Turpin, who lost part of a lung to surgery in 1954—and will soon join the dead. Through them and other residents of St. Lawrence, Adams exposes the poor working conditions they endure and meagre financial compensation they settle for.

“The Forgotten Miners” is a vivid illustration of a Canadian paradox: towns and people powered and fed by the land, but also subject to its violent whims. Fishing was the town’s dominant industry until a tidal wave wrecked the entire fleet. Fluorspar mining became, in effect, the only job for locals a few years later. In 1967, Adams writes, “There is not one family that has not lost a father, a brother or an uncle to the mysterious, malignant disease that comes from working in the fluorspar mines. And fluorspar mining is the sole industry in St. Lawrence.”

Despite this difficult relationship with the land, there is no mention of leaving it for another place. The miners seem to treat their town with a kind of sad resignation: where else would they go? What else would they do? (Turpin says he would sooner put a bullet in his children than let them work in the mines—as if death was the only choice.) The only people who left St. Lawrence are those who went to St. John’s to be treated for tuberculosis—“but they would come home and die,” Adams adds.

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When they were sick and dying, they and their families were poorly compensated. Turpin—who died the same month the story was published—had been supporting his wife and five children on $166 a month (worth about $1,000 today) in Workmen’s Compensation. Here, Adams lets the characters and facts express his dismay at the government’s treatment of St. Lawrence. It’s a doctor at the local hospital who calls the compensation “a mere pittance.” Adams follows that with unvarnished facts: widows would receive $75 per month and $25 for each child under 16. He also notes that the average family in this town has five children. (When he updated this story as a chapter of his book The Poverty Wall in 1970, he repeated this statistic, as if to highlight the disconnect between policy makers in St. John’s and the people they’re ostensibly taking care of.)

Adams writes with a quiet, subdued rage, recognizing that the miners’ situation does not need embellishment or histrionics. The facts alone are enough: Slaney, who keeps a record of all mining deaths in the town, “can tell you what it was like to come off an eight-hour shift and lie on the ground coughing your guts out until you vomited blood for twenty minutes at a time.” Adams does not need to say that this is appalling, or that the Workmen’s Compensation payments are shockingly low, or that the residents’ inability to escape the fluorspar mines is sad—he shows his readers the way.

Even Adams’s sense of the place is informed by the bleakness of its residents’ lives. Unlike the typical romantic descriptions of Newfoundland, his St. Lawrence is a sad, cold town. The miners live in “ugly, square houses, painted in violent yellows and greens.” On the day of one miner’s funeral, the water in the harbour is “a sullen, cold grey.” The only hint of light in the story is the snow that falls as Adams talks to Fitzgerald. Even that might as well be invisible: “Fitzgerald gazes out of his kitchen window, not really seeing the snow.” It is a vivid picture not only of the outpost’s landscape, but also of the misery that hangs over it.  

Adams’s cold presentation of life in on St. Lawrence takes on a subtly agitprop-like tone. The reader can tell that the writer is appalled by what he sees, though he doesn’t come right out and say it. This tone runs through many of his writings. In “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” Adams wrote about the death of a 12-year-old boy who ran away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont. Even his fiction was informed by his advocacy: his first novel, The Trudeau Papers, imagined a Soviet–American nuclear conflict spilling into Canada. The Globe and Mail called it “a propaganda book in the cause of ecology… and, indirectly, domestic control of Canadian resources and industry.”

Though Adams claimed that the miners had been forgotten, the story came out just as the province was at least making a show of caring about them. Three months before the story was published in Maclean’s, Joey Smallwood’s government struck a royal commission to investigate the fluorspar mines. The commission found, among other things, that the department of health “was unduly slow in its acknowledgment of serious occupational health hazards in the mines of St. Lawrence.”

The commission also thanked Slaney, Turpin and another man for undergoing several tests for its work. As Adams noted in The Poverty Wall, Slaney died a month before the commission tabled its report. “His widow is living on a handout of $30 a month,” Adams wrote. “Obviously, officialdom thinks that Slaney didn’t leave enough of his blood and sweat in the fluorspar mines of St. Lawrence.”

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