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Two decades later, mine murders still haunt Canadians

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

A former city councillor in Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada's Northwest Territories, says the town still has not recovered from the Giant Mine murders which happened 20 years ago on September 18th.

Dave Lovell was the councillor in charge of public safety at the time.

"We got the news that people had been killed. It was a disaster. It went farther than anyone thought it would go," he said.

Nine mine workers lost their lives when a bomb exploded under their rail car deep underground. The bomb was four months into a bitter labour dispute between the union and Royal Oak Mine.

The strike and the deaths shook the city to its core.

Strike hostile from the start

The strike began in May when about 200 workers walked off the job. Unionized miners didn't want to accept a pay cut and had concerns about working conditions. The company said it needed to curb costs. Royal Oak Mines brought in replacement workers immediately.

"The union was completely out of touch with reality, the company has expressed time and time again that we have no more to give financially, Giant Mine is in a losing situation," Peggy Witte, CEO and president of Royal Oak Mines, said at the time. "We poured gold this week, it was flown out with a helicopter, it was sold this week, we are continuing to operate."

The striking miners were enraged and felt the company was trying to break the union. On June 14, a riot broke out and many strikers were charged. Violence and vandalism at the mine continued through the summer.

"People were afraid, people were overreacting, it was bad," said Lovell.

It created a bitter divide in the community between strikers, management and the men who crossed the picket line.

Lynda Jones lost her brother, Shane Riggs, in the blast.

"It was horrible. There were kids in the playground fighting because of what their parents were saying and doing. You had to pick sides. It was like a warzone," she recalled.

Riggs said she and her family still struggle with her brother's death.

"Lives were taken and to me it was senseless," she said. "I just hope people remember that these were good guys. They were friends and fathers and brothers and uncles."

Eventually, miner Roger Warren confessed, but some questioned whether he worked alone. Warren remains in prison, serving time for nine counts of second-degree murder.

The National Parole Board said Warren has never applied for day parole, even though he's been eligible since October 2010. He will be eligible for full parole next October.

Community was shifting away from mining

By the time the strike began, a shift was already happening in the community. It had already changed from a mining to a government town, said Lovell.

But the 18-month strike created divisions between neighbours and people who'd lived and worked alongside each other for decades.

Lovell, who served as Yellowknife's mayor between 1994 and 2000, said after the strike, there was a new anxiety about the city's economic future.

"It would've happened anyway. But it hastened it. It went from being a small, tight, everyone-knows-everyone sort of place into more of a city."

Lovell says Yellowknife never recovered the closeness which once defined the mining town.

"It's there, it hurts, but it's over. But it's never over. And then you get the people who just don't know," he said, adding that many newcomers to the city don't know about the strike or the bomb.

Many people in the city are still reluctant to talk about the explosion, saying it's a time they've tried to forget.

The men who lost their lives that day are: Vern Fullowka, Norm Hourie, Chris Neill, Joe Pandev, Shane Riggs, Robert Rowsell, Arnold Russell, Malcolm Sawler and Dave Vodnoski.

Most of the widows and family members of the men who died have moved away.

There are no plans for an event to mark the anniversary.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.