Dying for Gold — a brilliant chronicle of Yellowknife miners at war

I picked up this book reluctantly, having tried once before to crack its hefty pages. All I wanted, at the time, was a little information on what exactly led to the 1992 Giant Mine bombing that killed nine men. I found instead a very dense read, packed with detail and characters I quickly lost track of. In conversations over the years, several people have agreed with me that this book is a tough read. Like me, however, I now suspect they just haven’t read it. 

Because this is a brilliant book — a serious work of investigative non-fiction that tracks the strike of 1992/93 in stupefying detail. 

img-3795-1.jpg

The book opens with a bold premise: that Roger Warren, the man convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life, did not commit the crime he confessed to.

The authors, Yellowknife reporters Lee Selleck and Francis Thompson, then begin the slow process of explaining how Peggy Witte and Royal Oak (the book’s clear villains) took over the aging and run-down Giant Mine, and how workers — who had seen three owners come and go in quick succession — sought a bigger share of the profits from what they considered their mine. The strike would last eighteen months, uproot many families from Yellowknife, and culminate in the underground bombing that killed nine replacement workers. 

Nobody was prepared for this violence. (Or were they? The book recounts how the RCMP called in a riot squad very early on. At one point, Royal Oak considered using tanks to get replacement workers through the picket line. They used helicopters instead.)

Dying for Gold, which came out in 1997, relates all of this in astounding detail. 

Here’s a section featuring Mike Magrum, then president of the NWT Chamber of Mines, “a likeable fellow who counts a cabinet minister in the NWT legislature among his longtime friends.” Magrum, who hated the strike and the union, drove onto Giant Mine property one Sunday afternoon only to find himself blockaded when he went to leave (and knowing full well this would happen). His response was to order takeout from a local restaurant, stroll across the picket line when the delivery arrived, and then sit coolly in his truck eating while strikers grew livid.

“Jim Evoy, the tough-talking president of the NWT Federation of Labour, showed up on the picket line about then. CASAW wasn’t a member of the federation but Evoy supported the union. He was furious with Magrum. 

“‘You fat cocksucker!’ Evoy hissed. Magrum, never a fan of Evoy’s, drawled, ‘Well, if it isn’t the eloquent and outspoken president of the Federation of Labour.’”

The book is made up of countless scenes like this, with reported dialog and small-town, interpersonal details (from who’s friends with who to what their curling game is like — and this is only a slight exaggeration) that make the vast number of characters come to life. 

It also highlights the closeness, the tension, the disloyalty and worry and fear that made this whole strike so awful even before the bombing. 

“Early in the strike, Sylvia’s friendship cooled with the woman who had been the maid of honour at her wedding: her friend wouldn’t support a CLASS petition against bunkhouses for strikebreakers at Giant. ‘All she said was, ‘No, because scabs have a right to feed their family too.’ It didn’t ruin our friendship, but it’s not the same.’”

There are poetic moments. “Rock does not remember miners,” begins a section on the actual work that takes place underground in a place like Giant. 

But overall the book is more interested in boots-on-the-ground reporting. 

And it’s a master class in investigative journalism. Specifically, the fact that investigative reporting is not some special category apart from everyday news: it’s the accumulation of detail and understanding, time and attention. Being there, cultivating sources and getting to know people are the hallmarks of Selleck and Thompson.

As for Warren’s guilt or lack thereof, the authors make a strong case that he couldn’t have done it — he wasn’t fit or knowledgeable enough — and that he confessed in order to end the whole thing.

In one respect, the Warren in this book emerges as one of its most sympathetic characters. “‘With no work, my identity was fading. It was a weird thing. When you are approaching fifty years old in that industry, you don’t want to stop or you will never get started again.’” Later: “‘I wrestled with … the idea of admitting to this just to make a false confession. I thought of all the things I knew. I didn’t think it would bother me too much. What was the difference between sitting in a picket shack or sitting in a jail?’”

Even when the book came out, in 1997, it was astonishing in its detail. Few people, for example, knew just how violent a certain riot early on in the strike really was. On the negotiations — and the character of many of the people involved — Selleck and Thompson rely on Access to Information to tell the full story. Warren’s full confession is related almost verbatim. (And by the way, I read the hardcover. The paperback apparently goes into even more detail.)

There is another book on the Giant Mine strike. It’s called The Third Suspect: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Yellowknife’s Mass Murderer, and it was written by two reporters from the Edmonton Journal, David Staples and Greg Owens. It came out two years before Dying for Gold and is a shorter, tidier read. I read it several years ago and enjoyed it. I mention it here because Dying for Gold mentions these reporters several times — specifically, an incendiary article they wrote about the bombing that relied heavily on RCMP sources, and which Warren may have used to craft his confession. That reliance on the RCMP suggests their book also leans heavily on official sources, which is to say: for the full story, you should probably read Dying for Gold.

There is a haunting epilogue to this book, summed up in this sentence: “There has been amazingly little political fallout from the Giant Mine dispute.”

True, and strange. 

I won’t say that this cataclysmic showdown between capital and labour is little remembered today. Those who lived it do remember it, in vivid detail, and the bombings are part of Yellowknife lore. But as for how it happened, why, what forces drove various players to dig in for so long, why Witte thought she could break the strikers and why they doubled down on her… well, that’s a long and complicated story. 

Told extremely well in this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s