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The death of innocence

Looking back on the Giant Mine disaster, and the worst day in Yellowknife's history

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Sep 18/02) - Ten years is not a lot of time when you live in a small town.

Not in Yellowknife, not with Giant mine still looming over Back Bay like a haunted house. A constant reminder to all those who pass by, that as much as it remains a cornerstone of this city's heritage, bad things have happened there.

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Former Giant Mine spokesperson Erik Watt says he knew Roger Warren well and has no doubt he is the murderer who sent nine miners to their deaths in a bomb explosion, Sept. 18, 1992. - Mike W. Bryant/NNSL photo

In May 1992, the Canadian Association of Smelters and Allied Workers 230-strong membership went on strike. Four months later, on Sept. 18, 1992, after a tense and often violent summer, Yellowknife was about to enter the worst day the city had ever faced.

Nine miners -- three replacement workers from the south and six former strikers who had crossed the picket line to work -- were murdered, booby-trapped by a bomb on the 750-foot level underground at Giant Mine.

The fallout from the blast shook the city to its core. And although former Giant Mine employee Roger Warren was later convicted of the crime and sent to prison, the spectre of his guilt -- and those who say he didn't do it -- still lingers on.

Lawyers from the Association in the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted are contemplating whether to take up his case. A lawsuit filed by former employee Jim O'Neil and the wives of the deceased against Warren, former mine owner Peggy Witte and Pinkerton Security, slowly rolls along.

But most people affected by the blast would rather wait to cross those bridges when they get there.

Reluctant to talk about it

Pat McMahon was mayor of Yellowknife during the time of the turbulent strike at the mine, which lasted until Dec. 1993, two months after Warren confessed to the bombing.

"Most people wish it would just go away," says McMahon. "They don't want to talk about it, and if they do start talking about it, it's with a great deal of sorrow. They're still raw memories."

"At that particular time we lost our naivete, and we become vulnerable to the same kinds of things that happen in every other major city. I don't think we ever actually contemplated that kind of violence within our municipality by citizens."

A sister tries to cope

Lynda Jones returned to Yellowknife a few years ago, hoping to wipe the slate clean. Her brother, Shane Riggs, was one of the nine miners killed in the blast.

Jones doesn't want to contemplate anniversaries, not today, not 10 years from now. She doesn't like hearing people talk about the strike or the murders.

"If it was just somebody that was in an accident or whatever, you just put an obituary in and the day would come and go," says Jones. "Now we're dealing with the 10-year anniversary. It's pretty difficult that way."

But she doesn't want Riggs or the other dead miners forgotten either.

She named her two-year-old daughter Shalyn using the first three letters from his name, and the first three of her own.

"He was generous, kind, funny," Jones reminisces about her brother. "He gave support whether it was emotional or financial."

Riggs was 27 when he was killed. He started working at Giant during the mid-1980s. When the strike began he joined his fellow workers on the picket line but returned to work a month before the explosion.

"I was pretty volatile back then, and I'm not like that any more," says Jones. "There are still people who avoid other people and it's really sad. We want to all heal. We got families, we got things going on. It was horrible."

Great Slave MLA Bill Braden was the business and mining editor of Yellowknifer during the strike. Without a doubt, the Giant Mine blast was the most difficult story he ever had to cover, he says.

"One of the jobs that I got was to try to contact the families of each of the victims," Braden recalls. "That was hard, really, really hard. I remember almost a scream of anguish from one woman who I contacted who recoiled in horror that I would even think of asking what was going on in their families."

Over the summer, Braden made a few enquiries to see if any memorial service was planned to mark the 10th anniversary.

He found that unlike last week's first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. -- where many Yellowknifers rose to the occasion -- there was little appetite for a service marking this anniversary.

"I got the sense from the few conversations I had that this thing was still really too close to the surface for too many people," says Braden.

The issue of blame is a complex one, because many feel it runs deeper than the one man convicted for planting the bomb. Few people want to relive the animosity that existed between the striking CASAW membership and the replacement workers who crossed the line.

But Witte and the federal government of the day are almost universally vilified in this city. Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives, because they were seen as distant and slow to react. Witte because she was an outsider who, when the dust settled, fled town, leaving the mine bankrupt and miners out of work.

"Things aren't hurting her (Witte) too much," says former Giant Mine employee and Canadian Auto Workers local 2304 plant chair Steve Petersen. "She came out smelling like a rose."

Witte/Kent carries on

Witte, who now goes by the name Margaret Kent, recently purchased a slaughterhouse in Ferndale, Wash. Giant Mine workers meanwhile -- many of whom worked at the mine for 30 years or more -- lost their pensions.

Warren, meanwhile, is still serving a life sentence in Manitoba's Stony Mountain penitentiary. He still professes his innocence, that he originally confessed because of stress, police coercion and an overwhelming desire to martyr himself and end the strike.

Some of his former co-workers still believe him. Most other people do not.

"I was as shocked as anybody else when Roger was fingered as a conspirator," says former Giant spokesperson, Erik Watt, who used to meet Warren regularly for coffee.

"But when I got to thinking about it, I thought, 'Yeah, he could.' My theory has always been he had to show those crazy bums at the union how to do a proper job."

Miramar owns Giant now. There are still about 50 workers there hauling out the remaining two-years worth of ore out.

Ownership will then switch over to the federal government, which will ultimately have to decide what to do with the mine and the mess that remains.

Underneath it are 270,000 tons of poisonous arsenic trioxide. Rusting debris litters every corner of the 54-year-old mine site.

The Giant Mine Heritage committee, made up of local residents, are trying turn at least part of the mine into a historical museum, commemorating Giant and the legacy of other mines in the North.

Regardless, few people can predict what the future will hold for Giant. At least for today, Yellowknife is focused on its past and its present.

"Yellowknife still has the goods and bads of a frontier town," says McMahon.

"The good being that your neighbour is your neighbour, and you do your best to look after them, but then there are situations that can cause a bit of a split, and then you try to heal.

"But Yellowknife is my home, a lot of people's homes. You're never ashamed of the things that might make your community look bad, because it is a part of growing and maturing as a city."