It was winter 1983, and I was in Burin, on the south coast of Newfoundland, working on a story for the CBC, when it struck me, more or less out of the blue: Hey, you were born here. The actual location of my birth was what they called a “cottage hospital,” part of a system of small medical facilities scattered across the island, established when Newfoundland was struggling to survive during the 1930s, near bankruptcy, with democratic government suspended.
My parents had been living in a small town called St. Lawrence, about thirty kilometres away by water. Other than by walking across rough country, that was the only way to get there. My mother, probably uneasy because there was a raging epidemic of tuberculosis at the time and no doctor in St. Lawrence, decided to board a coastal boat and sail for Burin to deliver her first-born. I’m told that a few days later, my father, an itinerant hard-rock miner, and a buddy walked the daunting distance over the boggy, rocky countryside to inspect the new arrival.
My first home was in St. Lawrence, near the mine in which my father worked — a windswept place not far from town called Iron Springs. By the time I was three years old, I was living in Cape Breton, where both my parents had been born and raised. But they often talked about St. Lawrence, always fondly, and about the kindness and good humour of the people they got to know there. This visit to the area in 1983, I realized, was a perfect opportunity to see the place again, perhaps to meet some of their old friends.
Growing up, it didn’t seem especially significant that when my parents spoke of their St. Lawrence days, they were almost always making references to women friends. It would be on this visit to the Burin Peninsula that I would, perhaps for the first time, understand the deep, dark reason why men friends were absent from their conversations.
They spoke often of one woman — Loretta Walsh, my godmother. She had never married, and it occurs to me that I was a kind of substitute for her non-existent children. She never failed to send a birthday card, never missed a Christmas greeting, often wrote newsy little letters right up until I was in university.
I decided to call on her on that occasion. And it was as if I had never gone away. There was instant familiarity and warmth. I remembered, as I spoke to her, that her brother, Alonzo Walsh, had been my godfather. He and my father had been close. “Whatever became of Alonzo?”
“Oh, my dear,” she exclaimed. “Poor Alonzo and my other two brothers, Fred and Jack, are over in St. Cecilia’s Cemetery. All three gone with the miners’ disease.”
I had read about the miners’ disease and the carnage of illness and death that had swept St. Lawrence and nearby communities where miners lived, cresting in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, continuing well into the ’90s. I confess I had mostly shrugged and looked away, as had most Canadians. But it came as a shock, standing at Alonzo’s grave, to discover that two long-time friends, he and my father, had died of work-related illnesses just months apart, both in 1969. My father was fifty. Alonzo was fifty-one.
Standing there, it seemed that the cemetery was overpopulated by young and middle-aged men — working men who had died hard deaths from silicosis, heart disease, lung cancer, and assorted other cancers. There had been a royal commission in the 1960s, but the most uncomfortable questions — about responsibility, about accountability — had been gingerly avoided. The history of Newfoundland is full of tragedy. This was just another one. We move on.
In time, I came to learn how this tragedy was part of a continuum beginning in 1929. There was an earthquake and a tsunami and the collapse of the south coast fishery, for centuries the only livelihood the people there had known. Two years later, a persuasive entrepreneur arrived from the United States, promising prosperity but demanding unimaginable sacrifice to start the mining industry that would, eventually, initiate an industrial catastrophe.
The story has been told before in books, in academic studies, and by journalists. It would take me nearly twenty-five years to begin my telling of it. It’s now an old story — history. But there are stories that are timeless, that require retelling because they offer universal insights into human nature, about vulnerability and exploitation.
They need to be retold, because they are reminders of our natural resilience, a capacity for resistance, and the possibility of survival in the worst of circumstances — gifts that must never be forgotten as history continues to deliver tragedies that always seem to take us by surprise.