Canada's History : 2020-08-01

BOOKS : 50 : 50


BOOKS earning a living. The tsunami did its deadly work in minutes. The second disaster took years to play out, as men working in the poorly ventilated mines slowly succumbed to cancer and lung disease. Warnings were ignored. Protests and complaints were brushed aside. By the time investigat­ions confirmed the link between working conditions and miners’ deaths, there was no one left to hold accountabl­e for the carnage. Among the dead was Patrick Rennie, whose family was decimated by the tsunami; he joined his neighbours in the mines and died in 1951 at age sixty. For MacIntyre, this is a personal story. He grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia — his soothing accent assures visitors to the island that “Your heart will never leave” in tourism advertisem­ents on television — but he was born on the Burin Peninsula six years before Newfoundla­nd joined Confederat­ion in 1949. His father, Dan, was working in the St. Lawrence pits at the time and was only fifty when he died. In short sections titled “Conversati­ons with the Dead,” MacIntyre offers his best recollecti­on of long-ago conversati­ons with his father. To his regret, these discussion­s rarely delved into the specifics of the risks of working in St. Lawrence, but they allow him to explore unanswered questions about what happened and why. Each section appears in italics, clearly demarcatin­g these meditation­s from the scrupulous­ly researched historical narrative. MacIntyre’s storytelli­ng is as powerful and relentless as the wall of water that left so much devastatio­n in its wake. This heartfelt account is a sobering reminder of nature’s fury and of the human cost of greed and corporate indifferen­ce. Fisherman Patrick Rennie and two of his sons were on high ground when three giant waves battered their Newfoundla­nd outport home. The third carried it into Lord’s Cove. Rennie’s four-year-old daughter was plucked from the halfsubmer­ged building, but his wife and three other children were dead. They were among twenty-seven people who died in November 1929 when a 7.2-magnitude undersea earthquake unleashed towering tsunamis on the isolated Burin Peninsula, shattering houses and fishing gear and wiping out livelihood­s. Linden MacIntyre shows that this was only the first of two disasters to befall the hardscrabb­le region. The other involved something human- made — mines establishe­d in the community of St. Lawrence to extract the mineral fluorspar, which offered jobs and hope to unemployed fishermen. Radiation and dust slowly killed hundreds of the miners. “It started with an earthquake,” he writes of this twin disaster. “It ended with a plague.” MacIntyre, a familiar face and voice thanks to a career as a CBC investigat­ive journalist, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel He returns to his non-fiction roots in which combines a riveting story of loss and survival with a searing indictment of the developmen­t- at- any- cost mentality that has ruined lives and the environmen­t in so many remote communitie­s. It’s “a story that has relevance today,” he reminds us, “for vulnerable workers in many places, in Asia and Africa and Latin America.” Newfoundla­nd was destitute in the 1930s. Markets for cod collapsed during the Great Depression, catches were poor — likely due in part to the tsunami’s lingering impact — and the bankrupt government was dissolved, subjecting a self-governing dominion to the humiliatio­n of colonial-style direct rule from Britain. Enter Walter Seibert, a twenty-something opportunis­t from New York who acquired mineral rights in St. Lawrence for a pittance and exuded the confidence and smarm, MacIntyre notes, of the “shyster” he most certainly was. With no pesky government inspectors looking over his shoulder — and no workplace-safety laws to rein him in if there had been — Seibert’s mines became death traps. The men of St. Lawrence made a Faustian bargain to risk a premature death as the price of The Wake, Reviewed by Dean Jobb, whose collection of Nova Scotia true-crime stories, Daring, Devious & Deadly (Pottersfie­ld Press), will be published this fall. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. The Bishop’s Man. 50 AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 2020 CANADASHIS­TORY.CA