featured Labour

Glimpses of Westray – Donkin Mine company fires workers speaking out about safety

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – This Sunday local media outlets such as CBC, the Chronicle Herald, Metro and others all ran the same wide-ranging story on the Donkin Mine in Cape Breton, written by Canadian Press reporter Michael MacDonald.

Click here to read the CTV version.

The wide-ranging story discusses economic prospects of the mine, and even the environmental impact of burning coal. As well, the article focuses on the current difficulties to get the mine operational, and how 49 workers, roughly a third of the workforce, were recently let go.

Some of these workers claim that they were targeted for lay offs by Donkin Mine management because they dared speak out about safety concerns. The company denies the allegations.

This is what Michael MacDonald reports:

Miners have come forward to complain about potentially unsafe working conditions and what they say is a heavy-handed management style.

Gary Taje, international staff representative for the United Mine Workers of America, says the company — a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Cline Group — fired the miners for complaining about how the mine is being run.

“They did that for one reason: to show everybody else that anybody can be fired at any time,” says Taje, whose union is hoping to eventually organize the non-unionized mine.

One of the miners who lost his job says he believes he and other experienced miners were fired because they spoke out about mining practices.

The miner, who asked to remain anonymous to ensure he is not blacklisted from other jobs, says the company has chosen to stick with inexperienced miners to quell dissent.

“They have a lot of the younger guys who are not going to say no to management,” says the miner, who has 30 years of experience and notes he doesn’t think the mine is itself unsafe.

Anywhere, but especially in Nova Scotia, home of the Westray mine disaster, firing workers who speak out about safety issues should be big news. And it should give politicians reason for pause.

Instead, energy minister Geoff MacLellan seemingly ignores the union claim, or denies it, I am not sure which. “This wasn’t a targeting in any sense,” says MacLellan, “Safety is the number one priority here. I’ve had discussions with Donkin mine officials on many occasions and they have reiterated that as well.”

To paraphrase, Donkin mine officials say it’s safe, so it must be true.

But what if it isn’t?

In February 2016 the Nova Scotia Advocate ran a story about the shaky safety record of US mines run by coal magnate Chris Cline, who also owns the Donkin mine. An online database search revealed that in the last four years four underground coal mines owned and operated by Cline in Illinois were fined $6 million for safety-related infractions. Three miners died in separate incidents.

Get a union in there, Bobby Burchell, at the time the Canadian representative for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) told the Nova Scotia Advocate.

“Mining accidents do happen, it’s part of the job,” Burchell said.  “But there is much that can be avoided. When the workers are protected by a union then they can speak their mind when they are working in unsafe conditions. They have somebody there who can protect them.”

There is still no union at Donkin, just as there is no union in any mine operated by Chris Cline.

In August 2017, CBC journalist Frances Willick reported that documents obtained by CBC News under freedom of information laws show a history of repeated infractions at the Donkin coal mine, some of which could endanger the lives of workers. Rescue equipment was found to be missing or not functioning. Daily checks to ensure that air quality monitoring technology was working were not being done. Walls were insufficiently secured.  

Shortly after the opening of the Westray mine, miner Carl Guptill complained about safety issues to provincial inspectors, who ignored him.In January 1992 Guptill was fired. Politicians said all was fine, because that was what management told them.

On May 9th of that year the Westray mine exploded and 26 miners died.

If you can, please support the Nova Scotia Advocate so that it can continue to cover issues such as poverty, racism, exclusion, workers’ rights and the environment in Nova Scotia. A pay wall is not an option, since it would exclude many readers who don’t have any disposable income at all. We rely entirely on one-time donations and a tiny but mighty group of dedicated monthly sustainers.



  1. It’s time for someone to step up and take the bull by the horne’s before it’s too late .Bobby Burchell is right get a union in there.

    1. Unions need people with enough balls to stand up in the first place simply having a union will do them no good

Comments are closed.