The Politics of Coal:
horse-trading and hornswoggling, subsidy, soot, grime, and danger
roiling seas of ambition, self-interest, and conflicted purpose

The Politics of Coal

By Dalton Camp

This article appeared in
The Hill Times
Ottawa, 10 June 1996

Talk Politics

The politics of coal is the politics of regional disparity. It is the politics of subsidy subvention, soot, grime, black dust and danger. And somewhere, under all this, there is profit for some and a livelihood for many.

As well, there are certain remorseless inevitabilities about coal which include the fact that sooner or later the seam will run out, the mine will shut down, and the community with it.

In the meantime, the odds are that some will die, digging out the coal.

During the years when I was a frequent flyer to Nova Scotia, in the decade of the Stanfield administrations, coal was as much a part of the public agenda as the fishery.

It had fiercely protective relationships with the provincially-owned power commission, whose thermal plants consumed much of its production, and with the province's uncertain steel industry, which existed largely hand-to-mouth from federal contracts for steel rails for domestic or export markets.

Underground explosions in coal mines were called "bumps." During the Stanfield years, I recall three of them: two at Springhill, in Cumberland County, and the other in a mine at Stellarton, in Pictou Country, near the site of the Westray mine. (One of the Springhill bumps occurred on the eve of a provincial general election).

Only a day or so ago, a member the Stanfield government reminded me that, as a result of the bump at the Stellarton mine, Stanfield had achieved agreement with local authorities, including the mayor of Stellarton, that the mine would remain closed since it was believed too dangerous for use.

Some 30 years later, mining coal in Pictou County again seemed a promising venture.

There was new technology and, with unemployment in the county standing at 20 per cent, there was enthusiastic public support.

It further developed, as a result of the persistence of a few good men – all of them elected politicians – that there was $87 million in public monies (in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees) to nudge the deal along and hasten the day of the grand opening.

Westray represented something like 500 new jobs, "direct and indirect," as the political pamphleteers count, which is enough new money from wages and salaries, restaurant meals, and gas station pit stops, to kickstart a languishing economy.

Had all gone well with the Westray mine, all would have been forgotten, as is the case with the good works of politicians.

But things went terribly wrong with Westray – 26 miners killed, a community devastated in its grief by this cruel blow to its very survival.

A public inquiry was mounted to look into the disaster and seek to find the guilty party or parties responsible for the tragedy.

The methods of the inquiry in getting at the truth appear to be Aristotelian: a diligent search for causality, to know the way things happen, in this real world of coal, politics and government, in the roiling seas of ambition, self-interest, and conflicted purpose.

So far, what we have watched is a parade of witnesses, all well-meaning and each blameless. One of them has blamed the dead.

That would be Donald Cameron, a Pictou County dairy farmer who entered the Nova Scotia legislature in 1974, held a half-dozen portfolios in the Buchanan government until becoming premier himself and subsequently leading his Conservative party to defeat.

He is now Canada's agent-general in Boston, Mass.

Cameron was among the more aggressive promoters of the doomed enterprise, while Nova Scotia's minister of industry. Westray would be located near his own seat in Pictou.

He now says, "I wish we had never heard of Westray."

During his turbulent appearance at the inquiry, he spoke a great truth; "Everything becomes politics here," he said.

The substance of his testimony was that "those people who changed the meters and pressed the reset buttons, they should be responsible. It shouldn't be the (mine) inspector who wasn't there. It shouldn't be the politician.

"Those people who overrode these safety devices are responsible."

The people "who overrode" the devices which measured the methane gas levels in the mine and signalled should they reach dangerous levels, were the miners themselves; that is Cameron's testimony.

The only reason they would do that would be to keep the mine open, even, if we are to believe Cameron, at risk to their own safety.

Everyone, it appears, wanted to keep the mine running: the operators, who discouraged employee complaints about conditions underground; the mine inspectors, who were too easily assured by the mine operators that all was well and that complaints about coal-dust accumulations would be speedily attended; and certainly the politicians, whose achievement this was and who thought Westray a sort of gold-mine of federal-provincial cooperation.

But Westray had been doomed by the political fevers which attended it.

The executives of the Toronto-based company were ringed by suitors of rank and title, exuding optimism and ringing endorsement.

A memo on the state of business, prepared by a Westray vice-president for his peers, recapitulates a conversation with John Buchanan, then premier of Nova Scotia.

Brian Mulroney, the prime minister, is described by Buchanan as "disappointed" at the slow progress of the Westray proposal through the Ottawa decision mills.

Mulroney, according to Buchanan, had appointed Elmer MacKay as public works minister to facilitate matters.

In his testimony before the inquiry, MacKay, who is himself from Pictou Country, denied Mulroney making any overt move on behalf of Westray. Advancing that cause had been left to MacKay and Cameron.

It is possible to believe, however, that Buchanan might have complained to Mulroney about the snail's pace of the Westray proposal and that the prime minister had sympathized with his friend; indeed, he may have even promised to move heaven and Earth to advance the interests of Westray, but Buchanan could not possibly have been naive enough to believe it.

Not believing it, however, would not prevent him from passing on word of Mulroney's avid interest in something, I would guess, he had scarcely heard of.

The corridors of power are crowded with people who establish their importance by beginning sentences with the words, "The prime minister would like..."

He would like, for example, a day-care centre, a coal mine, or a submarine sandwich; just remember who brought the word.

But MacKay has a talent for homely truths placed in context. Westray had not been a popular project for the federal bureaucrats, which meant it had to be sold in the real market of raw politics.

This meant canvassing for support among cabinet colleagues, who had their own versions of Westray and were also in need of support.

His interrogator at the inquiry had asked him if all this was simply a matter of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."

MacKay paused to consider his answer.

Finally, he said, "It has been the same since time immemorial."

So it has.

And so it was that the politicians horse-traded and hornswoggled their way through this fragile and otherwise banal proposal. No one needed a coal mine for the sake of the coal in it.

What was needed were jobs, the political capital from the jobs, the stifling of complaints from political opponents about the lack of jobs. All with a low-level entry fee of loan guarantees and familiar subsidies, with secure markets, and the marvels of a new technology applied by know-how-to guys from out of town, and worked by men who couldn't wait to get below again and start earning a living.

ICS (webmaster) comment:   As usual, Dalton Camp's description (above) of the inner workings of the political jungle is superb, but I must disagree with a significant technical detail. Mr. Camp wrote: "Underground explosions in coal mines were called 'bumps.' "

Wrong. As the word was used in the coal mining world of the 1960s, a "bump" was very different from a methane or dust explosion. An explosion is a chemical process, while a 'bump' is a physical or geological process – a sudden movement of the rock walls or floor of the mine tunnel, which occurs only at great depths. An explosion eliminates oxygen in the mine atmosphere and replaces it with carbon monoxide and other poisonous and suffocating gases. After a 'bump', there is no change in the mine atmosphere, it is as breathable as before the 'bump'.

These differences, between a bump and an explosion, have important implications for the survival prospects of miners trapped underground. An explosion can occur in any enclosed space. A bump can occur only in a very deep mine. Because of their great depth, bumps were common in the mines at Springhill, Nova Scotia — a bump could not occur in the Westray mine at Stellarton because it was relatively shallow.

Mr. Camp wrote: "Only a day or so ago, a member the Stanfield government reminded me that, as a result of the bump at the Stellarton mine, Stanfield had achieved agreement with local authorities, including the mayor of Stellarton, that the mine would remain closed since it was believed too dangerous for use." My recollection is that this event at Stellarton was an explosion, not a bump. The coal seams around Stellarton, especially the Foord seam, have been notorious for more than a century for being extremely gassy, and thus very dangerous because of the explosion risk.

I do not recall any 'bump' in a Stellarton mine.

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