Eighteen months on the picket line. Thirty-eight kilos of explosives. Nine men dead. Twenty years passed. It's the story that made world news and changed a mining town forever. The Giant Mine strike stands as one of the longest and bloodiest in Canadian history, punctuated by one of the worst mass murders the country has ever seen. For those who lived through September 18, 1992, the scars have never healed. Here are their stories. By Katherine Laidlaw.
On May 22, 1992, a company called Royal Oak Mines Inc. locked out its workforce at Giant Mine in Yellowknife. The union, the local 4 chapter of the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers, and management couldn’t reach a settlement. Before the strike, it was a good, if finite, time to be a gold miner. The average worker at Giant was pulling in $77,000 a year, and those clocking overtime were making more than $100,000. But the strike got dirty quickly as rumours swirled of Royal Oak CEO Peggy Witte’s intent to break the union. One thing she did break was an unwritten labour rule in Canada: you don’t bring in replacement workers. No mining company had done that in 45 years. Nevada-born Witte flew them in by helicopter the next day.
From there, things got scary. Profane strike posters littered the route along the highway to the mine. An underwear-clad Miss Piggy doll was mounted on a stake, her neck circled by a noose, head dangling and blond curls blowing in the wind. Both sides hurled vulgarities across the gate at the mine entrance. In June, a riot broke out, as RCMP and Pinkerton guards – hired to act as the mine’s security force – clashed with strikers who tore down the mine fence and swarmed the grounds. Nearly 30 people were charged. Two months later, a group of strikers calling themselves the Cambodian Cowboys began to break into the mine, spray-painting anti-scab graffiti on its underground walls, blowing up a satellite dish on the townsite and later using explosives to shut down one of the mine’s ventilation shafts.
And then the bomb went off, killing nine men – six line-crossers and three replacement workers – and setting in motion a 13-month-long criminal investigation and 15 years of criminal trials and civil lawsuits. If you lived in Yellowknife in September 1992, you remember where you were when the blast went off. You remember that girl at school saying loudly that she had biked out to the site and witnessed the carnage with her own eyes. You remember the worried creases in your mom’s face as she dialed the same number over and over, trying to get your dad on the line. You remember your classmate’s desk sitting empty that day, knowing he lived out at Giant, being afraid for him. You remember your dad warning you not to go out that night, to stay home and stay safe. If you were one of the 15,000 people who spent that year watching Yellowknife descend into violent, rabid madness, it’s a time you don’t forget.
Leslie Creed is a Giant Mine baby. For as long as she can remember, her dad worked at the mine. Her folks moved there the year after she was born, 1981, and stayed until the mine closed 18 years later. The Creed family lived in one of the many identical brown duplexes that overlooked the busiest boat launch in town, down the road from the headframe on the shores of Great Slave Lake. Families came and went every few years – moving into their own places in town or leaving Yellowknife entirely. But the Creeds stayed: Leslie’s dad working in the refinery laying gold bricks; her mom sunbathing nude with the other miners’ wives, hidden from the view of the highway. Leslie and her brother and sister were part of the Giant pack, growing up on the rocks outside of town. It was idyllic.
“We ran wild. We’d have fires on the rocks. We would use the pipeboxes as our pathways into the mine site,” she says. “It was a community. We always had Christmas parties together. We would all trudge as a little group of kids for Hallowe’en, going from house to house to house, trick-or-treating.”
Her first 12 years were blessed with a carefree spirit, like growing up camping, but with electricity, she says. Then, in 1992, the miners went on strike. First, changes came slowly. A picket line was erected at the townsite entrance. After a while, the Giant dwellers weren’t allowed to use the townsite gates anymore, and had to go through the mine itself. The Pinkerton guards came to live on the site for a while, to keep an eye out. Then, things got more serious. The school bus the Giant kids took to school every day was blocked at the gates by the strikers. “They stopped the bus and they said, ‘we’re getting on,’” Creed says. They walked the aisles, searching the bus for replacement workers or family members coming in and out. The satellite dish next to the Creeds’ house was blown up. Kids at school were bullied or shunned. “It was really weird going to school and seeing kids wear ‘no scab’ buttons on their clothes, in elementary school, junior high. I couldn’t believe that their parents would encourage them to wear those things,” she says. “I remember my teachers asking us how we were doing out there.”
The morning of September 18, Leslie was home from school. She was sick with a cold and was waiting for her dad, who was in management at the mine, to drive her into town to the doctor. She felt the vibrations shake the townsite. Just another blast, she thought. The tremors through the kitchen floor were nothing new. But her dad was extra-quiet that morning. And as they wound their way out to the mine entrance, Leslie realized something was seriously wrong. “It was an absolutely crazy amount of people. Military, RCMP, strikers, families, news reporters. That’s when my dad told me what happened. There was an explosion, he said. Some people were killed.”
When she got home from the doctor, her parents began packing up her things. They sent Leslie and her siblings to live with family friends in town for three weeks. “I hated being away from home. But at that point, you didn’t know what they were capable of anymore. They blew up our satellite dish, next to my house. They blew up a trolley car with men in it. What’s next?”
That year, none of the Giant kids were allowed to trick-or-treat.
For Jamesie Fournier, it’s the slight flicking sound of playing cards he recalls when he thinks about the strike. It was late at night, when his mom and dad would sit religiously playing cards, that he’d hear about the ugliness at the mine. He was eight, son to wild-haired miner Jim Fournier, also known as Rags. At first, before things got too violent, he and his little brother had spent a lot of time on the line, eating egg-salad sandwiches, sipping ginger ale and feeling like pirates standing on top of a shelled-out school bus brandishing binoculars and keeping a stern eye on things. “You felt like you were on an outpost in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
To the young Fournier the battle lines seemed clear – a feisty union versus greedy management, a man’s means versus his principles. He was proud of his dad. He was fighting the oppressors! He was standing up for his community! “It was a really fun time. We enjoyed it,” he says now, a slight, dark-haired 28-year-old with thick black earrings in his ears. But, one day in June, the boys weren’t allowed to go. “I remember the day we were supposed to go. We were all ready and my dad came home at the last minute and said, ‘I don’t think you boys should be coming today.’” The boys argued, the protest signs they’d made lying dejectedly on the floor, but their father in his ragged union cap wouldn’t budge. He knew it wouldn’t be safe – tempers were flaring and that day there’d be a fight.
Later that night, Fournier listened from his bedroom to the cards smacking the table as his dad told his mom about the riot-police clubbing their shields that day, about strikers throwing rocks, tear-gas streaming and attack dogs growling. His dad had run onto the mine grounds with the others, dodging gunfire as an officer popped off warning shots. He stopped when he saw a guard collapse in a pond on the site. Picking up a rock, he heaved it into the air, poised to bring it down on the guard lying in the muck. He slammed it to the ground, missing the guard’s head. The flicking of the cards stopped after that, for the three months his dad went to jail.
As money got tight, luxuries gradually went away. “My dad told me, ‘Things are going to be changing now James. We’re going to go from one of Yellowknife’s highest paid [families] to not paid at all.” Fournier remembers being given super-soaker waterguns by his friend’s dad because his parents couldn’t buy them. He remembers other families on their block giving his parents food when they cleared out their refrigerators before leaving on vacation. He remembers no-name macaroni-and-cheese, Cheez Whiz, no longer having cable TV. “When they used to have hot-dog days and pizza days in school, we’d never be able to get that, so we’d always get the pizza crusts from the other kids,” he says. “I really like pizza crusts now.”
And yet, Fournier’s memories of growing up on the line are fond ones. His dad coached his sports teams, at least until he couldn’t anymore because he had a criminal record. He got to watch the Toronto Blue Jays win the ’92 World Series in the union hall with his brother and his dad, swiping Oreo cookies from the area that was restricted from kids.
After the strike ended, Fournier says, the town quieted. “Things went back to normal for a bit, but you knew it wasn’t going to last. And when the mine started shutting down, you could feel worry that it was going to become a ghost town. And then shortly after that, diamonds were found.” Collective amnesia set in, he says. “I think everyone was wanting to move on.”
Dale Johnston was running, shoes scraping against the gravel pebbles lining Yellowknife’s streets. It was a phone she was after. Her pounding feet were the only sound ringing through her ears over the noise of the men yelling.
She was scared. Usually, she thought she was pretty tough. The daughter of a former union president and a staunch union family, she’d been one of the protestors at the riot that June day, bringing down the fence and swarming the mine site. She’d seen riot cops and tear gas and hurled profanities. She was involved. But tonight felt different. People were dead now. Her dad’s friend was dead; she’d heard it on the radio at home that day. Her dad had warned her not to go out that night, but she figured going to see a movie couldn’t hurt. Then the brawl broke out. She recognized the union guy getting beaten outside the bar by a group of men, shouting accusations, unleashing their pent-up frustration. She heard the clattering of glass and went for the closest payphone she could remember, a couple of blocks away.
“Stay low,” the man at the union hall told her when she called. “Just stay low. Don’t be out and about.” You didn’t know who could be hiding around the corner, beer bottle in hand. Everyone was feeling like a fight that night.
Today, Johnston is 35 years old, the mother of three young boys. She moved away from Yellowknife and so did her dad, both living in Grand Prairie, Alberta. But no matter what, or where, or who, every time she sees a picket line, she stops, circles the block to the nearest doughnut shop and parks her car. She never passes strikers, she says, without stopping to buy them coffee. She’s a union girl.
The Giant Mine murders have brought Katie O’Neil to a little trailer on a Vancouver Island reserve. There, the 22-year-old, freshly home from two years in Australia, sits with her father, Jim, once a miner at Giant. He sits in a lazy-boy recliner and she sits in a desk chair, facing a computer screen, a journal open on her lap. They write. Katie’s story is different than the others. She was just two when the bomb went off. A memory she can barely recall has engulfed her whole life.
She doesn’t remember the day her dad came home, rendered unable to speak for hours from the shock after he was one of the first to reach the blast scene. He looked desperately for his best friend, Chris Neill, and the eight other miners, but all that remained of them was flesh and bone blown into the mine walls.
Katie remembers things in snapshots. “Sometimes pictures will bring back a memory. I saw a picture a while ago of the graffiti on the front of my house,” she says, referring to the word “SCAB” vandals painted across her garage when her dad crossed the picket line. “And I remember sitting on the ground with a paintbrush in my hand and Chris Neill painting the front of our house because he was sick of looking at the graffiti.” Another time, she says, she remembered dumping her crayons all over the floor. “I didn’t do it, the strikers did it!” she explained to her mom. “I thought the strikers were boogey-men.” The strike, for Katie, had become mythical. She knew what “striker” and “scab” meant by the time she was three years old.
Ten years ago, Jim O’Neil moved to a First Nations reserve on Vancouver Island. He’s an RV repairman now – he stopped mining underground after the explosion. He tried to go back to work but the thought of the man-car shards in the tunnel walls underground – there’s only so much a man can take. He’s spent the past 20 years trying to reason away what he saw that day after the blast. “It’s been a very, very lonely battle,” he says.
He left Yellowknife, seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in Edmonton. After five years of therapy and little improvement, he went to work on a cattle ranch in Sherwood Park, Alberta. He and Katie’s mother got divorced. He put wads of money into doctors and treatments. He has exaggerated startle response – a PTSD symptom that causes his body to jerk and shake violently when triggered – something he’ll live with for the rest of his life. He has nightmares when he hears the word “union.”
He’s still looking for answers, finding holes in the RCMP’s evidence against Roger Warren, the man jailed for setting the bomb. He thinks Warren took the rap for something he didn’t do alone. “I’ve always thought that other people certainly knew what was going on,” he says.
Now that the lawsuits are complete, now that the RCMP have disposed of the evidence, Katie and Jim spend days and nights – sometimes from “dusk until dawn” – poring over journals from that time, writing them into a book. When they finish, they’d like the book to be published. Catharsis, he hopes.
“If I could truly say, yes, I know what happened to my friend Chris Neill and the other eight guys in Giant Mine, maybe then I could do something else without the interference of PTSD,” Jim says. “Somehow, someday, there will be closure. There’s got to be some better closure than I have right now.”
For now, father and daughter sit in their chairs, listening to the beating of the drums in the longhouse, and drift away.
Yellowknife is a resilient, transient town and 20 years is a long time. Still, the strike lingers, in the faded union graffiti downtown, the former strikers and police officers who ignore each other at the grocery store, the friendships damaged irreparably. Al Shearing, the prime suspect in the police’s case for a long time, still lives in town, scavenging at the dump in his pickup and working construction. He spent two-and-half years in jail for sneaking into the mine, painting anti-scab graffiti and blowing up a ventilation shaft. “I felt justified. I think I should have done more,” he told the CBC in a 2003 interview. “They tried for 13 months and couldn’t prove anything.” Helen Warren, Roger Warren’s wife, still lives in Yellowknife too, working for the government. (In a strange twist, Warren and Shearing are now related – Shearing married Kathy Hrynczuk, Helen’s sister, 10 years after the bombing.) Warren himself is jailed in Mission, B.C., at Ferndale Institution, a minimum-security prison. He’s eligible for parole in 2015.
Speaking about the strike while answering to charges in court, striker Tim Bettger, the police’s second suspect in their investigation, said: “None of the rules of the world seemed to apply any longer. For what it’s worth, I want to apologize to my family.” In his case, at least, the ending of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies comes to mind: The boys disperse, stunned and appalled by the mob mentality that drove them to brutal violence. Ten years ago, one of the murdered miners’ sons, Joe Pandev, told the local paper: “I want people to remember what happened and to be embarrassed by it. The way people acted, it was just embarrassing for a community to turn on itself like that. And over what?”
Not long after the strike, Royal Oak went bankrupt and walked away from Giant, saddling taxpayers with a $500-million cleanup bill. Above ground, the site is a mix of rickety wooden structures and sci-fi steel spires that shoot up from the rock. Below ground, a quarter-million tons of deadly arsenic fester in vast chambers. The government says in another decade, by the 30th anniversary of the murders, remediation will be complete. The mine will be clean, at least on the surface. But the waste underground, they say, will have to be monitored “in perpetuity.” Deep down, things won’t go away.
Editor’s note: More than 10 strikers were approached to be interviewed for this story, including Roger Warren. All of them declined.
At Giant Mine, a 20-year-long disaster
The murders took an instant. But the tremors of the tragedy have echoed for decades.
Royal Oak Mines is founded by Margaret “Peggy” Witte and, on November 2, acquires Yellowknife’s Giant Mine from Pamour Inc.
May 22, 1992
Royal Oak locks out members of the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers; at midnight they go on strike. The company helicopters in strikebreakers and Pinkerton security agents.
May 26, 1992
Yellowknife RCMP react to threats of violence by bringing in extra officers, including a riot squad, from Alberta.
June 11, 1992
Strikers, police, and Pinkerton guards clash outside the mine’s main gate. Nearly 30 people are arrested.
September 1, 1992
An explosion damages the mine’s ventilation shaft. For that crime, and for painting anti-scab graffiti in the mine, strikers Al Shearing and Tim Bettger are eventually sentenced to prison.
September 18, 1992
At 8:45 a.m., a man-car passing through a tunnel 230 metres underground trips a bomb, instantly killing Vern Fullowka, Norm Hourie, Chris Neill, Joe Pandev, Shane Riggs, Robert Rowsell, Arnold Russell, Malcolm Sawler and Dave Vodnoski.
September 20, 1992
Police declare the bombing a homicide and begin a 13-month investigation involving informants, polygraph tests and tapped phones. The initial suspects are Al Shearing and Tim Bettger, who’d committed the earlier bombings at Giant.
October 15, 1993
After a six-hour-long interrogation, Roger Warren confesses to RCMP that he set the bomb. Later that night he leads investigators to the site, divulging details, police say, that only the killer could have known.
After 18 months, the Giant Mine strike ends and strikers return to work.
Warren’s case goes to court. He recants his confession, saying he confessed because he was clinically depressed and wanted to speed the end of the strike.
Warren is convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to
life in prison with no possibility of parole for 20 years. He’s sent to the Stony Mountain penitentiary in Manitoba.
Royal Oak, unable to recover from the strike and low gold prices, goes bankrupt. The mine is transferred to the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs, saddling taxpayers with a $500-million cleanup.
The legal group Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted launches an
investigation into whether Warren is innocent and should be retried.
Warren again confesses to the murders, saying he acted alone. Shortly thereafter,
the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted drops his case.
During testimony at a lawsuit filed by eight widows and 23 children of the victims, Warren blames poor security, his union and Royal Oak for creating the circumstances that led to his crime.
The NWT Supreme Court rules the territorial government, the Pinkertons and the union were, along with Warren, responsible for the miners’ deaths. Their families are awarded $10.7 million in damages.
The NWT Court of Appeal overturns the 2004 decision, triggering an appeal to
the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court dismisses the 2008 appeal, finding that the Pinkertons and the
government didn’t breach their duty of care to the replacement workers.
Roger Warren, now housed in minimum-security Ferndale Institute in Mission, B.C., will become eligible for parole.