It was Yellowknife’s darkest day – the city’s blackest mark. It was a quarter century ago to the day that nine miners died in an underground explosion at Giant Mine. It was one of the worst mass murders in Canadian history and remains a taboo topic to this day for many people who lived through it. The bombing also drove a wedge into an already divided community and still has repercussions to this day.
The deliberately set explosion came in the midst of a bitter strike at the mine. It happened about 230 metres underground, killing the replacement workers who were called “scabs” by many people in Yellowknife. The miners, six of whom were from Yellowknife, were riding in a man-car at the time.
The horrific incident was written about in two books and retold in a television film in 1996.
Roger Warren, one of the striking workers, was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder after he confessed to the RCMP that he had planted the bomb. He insisted he acted alone – a confession that some Yellowknifers dispute to this day.
The widows and families of the men killed were awarded $10 million in a civil lawsuit, but later lost that money when the NWT Supreme Court overturned the judgment.
News/North tried to reach out to some of the widows but none responded to our request for comment.
Former MLA Wendy Bisaro was a travel agent in the city at the time. She said she finds it difficult to believe that 25 years have passed, because that day and the events surrounding it remain so fresh in her memory.
“It was pretty traumatic day. I remember about 10 in the morning – all the sirens – the police and ambulance going down the road heading out toward the mine. My first thought was – ‘oh my God what’s going on at the mine? We didn’t know — we didn’t hear anything,” said Bisaro. “Then I remember being in Yk Hardware after lunch and the radio was on and they announced what had happened. It was just a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach. It was brutal.”
Bisaro said she had no way of knowing at the time that it was a bomb. She added that it was a very tense time in the city with picket lines and replacement workers crossing the picket line.
“I knew that there were definitely two sides. People were on either one side or the other, there was no middle ground,” said Bisaro. “Things had been heated – there had been fights in bars and the picket line was really ugly. But I never thought it would get that violent.”
Tony Whitford was the territorial government’s minister of safety at the time.
“We didn’t have too much to do with it. It was a union problem. I would be briefed on what was happening. The House was sitting at the time. I eventually made a statement in the House that it was a deliberate act and the police had concluded that it was not an accident,” Whitford said. “It was only a matter of hours before we learned it was not an accident.”
Whitford said he remembers vividly the Pinkerton’s security guards who were brought in to maintain order at the site and to help get the replacement workers across the picket line. He said that just made things worse. Whitford recalled how bitter the striking workers were toward him, particularly after the explosion.
“I was not exactly threatened but it came very close. A very, very angry striking miner was shouting and I got spat on a few times. He was in my face – eyeball to eyeball – trying to provoke me. This big burly miner came over and I thought – I’m dead now. But, he grabbed a hold of the guy and pulled him back and said don’t lay a hand on him,” Whitford said.
Former mayor Dave Lovell was a city alderman (councillor) at the time.
“It was awful. People lost their self-confidence. If you weren’t with people you were against people,” Lovell said. He added that his own house got picketed at the time and people he had known his whole life stopped talking to him for the next 10 years.
A Parole Board of Canada spokesperson confirmed that Warren, now 74, has been granted full parole but she could not say when that happened. It is unclear where Warren is currently living.