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1978-79 Steelworkers strike subject of Mick Lowe's new novel

Local author has completed trilogy about city's mining history
Sudbury's Mick Lowe has just completed a novel about the 1978-1979 Steelworkers strike against Inco. “Wintersong” is the third in a fictional series he's written about the city's mining history. (Heidi Ulrichsen/

Given it's a part of the city's recent history, most Sudburians remember Steelworkers Local 6500's nearly year-long 2009-2010 strike against Vale.

More distant in the community's collective memory is the arguably even more bitter labour dispute that happened a generation earlier. 

Steelworkers Local 6500 went on strike against Vale's predecessor, Inco, for 10 and a half months from Sept. 15, 1978 until June 7, 1979.

The labour dispute, which involved 11,600 workers, and starved Inco of more than 22 million hours of labour, smashed records at the time for the longest strike in Canadian history.

The impact on the Sudbury community was devastating, with businesses closing, marriages breaking up and families losing their life savings.

The 1978-1979 Steelworkers strike is the subject of local author Mick Lowe's latest novel, “Wintersong.” It's the third in the Nickel Range Trilogy fiction series, which focuses on Sudbury's mining history.

The book is being launched from 1-4 p.m. this Sunday, May 7 at the Steelworkers Hall. Lowe will be selling copies of the book and signing them at the event.

The first in the Nickel Range Trilogy series, “The Raids,” is set in 1963, during a particularly violent time in Sudbury's history — the Steelworkers' raids on the then-powerful Mine Mill union.

The second book, “The Insatiable Maw,” is set in 1968, and is about health and safety concerns associated with the Copper Cliff Smelter.

All three books, published by Baraka Books, feature the same characters, most notably Inco worker Jake McCool and his girlfriend (and eventually wife) Jo Ann.

In the latest novel, 30-something McCool is the vice-president of Steelworkers Local 6500, dealing with the strike, which Lowe called a “really desperate time.”“It's etched in everyone's memory for sure,” he said.

Lowe said he remembers the strike well, as he was in Sudbury for part of it. A freelancer with the Globe and Mail, Lowe gave up that job to work on behalf of the Steelworkers, writing copy for a union propaganda newsletter.

“Because the strikers were my friends and neighbours, I really wanted to take their side and do what I could to help them win, and I did,” he said.

Although involved with the strike himself, Lowe said he did a lot of research for the novel, interviewing some of the main players. “I learned a lot I didn't know,” he said.

Lowe said he named the novel “Wintersong” because winter becomes a major character — the winter of 1978-1979 was particularly cold in Sudbury. The novel's cover art, by local artist Oryst Sawchuk, depicts the Frood-Stobie picket line in winter.

In writing the book, Lowe said he learned strikes are not won or lost at the boardroom table or on the picket line — they're decided at the kitchen table. He made women — the strikers' wives — the heroes.

He explains that in 1958, during the first-ever strike against Inco (involving Mine Mill), the strikers' wives were brought to the Sudbury Arena, and convinced they were beat after hearing anti-union propaganda.

The union settled after four months on the picket lines for what the company had offered before the dispute began. The Steelworkers then raided the weakened Mine Mill union.

“By '78 the wives said 'We're not going to let this happen again,'” Lowe said. “'We're going to organize. We're going to mobilize,' and they did. That is recounted fairly faithfully in this novel.”

They organized a Christmas party for the 14,000 kids affected by the strike, so no striker's child went without presents, “because the Christmas of '58 was when they were undone,” Lowe said.

Now the author of seven books, 69-year-old Lowe is working on his autobiography, featuring the events that led him to come to Canada in 1970 as a Vietnam draft dodger.

He's also considering a prequel to the Nickel Range Trilogy, featuring Jake McCool's father, Big Bill, and the organizing of the first union at Inco.

“It's sort of sad to say goodbye (to the characters in the trilogy),” he said. “But time runs two ways. It's like a river. You can look back. I can hit rewind in my imagination.”

“Wintersong” will be available for purchase online as of June 1, as well as at the aforementioned book signing. You can also purchase Lowe's other books through his website.