In June 1984, a tragic accident occurred. A seismic event struck northeastern Ontario, resulting in an utterly devastating collapse at Falconbridge Mine.
Four miners, members of Mine Mill Local 598, lost their lives. Sulo Korpela, Richard Chenier and Daniel Lavallee were killed instantly; Wayne St. Michel remained trapped below the surface.
Rescue workers worked diligently trying to save St. Michel, digging through the rock with their bare hands. They established voice contact with the miner, but he died minutes before he could be freed.
The following year, the first Workers’ Memorial Day was held, to honour the four men lost in this terrible tragedy. This June 20th marks the 37th anniversary.
“The memorial has since evolved and now honours all fallen, sick and injured workers, with a focus on a future that is free from these types of events. We strive for a day when no one ever becomes sick or injured in the workplace,” says Eric Boulay, President, Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers’ Union, Local 598 UNIFOR.
Shawn Mathe is a personal support worker at Finlandia Village, a position he’s held for nine years. He is also the Unit Chair for Local 598. He welcomes the opportunity to attend this event every year.
“I think it’s important for all workers to recognize and pay tribute to the fallen workers that we’ve lost in the past,” he says.
While healthcare workers may not experience the same imminent danger that miners face going underground every day, he does see certain parallels, thanks to the pandemic. Covid made going into work every day pretty scary. The past 15 months have been a long haul, and it has taken a toll mentally and physically.
Most nursing home facilities are incredibly short-staffed, which puts a lot of added pressure on workers. “Even with the increase in wages, we’re not seeing enough PSWs get through the door, getting fast-tracked. We’re seeing government spend money on stuff that we don’t need. What we need is boots on the ground: we would rather have four or five extra people working with us so we can provide care,” he says. “Care takes time and we never have enough.”
A long-time health care advocate, Mathe is a firm believer in health care reform, especially in long-term care. Just last year essential workers were hailed as heroes and made a long list of promises; one year later, little has changed, and they remain forgotten about.
“It’s really hard being a health care worker right now. No one wants to be one,” he says.
He is optimistic though that some things are indeed changing for the better. Health and safety crews put in at job sites are doing an excellent job. If they have any issues, they’re not afraid to call the ministry. Technology has also advanced so much since the 80s, he says. Safer methods and protocols are in place and he sees a lot fewer injuries in the workplace.
Mathe has attended the Workers’ Memorial ever since joining the union. He has felt the emotion of the family members keenly.
“It’s incredibly sad that on June 20, 1984 these four workers had to pay the ultimate price and sacrifice their lives for their jobs. No one should have to pay that price for work.”
The 37th annual Mine Mill and Smelter Workers’ Memorial Day takes place Sunday, June 20, 2021 at 9:30 am. For more information, visit www.minemill598.com.