Sunday, October 11, 2015

Reader's Diary #1200- Lee Selleck and Francis Thompson: Dying for Gold

In 1992 Yellowknife found unwittingly itself placed in the history books as the site of the deadliest labour dispute and one of the worst mass murders in Canadian history. Nine people were killed by intentionally set explosives. Roger Warren was convicted for this horrific crime in 1994.

When we moved to Yellowknife in 2008, I admit not having known anything about the Giant Mine murders. Though it had made national headlines at the time, I somehow missed them. What can I say? A teenager in outport Newfoundland when it all went down, I was probably too caught up in growing a moustache that was as impressive as my mullet to notice what was happening in Canada's north.

However, we weren't in Yellowknife long before the whispers of the Giant Mine disaster reached our ears. Closed for a full 4 years before we arrived, the quickly deteriorating mine site was but a tourist attraction to us. (You can see me peacefully reading a book in front of an old mine shaft at the top of this page.) For others, however, it became quickly apparent that the mine meant a whole lot more. But you didn't bring it up, we were advised. Hostilities were still there, like remaining flakes of unstaked gold, somewhere beneath the surface. The strike and murders turned former friends against one another, tore families apart, and animosities still ran high.

With that in mind, I didn't go around asking people to catch me up to speed. I certainly didn't want to bring up such painful memories. Still, Yellowknife is now my home. I adore it here; the pace of life, the environment, the culture, and the community. And part of making a place a home is knowing its history, even the nasty, ugly parts. So, when Selleck and Thompson's book fell into my lap I leaped at the opportunity to be finally gain more insight into this tragedy.

I suppose I got some. The details are certainly there. Oddly, however, I never, ever felt like I was reading about Yellowknife. I read Elizabeth Hay's novel Late Nights on Air a while back and reflecting on it, it doesn't depict a Yellowknife I know. However, I give it the benefit of a doubt that as it was set in the 70s, based largely upon Hay's experiences when she lived here, perhaps the city had change dramatically since then. It still, at the very least, felt like a real and unique place. Perhaps, too, Yellowknife has changed dramatically since the early 90s and the mine explosion. But the problem with Selleck and Thompson's book is that it feels like it could have been anywhere. As an exploration of labour unions and strikes, of criminal proceedings, it is, I suppose enlightening, but the book lacks any real context. Any reported emotions come across as dry fact. It's quite a bizarre accomplishment to take a mass murder and make it boring.

Perhaps those that recognize the names involved, those that were here when all of this went down, would feel differently. But they'd have the context that Selleck and Thompson failed to deliver. I've been advised by a friend that The Third Suspect by David Staples and Greg Owens is a more compelling read, so I'll have to give that one a shot.

In the meantime, here's a bit of additional background information:

Initially Roger Warren confessed. The conditions under which he confessed were dubious and many suspected he was wrongfully convicted. Indeed, throughout his entire trial and the first 9 years of his subsequent incarceration Warren would stick by the claim that he was innocent. However, he confessed again in 2003, 6 years after Selleck and Thompson's book was published, and in 2014 was granted day parole.

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