Book Review - Lamps Forever Lit

Lamps Forever Lit - A Memorial to Kirkland Lake Area Miners

By: Bernie Jaworsky, Cambria Publishing, Calgary, 2001

What a beautiful and moving book! This might seem strange, as it is a book about death. Over 250 pages the author, Bernie Jaworsky, chronicles what was, and still is, the life of the working class in this small town of North Eastern Ontario; a town whose name is based on a lake that does not exist anymore because the mine-owners filled it up with mine tailings. You might have heard of it because you love hockey and so many of the great players came from there. My personal favourite was Dickey Duff... Playing hockey was a way of getting away from the mines. You might also of heard of it because in 1943, its founder, Harry Oakes was murdered in the Bahamas, quite possibly by the Duke of Windsor. It was known across the world as the Mile of Gold. The mile was covered by seven gold mines, two of them, the Lake Shore and the Wright-Hargreaves being amongst the largest of the world. In my youth, Kirkland Lake was bringing noon lunch to my grand-papa at the gates of Lake Shore. It was waking-up to airbursts in the middle of the night or being shaken by them at the grocery store (the Star Store) in the middle of the day. Kirkland Lake was about bootlegging, the slimes and men and women from all nationalities. We called ourselves DP's, Pollocks, Bohunks, Finnheads, Macaronis, Blokes, Kikes and I was a Frog. Kirkland Lake was and still is about the working class. I love it. It is a place of class conflict, a town where you don't necessarily bow your head to authority. Five miles from it is Swastika, where a persistent local legend has a British right-wing "gentleman" come explorer, Lord Redesdale, convincing one Adolph Hitler it would be a good symbol for his movement (1). Kitchener, Ontario used to be called Berlin. But Swastika is still Swastika. Kirkland Lake is also known for the great 1941-1942 strike led by the Stalinist-run, local 240 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Union, a direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners of Big Bill Haywood and the IWW. To my knowledge, it is the only important Canadian strike during the Second World War, despite the Communist Party's No Strike Pledge. So maybe Joe Stalin wasn't much of a hit with Kirkland Lake hard rock miners.

But coming back to the Jaworsky book. Death, as I said is its subject. It is made up of the life and circumstances of the tragic end of generations of miners of all nationalities. You can only be struck by the young age of these condemned men. One can only wonder what happened to the grieving wives and children. The mine owners and their henchmen where bastards. A particularly touching item is the correspondence of one of these widows, a Mrs. Laura Ouellette, trying over months to obtain her dead husband's due wages. "If you cannot send the money to me then for the love of God send some to my daughter, as we are in poverty now", she writes. The author was unable to find out if the destitute family ever recovered her deceased husband's pay. But he did find the writings of a lawyer advising the capitalist: "If there is any chance that the Coroner's Jury will find that the company was in any way negligent, I would suggest you engage some good lawyer to look after the interest of the company." The individual stories go on and on, one more gruesome and touching than the other (310 different ones appear in the book). From the rather recent death of one Robert Edward Owens, who fell in a hole in a drift because the Company hadn't informed him that there was one there, to the recount of the "red" funeral in 1934 of Joseph Mihelich, a Ukrainian Communist miner, one can appreciate the harsh conditions of the miner's life.

As the author eloquently writes: " An accident in a mine is usually sudden. Hard rock, steel and blasting powder are not considerate of soft flesh and brittle bone. Death in most cases is gruesome, lonely, painful, bloody or suffocating. Death in a mine is not gentle." And here is where Jaworsky's book misses the mark. Though it is full of sensitivity and strives for accuracy, he claims that while writing it he "formed new opinions about life, death, family, friends, mining, safety and unions, but you will not find my opinions in print." And yet they are printed, or in the choices he made not to print. First off, by his utter negligence of the thousands of other miners who died and are still dying the slow death of silicosis in these same mines. Secondly, by minimizing or by avoiding to speak of the causes of the great majority of these deaths: use of unsound material, speed-ups and the damn bonus system that help bolster the companies profits, not to speak of the mine-owners greed and indifference. And no, they have not changed over the years! Thirdly, by his wild optimism in claiming that "Kirkland Lake is fast becoming an environmental solutions centre" while in effect it is being transformed into a hazardous product dump, using the old mines and their sites for untested environmental time bombs. Fourthly, by giving over the Foreword to some labour-faker bureaucrat of the United Steelworkers Union, despite their record of selling off the interest of the working class at every opportunity. And finally, by accepting de facto as a "fait accompli", that mining for profit rather than for social use is the only way to do it. In fact, this could be a useful book for the capitalist class, unless we learn from its unwritten lessons that come across through most of the dramatic stories, its merit it is to relay. There lies the true value of this book and why I recommend it. The unwritten lessons are: Don't trust the boss or the union. In fact get rid of them! Build your own struggle committees and your own political party. Trust in yourselves, as the only builders of what can be a better way of mining and, ultimately a better way of Life itself. "Don't mourn comrades, organize! (4)"


(1) Redesdale later cut off his daughter Jessica from his will as she had dared name her son "Lenin" in honour of the Russian revolutionary leader. Maybe its too bad that for some reason, he cancelled his booked passage on the Titanic before the famous ship undertook the disastrous voyage that claimed 1513 lives. But then again, even on that ship, class had a way of deciding if you lived or died...

(2) Last words of famous IWW organizer and working class songwriter Joe Hill before the ruling class executed him in 1915.