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A Legacy of

CAMARADERIE The camaraderie of coal miners endures, lasting longer than the mines in which the bonds of friendship were formed. Ernie Conrod of Glace Bay tried working underground but spent most of his career on the surface in a machine shop. He still counts many former coal miners as friends. He feels that the danger and physical demands of the coal mine forged those friendships. “It (underground) wasn't for me. I didn't think it was a fit place for a human being. That's probably why the miners had that camaraderie. It was such a damnable place to work. You had to make it pleasant. That's what I feel about that. “I can never understand my father being a miner. I think he liked it, but when you're down in the mine, you get a first hand view of what they’re doing. There's none of it pleasant.”

You’re Only a Baby Fred Howard of Florence is a third generation coal miner. “I guess it came through to me by tradition, from my grandfather and my father. I actually started in Princess mine. We had hooks then for your pit clothes, and when my grandfather retired, I took over his hook.” Howard credits the older generation of his co-workers for creating this legacy of camaraderie. “It was a learning curve for me. The older men kind of took you under the wing, and they were always there to look after you. I started by doing all back-shifts at eighteen years old. It was probably only about a year and a half that I was in there and there was a bunch of older gentlemen working in the advanced heading area, or what they just called ‘the deeps.’ “This particular day, something had broken down. There was some slack time so they got carrying on a joke. They said, ‘well, he’s only a boy so we should do the appropriate thing.’ So they emptied a stone dust bag and spread it around. Then they put it on me as a diaper. They said ‘you’re only a baby, so you need a diaper.’ “That was kind of your initiation into the group, something you took for what it was worth. I think the lesson there was ‘we know that you are the next group coming behind us, that eventually we older guys aren’t going to be here. This may not be the perfect way to make a living, but it’s a good way, as long as you’re ready to apply yourself. There’ll always be something you’ll get back from it. I think that was one of the major issues I learned over the years. “I think that’s part of the camaraderie, always somebody looking out for somebody else. There’s never ever a time you would think that somebody wasn’t looking out for you. It’s like a family, eh. You have your family at home, and at work you have a family too. You were with a particular crew in a section, which was your family underground, in the deeps or in a section, on a wall face, whatever the case may be. It was always that kind of unity. If you could do something to make it easier for somebody, then that’s what you did.”


Pictured (l-r): John Chauder, Bill Waters, Joe O’Neill



Pictured (l-r): Lloyd Gillis, Willie Buchanan, Andy Hines, Kevin Henessey


I’m Going to Kill You Abby Michalik of Glace Bay remembers how older miners helped a new miner to become comfortable in his workplace. “If you were on a wall, they would teach you everything that you had to do, help you put up timbers and that. They would keep an eye on you all the time and make sure you weren't getting out of hand, safety wise. “If you made a mistake, he'd call you over and give you a bawling out. I remember one day with an old fellow in Caledonia, George Bobbett. I was only new. So we're on the wall; we're cutting timber out and I was making a cap piece. George had an axe, and he had a file in his back pocket, so sharp you could probably shave with it. He took care of his tools. “So all of a sudden, I hit the stone below the coalface with the axe blade. Well mother of God, I see him coming after me. ‘You little Polander, I'm going to kill you!’ He wanted me to show the same care for his axe that he did. “My parents came over here in 1901 from Poland to work in the coal mines. They couldn’t speak English. They put all the Poles in Number 4 Colliery. Once you learned how to speak English, you would be put into other mines. What a great bunch of men to work with over the years!”

Pit Lawyers Veteran miners helped young miners with mentoring about many of life’s issues, not just the ones which arose in the workplace. This guidance was provided by what Abby Michalik calls a pit lawyer, “just an ordinary man that knows everything, not necessarily educated. We’d go to our pit lawyer, and I can name a few of them, but I don't want to. “If a fellow ran into a little trouble, with the marriage and that, you knew everything that was going on up on the surface. If people were running around and that, you'd find out (in the mine). But that man, like I said, he knew everything, and if you got into trouble he'd come and tell you how to go about it. ‘You go to your safety committee, and then you go to your union,’ that kind of thing. We had a lot of pit lawyers down there.”

Pictured (l-r): Bill Kelloway, Dan Boutilier, Don Campbell, Bill MacLean


Pictured (l-r): Mark Kelland, Joe Gilmet, Bo MacDonald, ?, Russ Mauger

Joe Deveaux


Gerard Burke and Alex White, Davis Day, 2005


Pictured (l-r Back): Mickey Bigley, Frankie Conrad, Don Peckham, Glenn MacLeod (l-r Front): George MacLean, Bernie “Jose” MacLean, Reid MacMullin, Joe Byrne, Tony DeGiobbi, Steve Forgeron

Pictured (l-r Front): Allan Brown, Din MacLeod, Bill Tremblett (l-r Back): Lawrence MacEachern, Gerald Jennex, Binky Baldwin 141


He’s Not Going to Work Gerald Burke of River Ryan insists that the “buddy system” led to this informal training and sharing among the men underground. “You had to rely on your buddy, and your buddy was your God in the flesh, not in spirit. He looked after you and you looked after him. With the buddy system in the coal mines, nobody had to go see a psychiatrist. They would talk with me as a buddy. I would talk to them as a buddy. That was as far as it would go, right?” This talking among coal miners saved lives on the surface as well as in the mine. Burke, who retired in 1994 because of injuries and silicosis, remembers trusting relationships with his fellow miners. “I went out this morning to work, right, and I went into the change area and dropped my (clothes) hook. This guy was sitting down on the bench, his head between his two hands. So I said ‘do you care to talk about it?’ He said ‘no.’ “I said ‘if you want to talk about it, I'll be here.’ So I went back out and put on my work cloths, then went to my locker for a finger of chewing tobacco. He came and said ‘yeah, I'd like to talk about it.’ “So I said ‘okay, I'll go in and tell management that we’re not going to work today.’ He said ‘you can do that?’ I said ‘we’re going to do it anyway.’ He said ‘how am I going to get paid?’ I said ‘well if the company don’t pay you, the union will pay you. Don't worry about it.’ “So I go into the manager, right. I took a committee man with me, Timmy MacNeil, God love him, and I said to the manager, ‘I got a problem about one of our workers. He's not in the right frame of mind to go underground today. He's not only going to put himself in danger; he's going to put everybody else in danger.’ I said ‘he's not going to work.’ “Okay,’ he said, ‘that's no problem. Just put his number in and forget about it.’ I went out and told the guy. Then we sat and talked. He told me his wife was going to leave him. She said she didn't love him anymore. So I said, ‘what were you thinking about anyway?’ He said ‘I'm thinking about killing myself.’ “I said ‘you got two daughters. How would you like your two daughters to grow up, go to school and everything, and other ones saying to them that your father did away with himself?’ I said ‘I don't think that's the answer.’ I said ‘wait until I get my clothes off. I'm going for a shower and we'll go have a coffee.’ “I took my car, drove, had a coffee and we talked and talked. I mean we started about 6:30 in the morning. At 12 o'clock we were still talking and driving around. I said, ‘what are you going to do when you go home? You have to see somebody. Do you want somebody to talk to other than myself?’ He said ‘what about the committee man?’ I said ‘no problem.’ I told the committee man Timmy what took place, what happened. He stayed with Timmy that night. The two of them were young, right, and pretty close. I said ‘if you have any problem, give me a call.’ “So I lay in bed that night and never got a call. I kept saying, ‘well dear God, it's looking pretty good.’ Next morning, I go out and Timmy's there and so is the other guy. He's ready for work. He comes over and says ‘can I hug you?’ I said ‘sure you can.’ He said ‘I have a whole different outlook on it.’ I said ‘you'll find out the truth about your wife, and when you do, if you want to tell me about it, tell me about it.’ “So about three months pass and he came to me one day. He said ‘you were right. There was another guy.’ So that was it. The guy worked steady. His two daughters are after graduating and have good jobs. He has a good job and everything else. At Christmas, I always get a card from the guy saying thank you.”



Teddy and the 12 North Bears For Donnie Campbell, the camaraderie of coal miners showed itself in humour. “Oh, the camaraderie of the men was just unbelievable. What was said in the mine usually stayed in the mine. Nothing was brought to the surface. There were all kinds of pit lawyers who handled all kinds of cases, divorce cases and that stuff. “But it was the humour. Going into the mine, in the rake boxes, guys would play Tarabish; for an hour and a half they'd play cards and tell stories and jokes. “I remember one time, Joe Burns and I were sitting in the second box. Back then, the supervisors got in the front box, and then everybody else got in behind. I think it was around late '75, '76, and all the new guys were sitting in the second box. We'd sing on the way in. It was Christmas time, so Joe decided to take out a sheet for everybody, with Christmas carols on it. It was cold on the rake going into the mine, and there we were, singing Christmas carols. I'll never forget it. We bought tee shirts and called ourselves ‘Teddy and the 12 North Bears.’ We all worked on 12 North Wall. “And I'll never forget, I was over to the ball field on South Street, watching a ball game one day. Victor Jones was in the stands with his wife, and he said, tapping her on the shoulder, ‘there's one of them singing bears from the pit.”

Pictured (l-r): Joe MacNeil, Harry Bert


There Was No Inhibition Joe Aucoin of New Waterford is a former coal miner who has written a collection of stories based on his career. He freely shares these stories, and in the course of relating one of them, explained how this working life inspired humour and camaraderie. “Cape Breton coal miners were a very rare breed. Because of the hardships they endured, they developed a tough exterior to protect themselves against what life had to hurl at them. You would never see a miner verbally express his love for his fellow workers, but the bonds among these men were no less there. Miners risked their lives daily just to make a living. They would often go to great lengths to help each other out. “In the wash house, where men changed in and out of their work clothes and bathed in communal showers, there was no inhibition. A few men were better endowed than others, and perhaps looked upon enviously by some, but little attention was paid to the naked body. When a man came up from the mine, he would get out of his pit clothes, sit naked and relax with a cigarette before going into the showers. “On one occasion, John Alec (‘I'm using a fictitious name. Some of you might know who this person is.’), a seasoned miner, was doing just that. I won't say he was well endowed, but he had a scrotum on him that looked more like it belonged to a bull. Now the bench on which John Alec sat was made of two parallel planks with a space between them. When he sat for a cigarette, his scrotum dropped into the space. “When he went to rise, he let out a yelp. He was trapped! Everyone erupted into laughter. To compound matters further, he asked for somebody to give his testicles a twist so that he might get free. No one came near him to lend a hand. Finally, after much finagling and contortions, he was able to extricate himself.”


Myles Gardiner

John Haynes


Number One Mine Night Shift c. 1933 First Row (l-r): Alex Dixon, John Angus MacIsaac, Anthony Moret, Johnny MacDougall, Alex Angus Kennedy, Danny MacIntyre, Donald Archie MacKinnon, John R. MacDonald, Alex Dan MacKinnon, Angelo Varnier, Archie MacLellan, Jack Stubbard, John MacDonald, Billy MacLean, John MacGillivray, Angus MacKinnon, Richard Quigley


Second Row (l-r): Johnny Rorison, Alex MacIntrye, Danny MacLean, Stewart White, John Angus MacNeil, Dan Allan MacLennan, George van Strippen, Angus MacKinnon, Jules Pedipaw, Joe van Volson, Lauchie MacLean, Eddie MacQuarrie, Angus MacDonald, William Gillis, Charlie MacMaster, Jimmy MacInnis Third Row (l-r): Jim Dan MacEachern, Pat Poirier, Eddie MacLeod, Red John Angus MacDonald, Alex Watson, Carl Habicht, Jimmy MacDonald, Danny MacIntyre, Duncan Campbell, Hughie MacDonald, Dougald MacDougald, Red Johnny MacLean, John Alex Smith, Tony MacLeod, Sandy Campbell, Martin Coady, Peter White


Doug Shield

Don MacLeod


Blood Brothers While coal miners laughed together, they occasionally fought with each other too. The UMW’s international representative, Bobby Burchell of New Waterford, remembers the unique camaraderie of a pair of coal mining brothers. “I used to shake my head a lot. You'd go to a union meeting and brothers… I don't mean union brothers; I mean blood brothers, would actually get up and fight with one another. I was at one meeting when two blood brothers were throwing chairs at each other, and the meeting would be over, we'd all be outside and they were the best of buddies again. “Then you'd go into the pit. Once you got to the pit everything changed. Underground, everything changed. If Frank Corbett was my worst enemy, when we got underground, we were buddies; we worked together. Maybe I didn't like him, but he still did the job, and you looked out for him and he looked out for you. “When you get that far underground, miles out under the ocean, and all you got above you are lobster boats and lobster traps, you need somebody to depend on. If something happens, you can always count on the guy next to you. You knew he was there for you. I say they'd sacrifice their own life to get you out. That was proven so many times with the Draegermen and the barefaced miners. Whenever there was a disaster, the barefaced miners went there first until the Draegermen got there. No hesitation.”

You Watch Their Back Gerald Burke notes that coal miners’ camaraderie went with them to the surface. “I mean if you went to town on a weekend, to a ball game, hockey game, or whatever, and you seen your buddy getting scuffed up by a couple of other guys, well then you would pitch in. There's no way you're going to beat my buddy, right? That's the way it was. You would pick up for the guy. “It's not as serious as when you're down in the coal mine, but you know, the outlook is that you look after each other. When I sing with the Men of the Deeps and we go away, you know, after a concert, we try to get to an Irish bar or a Scottish bar. We will not let one guy go to a washroom by himself. Two other guys will follow him. You watch their back. You got that in the coal mine. You watched out and the closeness is still there. “When somebody was in trouble, that person was looked after. I’m always proud of coal miners because they cared. They cared about other people. They cared about children. I say that the closest knit people are coal miners, other than them guys in the war. In war time you’ve got to rely on your buddy, that guy next to you.”

Pictured (l-r): John Hawes, Paddy MacNeil



Pictured (l-r): Kevin Hennessey, Ken Rosnick, Tom “Coke” Chauder (in behind), Roy Thomson, ?, Andy Hines, ?, Todd T. Walker, Richard Corbett


Camaraderie Chapter  

Camaraderie Chapter

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