BUT FIRST A BIT ABOUT YELLOWKNIFE
In the winter of 2012, I went to the Northwest Territories to run the world’s longest ice road. It would be the beginning of a decade long affair with Canada’s north, it’s people, and the city of Yellowknife. There was so much undiscovered country, so much to see, and I chronicled a fraction of it with my trusty Canon camera.
I beat my way up and down the McKenzie highway, hauling fuel from a refinery to the tank farm used for storage for two mines in the NWT. The Ekati and Diavik diamond mines. This work was called pre-fill. We would run millions of liters of fuel from Edmonton Alberta to the Yellowknife tank farm in preparation for winter road resupply.
Along the road, I had two pastimes. Writing and photography. I was working on my second novel, so when I’d run out of driving hours, I’d find safe harbor and put my old Toshiba laptop on the steering wheel of the W900 Kenworth I was driving. Then I’d crank up some tunes on the stereo and get down to work. The north offered plenty of inspiration, including photographic opportunity. So, if I wasn’t pounding those laptop keys, I’d be out on a walk with my camera looking for subjects to photograph. I photographed buffalo, ravens, people, landscapes and the winter and summer borealis. That was what made the long hours worth it. For me it wasn’t work, it was going somewhere I had never been before and being exposed to its secrets. It’s beauty, its wrath, and mostly its magic.
A LITTLE NORTHERN TRIVIA
Most ice road drivers, don’t say Yellowknife when referencing it as their destination. Instead referring to it as, “YK.” YK is the jump-off point for all mine destinations during ice season. For six months prior to the season opening, as fuel haulers transport millions of liters to YK. So, do other transport companies, with items ranging from explosives, shock crete, vehicles, and mining materials are all being stockpiled to ship north in a six-week window. This logistical feat is carried out every year, as resupply outside the winter road ice is a costly endeavor, with air transport being the only alternative..
THE INFAMOUS INGRAHAM TRAIL
The Ingraham Trail snakes north from YK for roughly 70 kilometers up to the ice road starting point known as, “The Meadows.” My first year on the Ingraham was a heart pounding endeavor. Ity was a scary road for a newbie. An icy narrow road that had grades with hard right and left-hand turns at the bottom of each downward slide. Slide because the ingraham always had ice on it somewhere. There was very little wiggle room for opposing traffic, and no room for mistake.
Not long after a northbound convoy gets onto the Ingraham, you’ll hear the call, “Four north at Giant mine,” over the VHF radio. It is a warning for others of their location. They continue to call their markers up and down the Ingraham and southbounders make the call as well. Meeting an opposing convoy on one of those corners is a heart thumping experience. I have had this pleasure on two occasions, and lived to tell about it. In one incident, I was blinded by the opposing trucks lights and miraculously did not hook a wheel on the shoulder and roll my super b tanker.
Running the Ingraham was akin to racing with the devil.
Giant Mine always fascinated me, and when I decided to write Acadia Event, I included this abandoned mine in the story along with the infamous Ingraham. One summer when I was working in Yellowknife training drivers to offload fuel at the tank farm, I went up to Giant mine with my camera and shot some pictures. At that time there was a museum outside the mine with old equipment and vehicles. So, I snapped a selfie leaning over an old truck. What strikes me now is that at that time I was unaware of the mines darker history.
Until the bypass was brought in, its main tower stood like a great monolith above the road overlooking the Great Slave Lake and many points in the surrounding area. Somewhere around 2015 they built a bypass around the mine and the call, “Convoy at Giant Mine!” was silenced forever on the VHF.
MASS MURDER AT GIANT MINE
Yellowknife, NWT – September 8, 1992 – 8:45 a.m.
The scene at Giant Mine was that of frustration, hostility, and desperation. The union had been locked in a bitter labor dispute with the owners, Royal Oak Mines Inc. In a pre-emptive move, Royal Oak locked out the CASAW union and what ensued was high tension animosity that manifested itself vandalism and violence. The lockout had dragged on from May right through summer into the fall. Replacement workers were being brought in by Royal Oak, and some Union members, desperate to feed their families, crossed their own picket line. On September 8th, a shift of replacement workers ran the gauntlet of infuriated union members in a bus. After debarking and readying themselves to go underground. As the descended on a mine-cart, they had no idea that their lives were counting down to seconds.
An explosion in the mine was reported at 8:45 a.m., and a team was dispatched down into the mine to look for survivors. There were none. When they arrived at the blast location, they took in the carnage. One rescuer compared it to a scene you would find on a battlefield. All nine workers were dead, most torn limb from limb by the blast. There were body parts everywhere.
The victims turned out to be: Chris Neill, 29, Joe Pandev, 55, Norm Hourie, 53, David Vodnoski, 25, Shane Riggs, 27, and Vern Fullowka, 36. Robert Rowsell, 37, Malcolm Sawler, 38, and Arnold Russell, 41. Their families were devastated and a hush of disbelief fell over the dispute between mine management and workers. Investigators at the RCMP had a number of union members to investigate. The strike action/lockout had resulted in previous smaller explosions and investigators weren’t sure if they were connected. The evidence was leading investigators in the direction of a disgruntled worker. They interviewed management and all union members, there was plenty of tension with some members bringing a union representative to record everything. The Mounties noted the footwear of all interviews looking for a match to the castings they’d taken at the bomb scene.
During interviews with management, one name raised a red flag. The manager claimed to have seen a union member on the property in the early hours before the blast. The individual had tried to cover his face, but the manager identified him as a worker named Roger Warren.
They brought Warren in for questioning and immediately zeroed in on his boots. The bottoms of Warren’s work boots appeared to be burned, the treads melted from heel to toe. When asked about the bottoms of his boots being badly melted, Warren explained that he had burned them on a fire pit grate while sitting on the picket line. When asked about being spotted on the property, Warren said that he was in fact moving from one picket post to the next. He claimed he hadn’t tried to hide his face, that he had in fact turned his head to sneeze.
Warren was extremely helpful, claimed to have seen two shady individuals during the crossing. He even offered up two names that shifted the focus off of him. Investigators checked out the names, Al Shearing and Tim Bettger. There was some evidence of explosive materials found at one man’s house, and they were both connected to an explosion set off in a ventilation shaft and vandalism the prior July.
But something didn’t fit, and they weren’t convinced these men had set the bomb that killed the nine miners. An outside officer named, Gregg McMartin, a polygraph expert from the Calgary RCMP detachment was convinced of Warren’s guilt. The investigation was now into its ninth month. McMartin decided to bring Warren in again. This time they set a stage of evidence, photographs, and boxes marked with Warren’s name, giving the impression of the damning case being built against him.
The truth was, they didn’t have much.
Warren came in and was sent into the room alone, this was done purposely to rattle him. When McMartin interviewed him, he laid it out. We know you did it, but we don’t know why. Warren denied his involvement, became agitated and they had to let him go after he told them, he had to pick up his daughters.
Desperate, McMartin called out to the departing Warren that they weren’t done, and had much more to discuss. Warren agreed to come back after taking care of his daughters. He left the investigators with a promise he didn’t have to keep. There wasn’t enough. They knew he was a master in the field of blasting, his boot size matched the castings but weren’t a perfect match. Investigators were sure this was their man, but they only had circumstantial evidence.
Surprisingly, Warren did return as promised. One can only speculate that he was sure they had him. He came back into the interview with McMartin. By the third hour of questioning Warren began to crack. McMartin urged him to tell his side. Warren confessed to the bombing, claiming it wasn’t intended to kill people but to be tripped by an unmanned ore car. “It was stupid and insane,” he said. “I can barely sleep at times.” Warren took investigators into the mine explaining his path to setting the trip wire. In court, Warren would recant his confession, but he was convicted on nine counts of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 25 years. Ten years after professing his innocence, Warren again confessed. Although some might disagree, it is this writer’s contention that Roger Warren had set his sights on parole.
After serving 18 years, Warren was granted day parole in 2014 and full parole in 2017.
Warren expressed regret for the incident, but placed blame on the mine management and the union, saying they dehumanized the replacement workers, framing them as “Scabs.” In 2019, Roger Warren died, leaving the families of his victims permanently scarred, their lives diverted from hopes and dreams into that of horror and despair.
The mine still stands, but reclamation is underway to clean up the arsenic and chemicals used to extract gold veins from the earth. In 2010, the widows of the survivors were denied a supreme court claim that Pinkerton security held responsibility for the nine deaths. The contention was that poor security allowed Warren to get on the premises and plant the explosives that killed the nine men. The Workers Compensation Board of the NWT filed the suit on their behalf which cost over seven million dollars. The supreme court sided with the lower court that although these issues factored in, they were not responsible for the bombing.
The widows have remained on compensation indefinitely, little consolation for the tragedy they have suffered.
I included Giant Mine in my book, Acadia Event, because when I first saw that tower scraping against an iron sky , it set my imagination on fire. Once a draw for photographers and foreign tourists, and even some ice truckers, it has watched over the city of YK, it’s purpose done, abandoned. Royal Oak Mines went bankrupt in 1998 and the mine closed permanently. All assets were liquidated leaving the taxpayers on the hook for an environmental mess.
Still the site and its tower stands as a silent cenotaph to the victims of Roger Warren..
Thanks for listening.