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Linden MacIntyre shares personal connection to Newfoundland disaster in 'The Wake'

Author and broadcaster Linden MacIntyre is pictured in an undated photo provided August 21, 2019. The author draws from family and local history in The Wake, his non-fiction book on a deadly tsunami and work-related illnesses that wracked his birthplace of St. Lawrence, N.L. during the 20th century. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Joe Passaretti, Harper Collins

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — As a journalist Linden MacIntyre covered adversity around the world, sharing the experiences of those caught in tragic circumstances, but he’s waited decades to bring the story of his hometown to the page.

The investigative reporter and novelist was born in St. Lawrence, N.L., where his new book “The Wake” is set. The author’s hard-rock miner father moved there in the 1940s to work for the fluorspar mining operation that rolled into the poverty-stricken community, which was recovering from a natural disaster and an unexpected collapse of the area’s crucial fisheries.

In 1929, an earthquake-related tsunami struck southern Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, washing homes out to sea and killing 28 people. The story of environmental destruction and industrial exploitation that followed is narrated in “The Wake.”

Decades later, the mine was discovered to be radioactive, its poor conditions linked to the deaths of possibly hundreds of miners who MacIntyre writes “had been suffering from mysterious and usually fatal illnesses since about 1945.”

If it weren’t for the tsunami and ensuing poverty, the “shoestring” mine would likely never have broken ground in St. Lawrence, MacIntyre contends, and he himself would never have been born there.

Working on “The Wake,” available Aug. 27, the writer said a universal tale began to emerge from a local, personal story on the human rights violations that often follow environmental disasters and extractive industries.

It took years of picking away at tidbits of his family’s life in St. Lawrence before MacIntyre began seriously working on the book, though he wishes he had started the process in the mid-1980s, when more of the miners were living.

“This story that sat in the middle of my life basically just stayed there,” the author said from Cape Breton in a recent interview. “I didn’t realize then just how relevant it could be to other situations in the world.”

Pointing to Canadian mining companies’ powerful international presence, MacIntyre said his book contains lessons about workplace abuses that still prevail in such industries.

“We have to be reminded from time to time about what happens when greedy people, people who are manipulators, are given a free hand to mess with the lives of people who are extremely vulnerable,” he said.

Its themes may be relevant to this century, but “The Wake” also provides a series of snapshots into what life in Newfoundland was like during a time of massive political upheaval for the dominion, now a province of Canada, and for the larger world grappling with the Great Depression and the Second World War.

One section details a surprising connection between St. Lawrence fluorspar and the development of nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — the mineral was a key ingredient in refining uranium to uranium-235.

MacIntyre brings the miners’ experiences to light by drawing on his own time spent working underground in Quebec and Newfoundland mines as a young man.

“I know the environment these guys worked in,” he said. “I know what it smells like; it feels like a taste in your mouth. I know the feeling of the absolute darkness down there.”

Details were also drawn from historical archives, letters, written accounts, and some interviews with miners and St. Lawrence residents, though many have since passed away.

The author never interviewed his father, Dan MacIntyre, who died of a heart attack in 1969. MacIntyre doesn’t attribute his father’s death directly to his time in St. Lawrence, but rather his decades of physically demanding work in various mines.

Revisiting their time together made for emotional work at times, MacIntyre said. 

His research also unearthed forgotten letters written by his father, giving the author insight into his emotional and physical well-being.

Composed in 1961, when links were being drawn between miners’ deaths and radiation, Dan MacIntyre described how the talk of radiation was weighing him, making it hard to focus.

“Many, many years later, I find that letter and say, ‘Holy God, what was he trying to tell me?'” MacIntyre recalled. “There were moments like that.”

As its title suggests, “The Wake” pays tribute to St. Lawrence residents who fought to the grave for better conditions — an ongoing fight that MacIntyre does not want to be forgotten.

“There’s less and less sympathy to for people who make strong arguments for health and safety in the workplace,” he said.

“The story of what happened on the south coast of Newfoundland is a story of what is happening in many cases, in many places.”

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press