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The truck after it was recovered showing the manner in which the box bent directly down into the cab as it tumbled down the bank
COMMENTARY · 14th June 2012
Merv Ritchie

Updated with links to death of Neil Stonechild and Westray Mine Disaster. 1985 Safety report now attached as well as a picture of the P & H Shovel and Cliff Frames resume'.

The year was 1985. I was the safety representative when a man and a woman backed over a thousand foot cliff while driving a 170 ton mining haul truck. Two days earlier I was instrumental in allowing these two to die.

Not that I set it up but my crew of mechanics were looking to me for support as this was an obvious eventuality and I had decided to let the company continue, business as usual. Their deaths bother me today. I was 27 years old then and this incident still haunts me 27 years later.

Fifteen years earlier I experienced a similar haunting episode yet it was much more personally physical. I was in grade school attending Buena Vista in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Geoff Brand was the classroom bully. I never honoured him and he hated me for that. It was football season of 1968 - ’69 and we all loved playing football. It is still my favourite sport.

For ‘safety’ reasons we played flag football; instead of tackling all you needed to do was pull the flag and the ball carrier was considered tackled. Some of us, me included, would rather tackle. Geoff went down. Back in the classroom he complained and pushed me in front of everyone expecting me to bow down to his superior attitude. I reefed him sideways ripping his shirt and was on top of him in a flash when the teacher stepped into the room.

Geoff snarled at me “I’ll see you after class Ritchie.” And everyone in the class knew they would be coming to watch a fight.

I was not a fighter. If anything I was a bit of a pansy. I liked hanging out with the girls and could not care less about the macho attitude of Geoff and his followers. I would not however shy away from demonstrating my independence either. When a teacher decided to take the entire class to watch a Boston Pops style musical performance at the Centennial Auditorium in Saskatoon, he asked who wanted to come. Geoff sneered openly that only fags would go. I was the only guy that went with all the girls. (I distinctly remember bobbing my head to the beat of the music then self consciously looking to my left to see all the girls watching me, smirking.)

As I left school that afternoon everyone was waiting at the corner of the red brick gymnasium. Geoff and I had a circle of our classmates around us, guys and girls. He had his fists raised and was dancing getting ready. My arms were hanging at my sides. He ordered me to “put em up, Ritchie” and I responded with, “you’re the one who wants to fight, not me.” He pushed me attempting to draw me in, to get me to push back or raise my hands to engage in a fight. I refused. After a couple more pushes and jabs I teased him again saying, well they are all here to see a fight so I guess you better get started and he punched me square in the nose. I stood still. He punched me again. I still stood there, my arms hanging at my side. I asked him to let me know when he was finished. He might have hit me again, I cannot recall except I remember hearing some students cussing at Geoff Brand, calling him names and telling him to stop. Likely the girls.

I turned back to the school and went to the washroom, cleaned the blood from my face and went home.

Geoff Brand became a Saskatoon City Police Officer in 1981. Mr. Justice D H Wright considered him one of the most unreliable witnesses to give evidence in the death of Neil Stonechild, the young native man who was driven out of Saskatoon by police officers and left to freeze to death. Similar to what the Vancouver City Police did to Frank Paul in December 1998, both were left to die by City police forces. (What makes people want this over the RCMP?)

My last encounter with Geoff Brand was in his family’s car coming back from playing hockey at the arena. I was sitting on the right rear passenger side of the car. Geoff’s brother was driving. My friend Todd Thayer was travelling with us back to the exclusive, white, silver spoon raised kids, part of town. Todd and I played in a band together called “Wolf”. He played drums, I keyboards. He (my friend and band mate) didn’t want to stand up to Geoff and even participated in what happened next. As they drove up beside my parents home Geoff’s brother didn’t quite stop the car as they pushed me out the door to tumble onto the ground. Todd, though ashamed, had to act as though he was participating. Geoff had that unique excessive bully power.

When I discovered Geoff Brand became a police officer I was completely unsurprised. His testimony at the Stonechild inquiry was also not surprising. Justice Wright wrote;

“This statement that Cst. Brand made to Commission Counsel is puzzling. Sgt. Wylie denies that he received any information from Cst. Brand. Sgt. Jarvis records receiving information from Neil Wylie on November 30th, 1990, in his notebook. The notation appears between time entries of 4:42 p.m. and 6:52 p.m. This was before Cst. Brand met with his informant at 7:00 p.m. Cst. Brand was evasive when confronted with this statement made to Commission Counsel. He did not deny this statement, but indicated that it was possible he gave the information to Sgt. Wylie, but it could have been given to anybody. […]

“Cst. Brand was also questioned as to how the informant would have knowledge of the death of Neil Stonechild. He acknowledged that a person in Detention would not have access to radio or television and the body had not been identified until late on November 29th. The only explanation offered by Cst. Brand was that the informant may have been taken into custody later in the day on November 30th.

In light of the anomalies in Cst. Brand’s testimony about the information he received, I question the reliability of his evidence.”

Death of Neil Stonechild Final Report Here

I never fought anyone since that day at the school yard in Saskatoon and I never shirked from my duty to stand up for those who didn’t have the nerve or mettle to talk back to a bully. One week later another guy tried the same thing, wanting to fight. I wouldn’t raise my arms or push back and he walked away without engaging. Geoff Brand, the officer, was of a different mentality.

The mentality of the supervisory staff of Quintette Coal Limited in Tumbler Ridge, BC was the same as that of Brand. People were ordered to do things they felt were unsafe and the standards of care were dropping year by year, almost month by month. I took on the role of safety representative for “B” Shift field maintenance crews and immediately became embroiled in controversy.

Besides numerous accidents and close calls we had a large blast take place directly above an area where my crew was servicing a large P & H electric shovel. Rocks showered down, striking the equipment as the guys and girls were running for cover. Some dove under their trucks while others just ran.

The radio went manic, people were screaming one talking over the other. I caught the drift of what was going on and raced off in the one ton service truck, along with my apprentice, to the scene. The panic was in full swing. Ashen white faces, some tears and lots of uncontrolled anger. I immediately separated everyone, gave them each a piece of paper and asked them to write down, in their own words what happened, telling them not to talk to each other.

A conference with the mine management was quickly arranged and the site where the rocks fell was secured. As we all stood and surveyed the scene the mine manager argued there were rocks all over the mine, no one could prove any of these fell from the sky. Yes, he challenged me with a fact and I couldn’t prove it. So I took another tact. There was a large new dent in the side of the shovel and it had white dust smeared down the side of it. So I asked the ten or so people standing with us to look at the dent. I had them all acknowledge the shovel had just previously being completely steam cleaned and pressure washed prior to our maintenance crews beginning their service work.

So then I asked them all to forget about the blast and the claims of rocks falling. I simply asked if anyone could provide me with a reasonable explanation for the new dent and dirt on the side of the shovel. I was standing next to the large rock below the dent the mine management would not accept as coming from the blast.

The blast foreman lost his blasting licence for 6 months.

While we were standing next to the shovel the Mine manager had already ordered the dozer operators into the blast area above, which removed any ability to assess the actual size of the blast, the closeness to the shovel and the working men and women. The evidence was destroyed.

To be fair it wasn’t just the management. As a safety rep workers would call me to advise of something dangerous. I would ask them if they called the foremen first. Invariably I would be told, “No, I’m saving it for the safety meeting.” This was the height of stupidity; someone could die before a meeting took place. Safety meetings were generally called “Bitch Sessions”. Some people just liked to hear themselves bitch.

Liars and idiots, I learned, come in all shapes and sizes, in all positions, and for all types of reasons.

The Westray mine disaster, where many miners remain buried underground, was a classic Quintette Coal operation. In 1992 Cliff Frame was the owner operator of Westray and was the Mine Manager at Quintette Coal when I began working there in 1983. It was rumoured the Japanese investors (and coal purchasers) recommended he be fired after he reasoned the quality of the product was bad because he had nothing but assholes working for him.

Just like Westray, at Quintette safety was an interference to production and profits. One man actually quit Westray and tried to get UIC. When he claimed the place was too unsafe he was denied UIC (Employment Insurance) because he had no authority to claim it was too unsafe. Inspectors had been at the mine and that responsibility, to determine if it was safe or not, was up to them. They determined it was safe. Then the place blew up.

Report on the 1992 Westray Mine disaster Here.

By law, under the mines act, we (the miners) were required to hold monthly safety meetings. For years we had been doing this and the company was not following up on any of the safety concerns. A typical recording of the minutes would be to have the item referred to management. Then the next meeting it would come up again. We recorded numerous items mentioned over seven times, never having the issue dealt with.

A classic example was the huge fuel island fire extinguisher. It had about three foot diameter steel wheels so it could be easily rolled over the rocky ground surface to get to a potential fire location. Someone had hit it with a truck and bent a wheel. After three or so mentions at the safety meetings, and a push by the crews demanding it get repaired, the company moved the unit down to the warehouse where it sat for months, never making it back up to the fuel island.

Our guys had had about enough. People lifted by cranes, hanging onto the hook by hand to hook up a sling, for lifting something, pick up trucks run over by 200 ton haul trucks, run away drilling rigs not to mention the primary blast being treated as a secondary blast whereby the pit didn’t have to be evacuated and the workers got showered with rocks. The list was almost endless. And it was time for another safety meeting in the pits.

Our guys, about 30 men and women, were waiting in the meeting room. We had instructed the company we were not going to meet with them unless the mine manager attended. We had serious issues his supervisors were not addressing, and the crews wanted answers.

The company showed up but the manager didn’t. Our guys all stood up and walked out of the room. When the supervisors walk out we walked back in. This happened a couple of times. No one would be in the same room or area as they did not want anything to be considered a safety meeting. We were going to force a contravention of the mines act and shut down the mine.

I was the intermediary. I explained the situation to the management. They explained the Mine Manager did not want to attend unless he knew what the topics were. He wanted to know about the issues so he could attend prepared. I thought this was reasonable even though I didn’t like it.

I went outside and explained this to the guys and even offered to compose the list of items myself. We were all about to go off shift for four days and I would have time to do this. Our shift schedules were four days on four days off, 12 hours work a day. Reluctantly they agreed and another worker offered to help and provided all the safety meeting minutes he had gathered over the years.

I had a scheduled service on my new Toyota van in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and was reading and sorting through all the papers while I waited. I stopped in at a pub in Beaver Lodge to get a bite to eat and have a couple beers while on my way back to my home in Dawson Creek, BC. I had papers spread all over the table, taking notes and writing up my list when a co-worker came in and stood beside me.

“Merv, did you hear what just happened at Quintette?” I hadn’t.

“Two people just died, they backed off a spoil and tumbled to the bottom.”

I almost threw up.

It was everything we were worried about.

All the papers strewn across the table was now all for naught, what a waste. Yet I had to continue.

I forced myself to finish and I took the report to work, copied it a dozen times or so and passed it around to the crew for comments. I met with the company safety representative and he was as disappointed as me. He told me how he too had been working over the past few days compiling all the accident data into a safety pyramid. He realized during his work there was only one place left to fill in and that was a death. He had been driving to the mine and had just passed through the security gate to attend an appointment he made with the mine manager to discuss it, when he heard the sirens.

There was a man and a woman in the truck. He was extremely experienced having worked in mines driving trucks before, but was new to Quintette. She was selected as a training person for new hires even though she was not nearly as skilled (to put it mildly). They were both in the cab of the truck.

Every mine must follow the same rules when dumping rock, constructing new roads, managing blasts etc. It is a safety code to protect employees. At a dump zone where waste rock is to be deposited a level area must be constructed with a cross over point and a flag man who is usually the dozer operator.

The haul roads are managed like North American highways, driver sits on the left and drives on the right side of the road. The cross over point is where the trucks switch to driving on the left so they can observe the entire dump zone as they look left turning to the right, looking for the dozer and the flag man indicating where they should dump their load. The dozer operator ensured the dump site had a burm, a mound of material at the edge for the truck wheels to bump up against as he flags the driver to stop. Like all other things at Quintette Coal cutting corners was standard procedure. Seldom was there a flag person and the dozers were usually unattended

As new employees came on board they saw the way everyone else was doing things so if they let something minor slip it was ignored. The next new employee would see the way the last guy did things and then he or she might let some other safety measure slide. For the maintenance crews it got so bad crane operators were lifting guys as they hung on the hook to the top of a tank, no safety harness, nothing.

Quintette was building a new spoil (dump site) on Frame Mountain. (named after Cliff Frame of Westray noteriety) A road was pushed off the side of a haul road in a down grade arc. There was no level dump zone and no cross over point. The drivers had to back off of the haul road down the hill and dump, all on their own, no flag man, no dozer, no burm.

These two drivers did as they were told and rolled right off the edge tumbling to the bottom of the canyon.

At the next safety meeting I attended the mood was sullen. The mine manager had our report and he was going through it step by step. He would ask, “What about this item . . . ?” and my crew would sit in silence. I was mad at them and I was mad at the mine.

The guys would look to me to answer the manager but I simply compiled the report of their concerns, the ones they had all raised over the years. And the mine manager would look at me with a kind of scowl as if it was I who set this all up.

I quit working for Quintette shortly after and moved to my 14 acre property on Vancouver Island. Today I no longer pull wrenches. I still fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, but nothing has changed.

Corporations still abuse their employees for maximum profits and like our Conservative majority government today logic and reason are expendable and are an interference. Everyday men and women are afraid to stand up for themselves and rarely interfere when someone else is being abused, whether it be co-workers or the man on the street. Cops beat people up because they can and like Brand, they lie when they go to court. Bullies thrive in a society of cowards and greed.

As for Frame, he worked with INCO (Iron Ore Company of Canada), the company Brian Mulroney, Canada's former despised Conservative Prime Minister, led to bankruptcy. He continued in mining across the globe. See attached resume'. Note the scant attention to the Westray disaster he refused to testify at the inquiry of. CBC found this curious in 2002 when he went back in the mining business in Ontario. He, like Harper, care not a wit for people or the environment.

As for rich spoiled brats dragging Indians out to die, last week the BC Civil Liberties Association released a report exposing how the police in Terrace (where I now live) beat up the native population at an extreme ratio compared to the per capita non-native population. Jeeze, five years ago when I first started writing I knew about that. Read a small, yet extensive summary here. One must remember it is only a few who play along and it is generally only one who is the bully. Someone (or two) in Terrace are behind all of this intolerance. And it is not just the police.

In 1969 I took a few punches to the head. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. Or is it the facts that keep following me around?

And by the way, after this episode with Quintette Coal and Dennison Mines, I was black listed to work at any site in BC. Even Finning Tractor adhered to the black list many years later.

1985 Safety report now attached below. Cliff Frame had been replaced by Bill Draper as the Mine manager at Quintette when our safety issues were finally addressed,
only after two people died.

The cab of the truck
The cab of the truck
Where the truck ended up after it went over the bank
Where the truck ended up after it went over the bank
The large P and H electric shovel the mechanics and service men and women were working near when they all ran and dove for cover
The large P and H electric shovel the mechanics and service men and women were working near when they all ran and dove for cover
Our family home on Saskatchewan Cresent in Saskatoon, where Geoff Brand unceremoniously dumped me out of the car.   At least it happened here and not at night, in winter, miles out of town
Our family home on Saskatchewan Cresent in Saskatoon, where Geoff Brand unceremoniously dumped me out of the car. At least it happened here and not at night, in winter, miles out of town
Go ahead, Mr. Ritchie!
Comment by Janice Robinson on 15th June 2012
Continue to be fearless. You have the Commandments written on your heart. Ignore them at your own peril. We are all products of our yesterdays.

"To thine own self be true."
Comment by Catherine on 15th June 2012