September 26th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 39
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Two Noteworthy Moments of Connectivity
Looking Back
courtesy Nici Blackwell
Rose Watson - Born in Coleman - musician, artist, weaver and teacher
Six degrees of separation is the hypothesis that anyone on Earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five intermediaries. As a historian finding the obscure pieces of the puzzle on what has gone on before us and how I might connect those pieces makes for some fascinating discoveries.

Case in point: Back in 2007 a remarkably driven woman by the name of Agnes Fuchs asked me to help her contact a Fernieite by the name of Rose Watson. She wanted to speak to and eventually meet Rose because their pasts were inextricably intertwined in a very profound way. What eventually brought them together involves a classic coal mining story of who was or wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Who are these two people and why did their paths eventually cross? Well, to sort it all out, let’s back the story up to 2007 and the Second Annual Bellevue Miners Memorial commemoration. It was there that a determined Agnes Fuchs from Regina presented the story of her brother Joseph Louis Sikora, a young man lost here in a terrible mine accident in McGillvray Mine in 1950.

Agnes spent two years religiously and systematically researching what happened to Joe and shared his tragic demise with a transfixed memorial audience that August day. She also put forward her case that her brother Joe had rightfully earned the C.I.M. (Canadian Institute of Mining) Medal of Bravery for attempting to save George Riapos, his partner, who had been trapped by a gas bump. What had driven her to this was finding a 1950 article in the Lethbridge Herald that quoted McGillivray mine manager Wilson.
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Mr. Wilson stated that Joe should be in line for the Medal for Bravery from the Canadian Institute of Mining (CIM). This medal recognizes great valour displayed by men of the mineral industries who knowingly risk their lives in attempting to rescue a fellow worker. The CIM has always shown concern for the miner's safety and acknowledged their contributions and has awarded this medal to no less than 155 Canadian miners since 1935.

In 1993 there were an unprecedented 105 medals awarded to the draegerman involved in the Westray tragedy. Two men from the Pass –Trevor Jahn and Ferris Dewan were lost at Westray. Coleman raised Howard Campbell was one of those 105 recipients. Howard was supposed to work an overtime nightshift that day but being tired from his previous shifts phoned in to cancel that overtime. See what I mean by right/wrong place and time! Instead he wound up going into the most god awful mess any man could be asked to enter to try and rescue some of those 26 men.

Joe Sikora was caught in a second gas bump while trying to reach his trapped partner. He was eventually found by a rescue team, leaning up against a mine prop with his rosary in his hand. The dramatic and heartfelt way in which Agnes presented this story to us that day will forever remain fixed in my memory.

Fast forward then to the 2008 Taste of Fernie Festival, an event that showcases their restaurants cuisine. I was drawn back to this tasty community gathering nursing a bad case of painful disconnection with a place that I loved and had lived in for twenty five years. I ran into respected local artist Rose Watson that day. She drew me aside and shared a profound revelation with me. Rose had read a 2005 Free Press article I had done on Joe Sikora’s story and came to an awful realization after digesting it that made her blood run cold.
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What she shared with me was that back in November of 1950 her husband Bob had been working in a treacherous place known as Room 75, Level 5 in the McGillivray Mine. Bob had finally had enough of this incredibly gassy and dangerous area and refused to work there. He was summarily run off by mine management and as it turns out was replaced by a 24 year old Joe Sikora.

Joe was a young man who Agnes had presented to us as a wonderful and dedicated son, a Knight of Columbus and an active member of his community. Rose’s revelation was profound and Bob’s decision to refuse to work there probably saved his life. It was what she said next that stunned me. She turned to her daughter Nici Blackwell who was standing next to her and said: “Nici, do you realize that if your dad hadn’t quit that terrible place you probably wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

Many times, as a mining historian I have come across the story of a miner who didn’t go to work because of a gut instinct or conversely went to work to cover for a friend or relative who wouldn’t or couldn’t and was lost. It is a twist of fate thing that all miners are well aware of.

Second case in point: A year later I read “Last Man Out”, author Melissa Fay Greene’s re-creation of the 1958 Spring Hill mining disaster. This October massive bump took the lives of 75 men and left some trapped alive for eight horrific days underground.
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One of those trapped in a most cruel and hopeless manner was a miner by the name of Percy Rector. Percy spent most of those eight days in darkness and in constant pain with his right arm totally crushed and trapped between two timbers. There was no way to secure his release without killing him and his fellow miners were forced to listen to his pleas for release throughout the whole time they were down there. Percy died before the rescue teams reached the last few trapped men.

I realized shortly after finishing the book that there is a shovel operator at the strip mine I was working at that had the identical name. I called him on a private mine radio frequency from my truck early one morning and asked if he knew of the Percy in the book. The radio stayed quiet for a moment and then he said: “Yes, I know him John. He was my uncle and I am named after him. I asked him then with some trepidation about his father and he said his dad had quit the mine three months prior to the bump because he felt it was just too dangerous.

I did a quick mental calculation using Percy’s age at the time and then said to Percy over the radio: “Do you realize that you probably wouldn’t have been born if your dad hadn’t quit the mine.”

So there it was again. That ironic reminder that there is connectivity to everything around us. Bob Watson, Joe Sikora and Percy Rector. Their stories come through me to you.
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Author’s Note: More dot connecting. Rose Watson passed last year just before Christmas and was 92 years old. Bob passed in 2003.

Rose Watson (nee Popeniuk) was born in November 1925 to Peter and Anna Popeniuk in Coleman, Alta. Her parents emigrated from the Ukraine, with her father arriving first and then working as a coal miner to save up money to bring Anna to Canada. Anna arrived in Calgary on Jan. 1, 1925 and Rose was born 10 months later.

Rose remembers her early childhood in a two-room shack, which Peter had worked hard to obtain for his family. She recalls her father as a warm and loving man who used to sit her on his lap and tell her stories. When she was around nine years old, she wanted to learn how to play the piano, but her father convinced her to learn the mandolin, as it was more affordable.

“Everybody who is anybody plays piano,” she said. Nearly nine decades later, Rose was still playing the mandolin prior to her passing. Rose went to Teacher’s College in Calgary and taught in small community schools around southern Alberta in places like Maycroft and Burmis.

Rose ran into Bob at the Roxy in Coleman some years later. They had dated as teenagers but had lost contact until that moment. Bob was in the army and Rose recalled thinking the following as he approached her: “they fed you well and exercised you lots.”

They eventually married and daughter Nici was born in 1952, two years after he took that life-saving decision to leave McGillivray and move to Fernie.

(Rose Watson details courtesy of Faces of the Valley article by Leah Scheitel- Fernie Free Press Aug. 16, 2016)
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September 26th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 39
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