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A Matter of Commemoration

In last week’s column I took an in-depth look into  the story of  Joseph Louie Sikora, the McGillvray coal miner who was lost in 1950 trying to save his trapped partner in that mine. This week I will fast forward to 2005 in order to share the story of the determined move undertaken  by a Sikora family member to acknowledge Joe’s sacrifice. That was the year that Agnes (Aggie) Fuchs from Regina presented the tragic story of her brother Joe to the Third Annual Bellevue Miner’s Memorial at the Bellevue Mine.  Her purpose that day was to share the details of how he lost his life in the mine, talk about the “miner’s code” and outline an important acknowledgement plan she had.
There was a profoundly moving speech made that day, when Aggie laid out Joe’s story for the crowd. In a soft but determined tone she walked us through it all and finished off by hoisting up a rosary in her hand, similar to the one that Joe had held in his just before he died. It was a moment I will long remember. The silence was deafening.
Joe was buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Coleman and that is how the story stayed until 2004. That year, while doing research on Joe, Aggie discovered an article in the Lethbridge Herald from Dec. 6, 1950 that talked about his death. In it the then mine manager, Andrew Wilson, stated that Joe died while attempting to save his partner's life and in doing so gave his own life.  Mr. Wilson went on to say 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 157 Canadian miners since 1933.
In most cases the medal is awarded to a survivor who has shown great courage and reinforced, by his actions, the Miner’s Code. The first time I walked into Vicary Coal Mine as a young student in 1965, I had no fear. It was rather strange but I felt instinctively that the miners were watching out for each other and would not hesitate to be there for me or anyone else in a bad situation. That is the code. You would think going almost two miles underground would have unnerved me but it didn’t.  I didn’t realize that the code was there, all I knew was that everyone was as one as they walked into that mine.
Incidentally, the CIM medal of bravery was given out to almost 105 draegerman and miners who participated in the unbelievably treacherous rescue attempt in Westray, Nova Scotia in 1992. I cannot begin to even come close to describing to you what those rescue conditions were like. This mine was wrong from the beginning and the Dominion Coal Board strongly recommended that no attempt be made to mine the deadly, faulted, gassy Foord Seam. Curragh Resources went ahead anyway and why they did is a political story that will leave a bad taste in your mouth.
One of the draegerman for Westray in that disaster was a Coleman boy by the name of Howard Campbell. He was supposed to work an overtime shift that night that killed those 26 men. But he was too tired and mercifully phoned and cancelled that shift.  He was called early the next morning to report for mine rescue duty.  Two of the men Howard was involved in recovering were Pass boys, Trevor Jahn and Ferris Dewan. Can you imagine what it took to do that, to bring his friends out, in that unbelievably dangerous situation?
For five days after that May 9, 1992 horrific explosion they searched those still dangerous tunnels for the 26 men. Eventually only 15 were recovered. It was just too dangerous to continue and the mine became the final resting place of those 11 men. The then 31- year-old Campbell was part of a civilian medal ceremony on November 28, 1994, held to recognize the bravery and compassion of these men. It was the largest investiture of the Medal of Bravery for a single incident in the history of Canada.   
Having read the manager’s statement in the Lethbridge Herald Agnes was moved to action. She felt strongly that Joe should have been given this medal and set about making an application to the CIM awards committee to get him the acknowledgement he so richly deserved. Award protocols dictated that the application be made within one year of the incident but Fuchs was undeterred in her mission and pressed her case for two long years with letters of support from government officials, local CIM branches and mining historians like myself. She would not be swayed in her cause and after two disheartening years of rejections the wonderful news finally came through, just in time for the Fifth Annual Miner’s Memorial.  The CIM brass had reconsidered their stance and Joe was to get his medal. Local CIM branch chairman Chris Ryan of Teck Coal was there at the memorial to notify the family officially. Members of the Sikora family were then invited to the 2007 annual general meeting of the CIM in Montreal where they graciously received the medal and an embossed citation on Joe’s behalf, some 57 years after he had died.
The CIM indicated to all concerned that the medal was to stand not only for Joe’s heroic efforts but as a symbolic acknowledgement of the miner’s code, a code that binds miners together as brothers, committed to each other’s safety and well being.  
A year after the award Aggie contacted me with a request to steam clean off Joe’s lichen encrusted marker, as they were planning to add a special new pedestal under it. Joe’s grave lies on a hillside next to his mother’s and the white marble crosses on both were, at one time, draped with beautiful beaded rosaries. Below Joe’s marker the new pedestal reads: “Joe Sikora – Awarded the CIM Medal for Bravery- For attempting to save his partner George Riapos in the McGillivray Coal Mine.”  There is an embossed image of Joe on one side of the pedestal and an embossed rosary on the other. No matter what happens to my wooden rosary, the memory and commemoration will not be lost.
As I indicated last week I have a plan. It may take a long time but I will not be deterred in making it happen. The numbers are hard to work with. Each loss was crushing to family, friends and community. I got to hear Pauline Grigel speak at one of the Bellevue memorials. She spoke about losing her husband Frank in McGillivray in 1953 in that same awful Level 5 along with two other miners She had five children at the time, including the twins Margaret and Mary. How does one go on? Hers is a remarkable story of perseverance that I will share soon.
Here is my sobering count to contemplate. Bellevue- 82, Greenhills Blairmore- 27, International Coleman- 55, McGillivray Coleman- 58, Hillcrest- 229, Frank Mine- 20, Lille- 2, Leitch Collieries- 4, Maple Leaf Collieries- 2, Mohawk Collieries- 9, Vicary Mine - 5. Almost 500 miners. I have focused on McGillvray first and envision a name plaque and interpretive sign, benches near the site and a replica of Joe’s medal along with a brief overview of his story in a display there.

Author’s Note: A long time Fernie resident and dear friend named Rose Watson informed me, after learning of the Sikora story years later, that her husband Bob had been working in Room 75, Level 5 just days before they moved Joe Sikora there. Bob had refused to work in that area as the conditions were so incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. That refusal cost him his job and probably saved his life. What was even more profound was that she then turned to her 55-year-old daughter Nikki and said, “Do you realize what this means? If Bob had not quit that hell hole you probably would not be standing here talking to John.”

Dec 13, 1994 Pass Herald story on Howard Campbell

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Sikora Family accepting CIM Medal award in Montreal

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Trevor Jahn's marker Coleman Union Cemetery John KInnear photos

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Dec 13, 1994 Pass Herald story on Howard Campbell

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