“Working underground for me is like working in your basement for you.” That’s the first thing Marcelin Bruneau tells the 12 young Crees sitting in front of him. That gets their interest. “When I started mining in 1930,” he continues, “there were no rules about safety underground.” A wry smile, some mental math and confused looks among the Crees prompts the admission: “Bon. Maybe not 1930. But a long, long time ago!”
Marcelin Bruneau has spent more than 40 years working as an underground miner. He got what he calls his first real job as a teenager in the early 1970s when he was hired by Noranda Mines as an underground helper. That was the beginning of a mining career that would take him not only across Canada — to Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and B.C. — but overseas to Australia and Indonesia, and see him work with over 20 mining companies and contractors.
In 2008, Bruneau was hired as an instructor by the Centre de Formation Professionnelle in the mining town of Val-d’Or, Que. His mining experience made him a natural, and he spent five years delivering a six-month training program in underground ore extraction to students from the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of northwestern Quebec.
Then, with mines under construction farther north on James Bay Cree land and job opportunities for Crees on the horizon, Bruneau remembered an old friend and accepted a new challenge.
Back in 1990, Bruneau had landed a job at the Kerr-Addison gold mine near Virginiatown, just across the Ontario border from his home in Rouyn-Noranda. One of the men in his crew was a Cree named Dave, the first aboriginal Bruneau had ever worked with, and a man he remembered as a “big, strong guy who laughed a lot and worked hard.”
“I’ll be honest,” he says now, “we had some ideas about Indians in those days. But I tell you, working with Dave really changed my mind about all that, that’s for sure!”
For the past two and a half years, Bruneau has been delivering a 76-hour training course in underground mining safety to Crees. All miners in Quebec need the training and safety card that comes with it to work underground. Some of Bruneau’s Cree students are already employed as heavy equipment operators or labourers, and need the training to work underground. Others want to improve their chances of finding work when mines now under construction begin to hire.
Bruneau has travelled to six of the nine James Bay Cree reserves to deliver his training. He spends seven days covering his material with groups in the classroom. Then he takes them to Val-d’Or for two more days of underground practice. More than 200 Crees have received safety cards as a result of his work.
Bruneau and his old friend were reunited by chance earlier this year in the northern Cree village of Chisasibi. One of Bruneau’s students had listened to his story about working with an Indian miner named Dave and made a call. After lunch, David Kitty walked into Bruneau’s class with a big smile on his face. The two hadn’t seen each other in 25 years.
Last month, one of Dave’s daughters enrolled in Bruneau’s safety training.
Bruneau connects easily with the Crees in his classes. During his lessons on underground safety procedures and provincial rules and regulations, he intersperses personal reminiscences from his days as a young miner. Most of his stories are funny or sad. Some are hard to believe. But all have a safety message to convey, and because they are experiences lived by Bruneau himself, that message hits home with his Cree students.
Like the time 17-year-old Bruneau was asked by his boss to get rid of some old dynamite after his shift ended. “He pointed towards a couple of sticks. I’d never handled explosives before. But I’d just started that job and wasn’t going to tell him that,” Bruneau says.
As he picked up the sticks, he noticed about 30 more lying in the darkness underneath an old workbench. So he bundled them all together. He remembers walking down the dark tunnel, fuse in hand, to a heavy wooden door. Closing it behind him, he thought he’d be protected. He lit the fuse.
“Before I knew it I was flat on my back with the big door on top of me, smoke everywhere. I was maybe ten metres from where I’d been standing. It blew me that far. That’s how you learned in those days,” he says, shaking his head now at the memory.
Bruneau is also an inventor. He has an international patent on a modular ladder for use in the vertical tunnels, or “raises,” that join a lower level in a mine to a higher one. Drilling a raise in 1995, a sudden air blast dislodged some rocks above him. One of them sliced into his face — breaking his cheekbone — and another dislocated his knee.
“We’d work on wooden ladders,” Bruneau says, “hauling our equipment up on them to drill and blast the raise. But falling rocks after a blast can shake them and sometimes even dislodge them completely. That’s when accidents happened.”
His patented ladder is portable and can be adjusted as the miner moves up a raise. It is made out of aluminum, with protective screens that hook onto the top of the ladder to deflect falling rocks away from the miner. Bruneau’s ladder kit is being used by half a dozen mining companies and contractors in Quebec and Ontario.
Some of Bruneau’s old mining friends are gone now, and most of the others are retired.
So why does he continue to make the long drive north, sometimes as much as 12 hours, to the small Cree villages to deliver his training?
“You know, when I visit a mine now, I almost always hear someone, usually a Cree, call out my name,” he says. “I just smile and wave back. Maybe I am getting old. I can’t seem to remember their names.”
But they all remember his — and what he taught them about safety, and how to work safely underground. “That makes it worthwhile,” he says, after thinking for a minute. “That’s reason enough to keep on doing what I’m doing.”
— Daniel Bland is Lead Instructor with Cree Human Resources Development (CHRD) of the Cree Nation Government in Mistissini, Quebec, where he is involved in the design and delivery of essential skills and workplace readiness training for Crees hoping to find employment in the region’s mining sector. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHRD provides training and employment resources to Crees and acts as a liaison between employers and the Cree labour force. Please visit www.chrd.ca for more information.