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Sacrifices on the Job: A photography exhibit commemorates Nova Scotians killed at work

by Natascia L

Davis Day, an annual day of remembrance honouring miners killed on the job, was celebrated in Nova Scotia yesterday.

The day’s namesake, William Davis, was shot and killed by police employed by the British Empire Steel Corporation on June 11, 1925 in New Waterford. He was a miner and member of Local 26 of the United Workers of America, which, at the time, was striking against wage cuts.

In reaction to the strike, the corporation cut off employee credit for company stores. It then sought to shut down water and power supply to the workers’ homes.

Nearing starvation and fearing for the health of their families, the members of Local 26 banded with miners from other towns and marched to the Waterford Lake power plant. Unarmed, they were met by company police and Davis, a 37-year-old father of nine children, met his death.

It’s a story that makes Kathleen Flanagan shake her head in disbelief. “From today’s perspective it’s unbelievable that the company could turn off the water, which would make people at risk to die!” she says.

Maybe so, but as Flanagan’s photographic exhibit Sacrifices on the Job: Honouring Nova Scotians killed at work depicts, this province has a centuries-old history of tragic, preventable deaths on worksites.

In a series of twelve images, the Craig Gallery show covers tragedies from a variety of jobs, from the well documented (Westray miners, Halifax Explosion firemen and William Davis) to the lesser known (Lunenburg fishermen, Royal Canadian Air Force members and a merchant mariner).

“This idea of workers who are killed on the job: it’s difficult to depict in a sensitive and broad way — in other words, to capture the whole broad story about the inequity and unfairness, the injustice of workers who are killed on the job,” says Flanagan.

Wanting to remain respectful of her subjects, and avoid the intrusiveness she says can be a vice of photographers, Flanagan steered clear of human subjects and instead based her show on her love of public art.

She was inspired by a monument to John Michael Rossiter, a paramedic killed in Halifax during Hurricane Juan when a tree crashed down on his ambulance. A Google search unearthed information about Rossiter and got Flanagan thinking how many such monuments exist in Nova Scotia and how to bring them together.

She began researching other memorials to fallen workers and travelled across the province capturing these monuments in haunting black and white detail. Of particular importance to her was that the memorials listed individuals — not just the names of the groups they were a part of. She then incorporated her research into the exhibit: each photograph comes with a mini history lesson of the worksite incident memorialized.

“The text is an integral part of the exhibit,” says Flanagan. “The stories bring the photos to life.”

The exhibit opened as part of the Mayworks Festival on April 28, the National Day of Mourning in Canada for workers who have been killed, injured or disabled on the job. Since then, Flanagan says the reaction to it has been very strong:

“As the photographer, I’m really touched by the way people have responded to it. It’s been quite a wonderful experience for me, and I realize it’s because so many people have been touched in one way or another by death or injury on the worksite. It’s a familiar experience.” One that will hopefully become less so with time.

 

Sacrifices on the Job: Honouring Nova Scotians killed at work is on at Alderney Landing’s Craig Gallery until Saturday, June 16. No time to see the show? The slideshow above contains all the photographs in the exhibit as well as a brief description of the workplace incident they commemorate.

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Topics: LabourArts
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