Books recount Ocean Ranger disaster, history of Bell Island

Published on March 23, 2012

The Ocean Ranger:

Remaking the Promise of Oil

By Susan Dodd

Fernwood Publishing

$24.95; 192 pages

Thirty years after the loss of the Ocean Ranger, it is possible to teach a whole course of literature about the event.

First came Ron Hynes’ hauntingly beautiful song “Atlantic Blue,” then came Lisa Moore’s novel “February” and Mike Heffernan’s oral history “Rig.”

Now the genres are fully covered with Susan Dodd’s non-fiction work, “The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil.” All four works are brilliant explorations of that terrible, scarring event.

Dodd is a Nova Scotian who lost a brother on the Ranger. She was barely more than a child when Jim Dodd died.

Since then she’s grown up and become an assistant professor at the University of Kings College, and she has used her academic training to understand how this loss impacted her family and our community.

Dodd’s argument is fairly simple: she believes that “political and economic systems shored up public acceptance of their legitimacy as protectors of the very people they had allowed to be killed and bereaved in the disaster.” 

Step by step, she takes us through ODECO’s attempt to blame the disaster on “worker error,” Brian Peckford’s contention that Ottawa rather than the American companies were at fault, Alex Hickman’s recasting of government complicity with corporate negligence as a “shared lack of technical know-how,” and much more.

She writes compellingly about the legal settlements the families made, settlements she brutally calls “blood money,” and examines how acceptance of this money forced relatives to step back from their lobbying efforts while at the same time it induced both survivor guilt and the freedom to get on with their lives.

“In accepting that money, Ocean Ranger families gave up the right to force our accused to explain themselves to us,” she writes. Dodd’s own family received $25,000, more than some and less than others, but regardless of the sum or the need, all those who received payments were damaged by the act.

Seeded throughout this book are little facts that may be well-known but of which I was unaware.  For example, she reminds us that the Mobil shore manager testified at the Royal Commission that he had informed the standby vessels that tying a line to the one lifeboat that made it safely off the rig could cause it to capsize.

Workers on the rescue boat denied ever having heard this, and to this day they have to live not just with their failure to save those men, but the possibility that they actually cost them their lives. 

She tells us that the two bereaved mothers who refused to agree to the settlement were initially sued by ODECO, who had broken its own contract when it added conditions to the agreement when they made the payments.

The settlements these women eventually got were considerably more than they were initially offered, but they weren’t the “millions” their jealous neighbours believed they collected.

Although the Newfoundland lawyers came away from the lawsuits looking reasonably competent and compassionate, the legal and moral portrait Dodd paints of the American lawyers is extremely ugly.  Rapacious, greedy and unethical just about sums it up.

Robert F. Collins, the judge who ruled that the Canadians could not sue an American company in New Orleans, was later convicted for accepting bribes, and lawyer Benton Musselwhite had his licence to practice law suspended for misrepresentation and solicitation.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the Cougar Helicopter’s crash, Dodd makes it  clear that self-regulation is just an opportunity for corporations to cut corners and ignore safety.

No doubt this has been said before, but Dodd’s combination of personal experience and academic discipline makes the message fresh and compelling. 

Historic Bell Island:

Dawn of the First Light

By N.W. Sheppard

Flanker Press

$18; 123 pages

N.W. Sheppard’s “Historic Bell Island” is one of a series of community histories being produced by Flanker Press. Bell Island has garnered the attention of quite a few competent historians over the years, including Peter Neary and Gail Weir, but there is always room for a new take on an old subject. 

“Historic Bell Island” is a brief, readable book that, unfortunately, doesn’t add much to what we already know. Sheppard covers the usual subjects: early settlement, churches, union activity, war, the sinking of the ore boats, sports, the Garland and Golden Dawn disaster, as well as a few lesser known subjects such as the Big Bang of 1978.

I was hoping for something more on the tunnel to the Grebe’s Nest, and a lot more on the pterodactyl that was supposed to have been found in the mines, but neither gets a mention.

The photographs that accompany the text are better than usual.  There are more of them, they cover a broad selection of subjects and the quality of the reproduction is far better than most books of this sort.

However, in looking back over the photos, I was struck by the fact that only two of the 85 photos were of figures identifiable as women — one of a group of ladies on The Beach and another of three girls in front of a convent.

The lack of women in the photographs led me to think about the lack of family life in this history.

After 123 pages of facts and figures, I think I have a general idea of what the concerns and worries of the Bell Island men were — pay, hours of work, accidents, hockey — but I have no idea what the lives of the women and children were like.

A series of community histories is a great idea, and I hope Flanker does well with it, but I also hope they broaden their ideas of what constitutes history.

There is life beyond politics and hockey. Maybe they need a few women writers on their list of authors to bring some balance to these books. Women are, as Hilda Chaulk Murray has reminded us, “more than 50 per cent” of our population.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is

“The Winterhouse.”

Her column returns April 22.