In Memoriam of Dan Yakimchuk

Elizabeth May

I know people may be looking to this space expecting to see something about the election, and I will be writing lots about the election.  But another time. 

A dear friend passed away. He was fearless when others were afraid and exposed truths others wished would stay hidden.  And while the grief and shock of his death is fresh in my mind and heart, I wanted to share some of the reasons that Dan Yakimchuk was a hero.

Dan was born September 29, 1929, the son of Ukranian immigrants who had fled the revolution in 1917 and come to Cape Breton Island.  Dan started as a merchant seaman, but by 1949 had started work at the steel plant.  He was active in his union as the management practices were arbitrary and unfair.  The working conditions were abominable and accidents were common.     

By the 1970s, he noticed that retiring workers didn’t seem to live long enough to collect their first pension cheque.  When other workers, including friends in the union wanted Dan to be quiet, he was one of the only voices to ask whether the toxic brew that surrounded them, the clouds of smoke from coking dirty coal, could have something to do with so many premature deaths. 

It wasn’t easy going against his friends and the union to point out the mill was killing people.  An old friend of his told me once “Dan was the canary in the coal mine.  We just didn’t want to hear because we wanted those damn jobs so bad.”  

I met Dan when I was fighting budworm spraying in the 1970s, and our friendship survived his dressing me down for going to work in government in the 1980s (“selling out”) and renewed and as we grew close through the struggle to achieve a clean-up of the infamous Sydney Tar Ponds.  He and his wonderful wife Clotilda became among my closest friends.  Dan’s and Clotilda’s was a rare marriage.  Rare because they loved each other so much and so well for 27 years, and rare because it was one of the only inter-racial marriages in Sydney. 

Dan had an abiding thirst for justice.  He could not abide racism or prejudice.  And that was one of the things that led him to be a force in gaining justice for M’ikmaq activist Donald Marshall.  The late Donald Marshall had been wrongly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.  Donald’s friend Sammy Seale had been stabbed to death in a city park.  His friend was part of Sydney’s black community.  By this time Dan was a city alderman and overheard a member of the police force say to someone “we managed to get rid of the Indian and the n----r at the same time.”   That same officer had treated Dan with abuse when Dan was a kid.  He heard the remark, registered its meaning and became convinced that Donald Marshall was innocent.   

Dan had no use for priests or religion.  He knew I was religious and we could argue about almost any philosophical or religious question for hours.  He loved to tell me about the priest who told him that if he stayed with the union, he would go to hell.  Dan loved to laugh and recount how he said, “Father, you know the only thing wrong with hell is that you can’t get near the fire for all the God-damned priests!” 

Dan read all the time.  If there was a new book out on political theory, social justice, corporate rule, or globalization, I knew I would find it on Dan’s coffee table next time I got to their house.   

There is much more to say. His love of family, his kids and grandkids could fill pages.  His activism was his life.  Dan Yakimchuk was one of a kind.  He passed away March 19 from a very recently diagnosed cancer. Too soon. We need his fearless adherence to truth, his voice and his anger.  He is missed.