When Nova Scotia fabric artist Laurie Swim completed work on Breaking Ground, a quilted public memorial to the 1960 Hogg’s Hollow disaster and the five young Italian immigrant workers killed underground, she was convinced she had just finished one of the most heartrending projects of her career.
Almost immediately, Swim learned that what had happened in a subway tunnel more than forty years earlier was not a thing of the past. Workplaces remained potentially deadly for some workers. And in 21st Century Ontario, a dramatic number of those fatalities were young workers.
“The idea of a memorial quilt to young workers who had been killed on the job was suggested to me as a project. At the time, I wasn’t certain I wanted to undertake such an emotional task.
“But we had a teenaged son, who would soon be seeking summer employment. Like all parents, we wanted him to be safe.”
And so began the process of building support, and eventually designing and sewing The Canadian Young Workers Memorial Quilt – an 18’ X 9’ quilted memorial to 100 young workers killed at work. The quilt consists of 10 panels, each containing the pictures and stories of 10 young workers. A 5’ X 9’ centerpiece – a young man with arms outstretched – used Laurie’s son, Jake, as a model.
Laurie secured a classroom in a boarded-up school in her neighborhood and work on the Young Workers Quilt began with a team of 20 volunteer quilters.
“As I read the case histories, emotions of anger, sympathy and grief passed over me,” Swim recalls. “These deaths mostly happened on the first days and weeks of the job, due to the young workers’ inexperience and the lack of training in situations where they were under-supervised.”
The quilt was a stunning reminder of the particular vulnerabilities of young workers. Each piece had the victim’s photograph printed on fabric, their history with details of how they died, their name and age and a personal token from the family stitched into the fabric. The quilt was unveiled at an emotional ceremony packed with tearful bereaved parents, at a downtown Toronto hotel in 2003.
Inspired by Laurie Swim’s art and forged by the families of young workers who died on the job, a non-profit organization was born. Called Threads of Life, it aims to increase awareness of workplace safety for all ages.
Threads of Life is the voice of victims of workplace tragedies – the families whose loved ones died or suffered life-altering injuries or occupational disease as a result of workplace accidents.
“The 1,400 families who are part of Threads of Life are just the tip of the iceberg,” says executive-director Shirely Hickman. In 1996, Hickman lost her 21-year-old son Tim in an explosion at the London, Ontario arena where he worked part-time.
“None of us who go out to speak about our experience would have ever envisioned ourselves as public speakers,” says Hickman. But Threads of Life speakers tell their stories straight from the heart, with a powerful impact on their audiences.
The quilt, renamed the LifeQuilt by the group, is taken out occasionally for special appearances. It is now 10 years old, expensive to ship and in need of repair from all its travels.
Swim, who continues to craft huge quilted public memorials, wishes it were ‘out there’ for the world to see, in a permanent display, much like the “Breaking Ground” memorial quilt, which is on permanent display in Toronto’s York Mills subway station, near the site of the Hoggs Hollow disaster.
“The Canadian Young Workers Memorial Quilt took the issue of young worker safety out of the closet,” says Swim. “It put the personal stories of young people killed on the job into the public realm through the testimony of their loved ones.”
FOOTNOTE: After 10 years of travel, the LifeQuilt is currently with a conservator for maintenance, while the partners of Threads of Life prepare to discuss how best to use it in future outreach efforts.
To honour the contribution her organization has made to families who have suffered from a workplace tragedy, Hickman and two Threads of Life volunteers, Lisa Kadosa and Eleanor Westwood, this year received Queen’s Diamond Jubilee awards. Hickman was nominated by Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters for her leadership in founding Threads of Life and for her “outstanding contributions in the field of workplace health and safety.”