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Ghost of the past

Peggy Witte gets a new name and another chance

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 07/01) - The head of a now-defunct mining company synonymous with the worst labour crisis in Northern history says her Yellowknife days are never far from her thoughts.

NNSL Photo

Margaret Kent, a.k.a. Peggy Witte: haunted by widows.

"Not a week goes by when I don't think of the situation at least once," said Margaret Kent -- formerly Peggy Witte and chief executive officer of Royal Oak Mines. "I wonder about widows and community."

Kent led the company through a two-year strike, one that cost the lives of nine miners when a bomb exploded along an underground track.

A jury found striking miner Roger Warren responsible for the blast, but many labour leaders in the North blame Kent for an atmosphere of violence.

For one thing, she was the first to use replacement workers during a mine strike in Canada.

In a telephone interview from her office in Blaine, Wash., Kent said she is not responsible for what happened on Sept. 18, 1992.

Even though she called in Pinkerton guards, refused to budge on roll-backs and reinstate blacklisted miners, Witte said it was the board of directors who called the shots.

"We were merely the ham in the middle of the sandwich," she said, squeezed by the union, the board of directors, shareholders and federal and territorial governments.

Now she is back in the North with a new company, the Kent Burns Group, and working on contract for Vancouver-based Terrastar Resour-ces to reopen the old Pine Point lead-zinc mine, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake.

Kent and her partner, Ross Burns, sold an option to develop more than 150 square kilometres of claims along the lake to Terrastar, of which Kent owns a small share.

Kent said there's an unfortunate perception of conflict between the "blue-collar worker" and big business in Yellowknife.

"I hope the union feels the same remorse for the situation that I do personally," said Kent. "I hope there is never a situation that happens in Yellowknife with anything I ever work on."

But business is business and Kent insisted she was trying to save the mine and 300 jobs. "We had to draw a line in the sand," she said. "We were better off with the replacement workers."

Kent said that, without Royal Oak, Giant Mine would have died in 1990 and those jobs would have evaporated. The mine was going broke, she said, but Royal Oak turned it around, making it one of the top 50 revenue earners in the country.

"There were no takers at the time," said Kent. "And maybe at the end of the day the mine should have gone down in 1990."

Witte said she feels comfortable in the North, and laughs off the cold reception her company is receiving.

She told Canadian Press she's misunderstood.

"Whether it's because I'm a woman or whether it's because I'm strong-willed or whatever it is, I think that I've been targeted," she said.

Witte claims she always hoped to return to the North forever. Wherever there is a project to develop, she'll be there.