The choreographer tells the little-known story of the Mohawk editors lost in the Quebec Bridge disaster

Not reserved47:23comedy and tragedy lessons

On August 19, 1907, just after 5:30 p.m., a bell rang to let a crew of construction workers know it was time to pack up their things and end the day. They were building a bridge that would connect Quebec to the city of Lévis across the St. Lawrence River. But just minutes after the bell rang, there was a loud crack and the 400-foot structure fell to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.

“It was the biggest workplace disaster in Canada. [at the time]“, explains Connie Meloche, historian and key organizer of the memorial of the bridge of Quebec.

Seventy-six lives were lost that day; 33 of them were Mohawks from the Kahnawake First Nation, a small community of about 2,000 people about 300 kilometers from Quebec. Meloche, who is also from Kahnawake, said the impact on his community was “disastrous.”

For the anniversary, a concrete memorial displaying the names of all the victims was unveiled on the Lévis side, and in Kahnawake First Nation, a steel replica of the ill-fated bridge.

The event is notorious among engineers. It is investigated as a design failure. The site of the rebuilt bridge has become a pilgrimage for engineers to deal with the deadly consequences of human error. The wreck underscores the risk of engineers putting ego and ambition above safety.

Quebec Bridge disaster, 1907. (Library and Archives Canada/Royal Commission on the Quebec Bridge)

Less written or less spoken is the human cost of this event, especially for the small community of Kahnawake.

But choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni is changing that with her multidisciplinary theater production sky dancers, recently performed at Harbourfront Center in Toronto. She explores the lasting impact of the 1907 Quebec Bridge disaster from a Mohawk perspective.

“They were real people,” she said. “They were our brothers, our fathers, our cousins, our sons.”

For Kaneratonni, this story is personal. Although she now lives in Montreal, her family is from Kahnawake and her great-grandfather was one of the ironworkers who lost his life that day.

Kaneratonni’s hoop dances in a scene from Sky Dancers. (Submitted by Brian Medina)

A culture of metalwork in Kahnawake

At the time of the disaster, metalwork was becoming a popular occupation for the men of Kahnawake. Mohawk men were essential to construction at this time.

“It started in the late 1800s when the Kahnawake Bridge in Montreal was built,” Kaneratonni said. Not reserved host Rosanna Deerchild. Originally, the engineers thought they would only hire the native men as day laborers to unload the materials. But the Mohawk men quickly became known for their agility and fearlessness when crossing tall iron beams. This led them to become riveters, who fastened parts of the bridge together at extraordinary heights.

“It started a culture of ironworkers’ in Kahnawake, she says.”[They] made so many contributions to building the horizons of North America [and] people don’t always think about that.”

WATCH | Dancers perform breakdancing-inspired choreography in the “ironworkers” scene from Sky Dancers.

Sky Dancers ‘Ironworkers Scene’

This ironwork culture comes to life in sky dancers‘ ironworker scene. Industrial beats that incorporate the sound of hammered metal play over top men singing in mohawks, while dancers perform breakdancing-inspired choreography.

Kaneratonni said she really wanted to capture the attitudes of the Ironworkers. The metalwork is very athletic, she says, which is why she added a lot of acrobatics.

“It’s very physical and dangerous work,” she said, adding that she wanted “a dance vocabulary that does the same thing.”

The dancers perform the Ironworkers scene from Sky Dancers. (Submitted by Brian Medina)

Signs of trouble

The construction of the Quebec Bridge was born out of Quebec City‘s need to be commercially competitive. The St. Lawrence River was the only trade channel during the summer. In winter, the town was completely isolated until the river froze over and a precarious ice bridge was used.

The new bridge was to be a symbol of engineering excellence and innovation, the longest of its type in the world. However, in the months leading up to its collapse, there were multiple construction issues and warning signs that the structure was not sound.

The bridge is seen from the Quebec side, in 1907, before the accident. (Library and Archives Canada/Library and Archives Canada Published Holdings Project)

Edward Hoare was hired as chief engineer although he had never worked on a full-scale bridge before. To compensate for Hoare’s lack of experience, Theodore Cooper was hired as a consultant. At the time, Cooper was in his 60s, based in New York City, and in failing health. A young engineer named Norman McLure was hired to be Cooper’s eyes and ears on the bridge.

Workers and supervisors noticed a bend in the beams and chords of the bridge, and that the pre-drilled holes did not line up when assembled. Safety on the construction site became such a concern that workers staged a three-day strike to protest the conditions.

When McLure raised these concerns Cooper insisted there was no fundamental problem with the design of the bridge, instead he blamed the workmanship of the materials despite never having visited the construction site.

But the ropes kept bending and breaking so much that on August 27, a construction foreman stopped construction. Tragically, he changed his mind, and within days the bridge collapsed.

Kaneratonni said “men were stuck in the twisted metal, some still alive and calling for help…It was a long process after, trying to save [the workers] and not be able to.”

The Quebec Bridge would collapse again in 1916 due to poor design, killing 13 workers. It was finally completed in August 1919.

The ripple effects

The 1907 event had ripple effects that lasted for generations. “It affected the whole village,” she said.
Some children were taken to boarding schools because of the bridge collapse. “The church was pressuring women saying, ‘You can’t take care of your children anymore, because you’ve lost the breadwinner,’ you know, so it was like a double tragedy.”

Kaneratonni captured this side of the story in a chilling scene in Sky Dancers. Voices sing: “How many children can you send? How many boys? How many girls?”

She didn’t write these lyrics herself; Kaneratonni took them from letters found at the Kahnawake Cultural Center. The letters were from residential school missionaries asking that Kahnawake children be sent to residential schools.

“When we were working on this final version, [it was] around the time they started uncovering all the children’s graves, the unmarked graves, in the last year. We realized it would take on a whole new weight.”

She said they took a lot of care with that part. “We often smudged during this scene when we had to.”

WATCH | The multimedia incorporates images of deaths in a scene called “The aftermath”

Sky Dancers ‘The Aftermath’

The resilience of a community

“The men who died left behind 24 widows and 53 children that day. It shattered the community,” says Meloche.

Kaneratonni said that was when the women decided they were “not going to send all our men to the same job anymore”. After that, ironworkers began to branch out further into job sites in the United States.

But she is adamant that this story is more than just a tragedy. “I want to show the resilience and strength of our community after surviving.”

“They’re continuing and it’s something we can be proud that our people are continuing.”

Kaneratonni is captured at another point in her hoop dance scene in Sky Dancers. (Submitted by Brian Medina)

Interview with Barbara Kaneratonni directed by Kim Kaschor.

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