British Columbia

Mohawk mother and daughter pay tribute to ironworkers tragedy at B.C. dance festival

Barbara Diabo and her daughter, Emily, are performing a tribute at the Coastal Dance Festival in New Westminster, B.C. to commemorate the Mohawk ironworkers who died when a bridge collapsed in 1907.

‘It affected every family in Kahnawake,’ says direct descendent of ironworker

Barbara and her daughter Emily Diabo bridge past and present in their tribute to the Quebec ironworkers tragedy. (Melvyn Kouri)

A Mohawk mother and her daughter will be at a New Westminster, B.C. dance festival this weekend to perform a tribute to the ironworkers from their community who died when a Quebec bridge collapsed in 1907.

Barbara Diabo says it was only later in her life that she learned her great-grandfather was one of the victims of the Pont de Quebec tragedy.

"It really just surprised me how many people, including myself, didn't know this story when it was such a big tragedy for a village and it affected every family in Kahnawake," Diabo told The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn.

The Pont de Quebec collapsed twice during its construction, first in 1907 and then again in 1916. (Radio-Canada archives)

On Aug. 29, 1907, the world's longest cantilever bridge being constructed from Quebec City to the south shore — now the site of Levis — collapsed into the St. Lawrence River just as workers were preparing to leave for the day.

Among the victims were 33 men from the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, Diabo's home community.

Intergenerational trauma

Learning about the accident inspired her to create Sky Dancers with her brother Michael, a performance piece that honours the lives lost and the families left behind.

Barbara Diabo performs a hoop dance as part of her Sky Dancers piece. (Robert Newton)

Diabo says the accident that took her great-grandfather's life caused intergenerational trauma in the whole community.

"He left behind three children and a widow," she said. "Some of the children from Diabo's family and other families were then sent to residential schools.

"They thought it would be better for the widows, that they couldn't take care of them which of course augmented the problem."

Bridging past and present

Sky Dancers is a family affair that aims to bridge the gap between past and present. It incorporates old photographs of ironworkers on the bridge.

Along with Diabo's dancing and her brother's music, the piece features singing by her daughter, Emily.

But the mother-daughter duo also practices traditional Native American dances together.

"They're very important in our community to be able to carry on the different traditions of the past and to bring it to the present and show different people as well," said Emily.

Barbara and Emily Diabo are performing Saturday at the Coastal Dance Festival at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster.

They'll be performing on the festival stage between 1 and 4 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m.

Listen to Barbara and Emily Diabo's interview on The Early Edition.

Barbara Diabo and her daughter, Emily, are performing a tribute at the Coastal Dance Festival in New Westminster to commemorate the Mohawk ironworkers who died when a bridge collapsed in 1907. 6:37