New Brunswick

Student's song honours great-grandfather who survived Springhill 'bump'

When Salima MacDonald sat down in her Grade 11 modern history class in September, she didn't expect her first assignment would be a memorable lesson in songwriting, civil rights and the Springhill mine disaster of 1958.

'Passion project' challenges Riverview students to learn more about what they love — and tie it to history

Riverview High School student Salima MacDonald wrote a song about her great-grandfather, Maurice Ruddick, who survived the 1958 Springhill mine disaster, as part of a project for her modern history class. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

When Salima MacDonald sat down in her Grade 11 modern history class in September, she didn't expect her first assignment would be a memorable lesson in songwriting, civil rights and the Springhill mining disaster of 1958.

The Riverview High School student was challenged by her teacher, Armand Doucet, to find a "passion project," which would link something she loves with something in the course curriculum.  

I had never actually got the chance to meet my great-grandfather, but I'm sure he was a remarkable man.- Salima MacDonald

Salima's passion is music, and even though she had only written one song in her life she knew immediately that she wanted to write one about her great-grandfather, Maurice Ruddick.

Ruddick and six other miners were the last survivors to be rescued after a bump shook the No. 2 colliery at Springhill and trapped more than 174 miners. Seventy-four men died in the collapse, and two small groups of miners were trapped deep underground for days. Ruddick was among those brought to the surface on the ninth day.

His story was told in a Canadian Heritage Minute that talks about the discrimination he faced as a black Canadian and how he kept hope alive in the mine by singing hymns.

Using music to communicate is a family tradition that spans the generations. Salima remembers learning about her great-grandfather and the Springhill mine disaster from songs written by her grandmother, Val MacDonald.
Salima MacDonald performs a song as part of a school project about the Springhill Mine Disaster. 2:44

"I remember I used to sit on the couch and I'd listen to this one song ... and I would just sit on the couch and cry because it was just so beautiful," the teenager said.

"I had never actually got the chance to meet my great-grandfather, but I'm sure he was a remarkable man. He was in charge of rationing food and water, so he easily could have taken more water for himself or more food for himself, but he was super honest and he divided everything up super evenly."

Songwriting a challenge

Salima's research for the project took her back to Springhill, where she visited the mine at the Springhill Miners' Museum for the first time with her grandfather.

She admits she was shocked by the complete darkness.

"I'm not a huge fan of the dark, to be quite honest, and I think that if I had been involved in a situation such as that I would have probably gone insane," she said.

"That would have driven me crazy and the fact that they were down there as long as they were and they managed to keep talking to each other and kept singing and kept the hope alive it was great."

Salima took inspiration from that experience and wrote her song, Two Miles Down, which begins with the line, "It's cold and dark down here."

The song is written as a love letter from her great-grandfather to her great-grandmother, and Salima said everyone in her family loved it.

"I'm OK at putting together little melodies but I was really concerned about the lyrics because I wanted the lyrics to evoke emotion. Not only in my classmates but other people as well who were listening to it." she said.

"And I really wanted to impress my grandmother ... but I really like the way it turned out."

Her classmates were also impressed — with one coming up to her after she sang the song.

"She said, 'Oh my God your song was so beautiful I started crying.' And to me it's so incredible what you can do with words. It really is and this song I'm super, super proud of how it turned out."

Racism continues

The project also taught Salima about the discrimination her great-grandfather faced in the 1950s.

"Obviously, at that time life was super rough for black people and my grandmother, to this day, she tells me stories about how they were segregated and the white kids at the school wouldn't dance with them at dances," she said.

"But my great-grandfather, he always held his head high. I feel so lucky to be living in this day and age."

Salima has also faced racism in her life, particularly in elementary school, where she said some students wouldn't talk to her because of her colour.

"Some of them wouldn't play with me. They said, 'I don't play with brown girls,' so that was tough as a child ... but as I grew older it just resonated with me more because that's a really awful thing to say to somebody."

Lasting learning

Salima said the modern history assignment was "super unconventional" and "challenging," but she enjoyed putting together her passion project and seeing what her classmates are passionate about.

"I think that it's interesting to peer into other people's lives and see that human side of them because you don't often see that side of your classmates," she said.

"I think that this will live on in my mind for a long time."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca