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Corporate Body-Snatchers: The cover-up that shook a mining town called Asbestos

Okay, you guys know about asbestos right? That magic rock that’s immune to fire and gives you cancer? Well, back in the day, before we knew that everything magic gives you cancer, they used to put that shit in everything. Worried your kid’s school might burn down? Asbestos ceiling tiles. Worried your concrete might catch on fire? Asbestos concrete. Worried your baby might burn alive but don’t wanna stop leaving lit candles on the edge of their crib? Of course you are and don’t! Try asbestos pajamas!

Honestly, asbestos seems like the perfect low-stakes exemplar for the gen z/millennial experience. Little industrial revolution-age booby traps left by previous generations for their panicked descendants to disarm by shutting down one single school hallway at a time. Y’know, like climate change or voting restrictions except instead of extinction or generational trauma it’s only cancer.

Anyway, I didn’t make any of those examples up, those are all things we really put asbestos in. In the wake of WWI, everyone was jonesing for Some Good News™ to cleanse their palates of all that mass murder. At that point a useful new material that didn’t immediately kill you seemed like an honest-to-god mineral miracle, and we were all obsessed with it. In Canada, the asbestos mining industry really got the ball rolling in the 1890s, but its use exploded during the postwar economic boom. Then it was all fun and games for a few years, until science noticed it kills you sometime in the mid 1920s, and then we realized it was too dangerous and stopped using it altogether. For the benefit of society. Right?

No fuck you idiot, you clearly don’t understand how capitalism works, read a tweet. No, what followed was a protracted existential fight with science and wage-labourers on one side and powerful corporations and the government on the other. We may never know the true costs of this battle, but judging by the unholy mass of mesothelioma (it’s a kind of lung cancer) ads on daytime TV, the casualties are still racking up today.

One thing we do know about this historic war between evil and just regular, however, is the Harvey Weinstein x NBC x National Enquirer-sized cover-up that constituted one of its most important battles. And, bonus, it took place right here in Our Home On Native Land. Let me tell y’all a story about a little mining town in rural Quebec called, guess what, Asbestos. Les grenouilles sont donc bien connues pour leur créativité, hein? Tabarnak.

Asbestos, Quebec, is built around the Jeffrey mine, which would become the largest Asbestos mine in the world. It was purchased by Johns Manville, an American construction manufacturing company, and the community became a thriving company town. By some accounts, the mine was expanded to the point that several families were forced to relocate as their homes were sacrificed for the good of industry.

The relationship between the mining company and the town which served it would become extremely important, as it always does. But the fact that this all took place in rural Quebec in the early 20th century gives that relationship an extra dimension. Whenever I learn about the status of francophones in Canada during that time, it always gives me kind of an Irish vibe. As in, not quite as good as a British-descended protestant but still not as bad as if you had any extra melanin. Or like a communist country: not First World, but not Third World either. Quebeccers aren’t making their victim complexes up from nothing is all I’m saying.

And that dynamic showed up starkly in Asbestos. According to Dr. Jessica van Horsen, who’s studied the town extensively, the class division between mine workers and Johns Manville managers played out neatly along linguistic and geographic lines. The francophone workers lived downwind from the mine, and its waste. The anglo managers’ houses were located upwind.

Prejudice wasn’t the only issue plaguing La Belle Province during this time though. For much of the 30s and up until the mid 50s, the premier of Quebec was a complete fucking maniac named Maurice Duplessis. Among other things, this fellow used his power to be corrupt, persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for some reason, strengthen the grip of the Catholic church on the province's institutions, aggressively pursue communists, and in doing so, further anti-union policies. Hmm, now why would the existence of an anti-union Premier be relevant to a story about a mining town? Hmmmmmmm.

Yeah, okay, there was a big strike. Maybe it had something to do with the company everyone worked for covering up a massive health crisis that affected everyone that worked for it. Probably, so let’s get to the details of that first, I’m not just gonna spend all my column inches talking about some old French guy. Just know that I could if I wanted to.

I mentioned earlier that by the 20s, scientists were already pretty damn sure that something about the miracle mineral was messing with men’s m’breathing. The death of an Asbestos worker in the U.K. named Nellie Kershaw triggered a public inquest, culminating in the first diagnosis of “asbestosis,” a lung disease that really says it all on the tin. By the 30s, Asbestos workers in the U.S. were already demanding compensation for lung problems and suing Johns Manville. But since none of the Quebecois workers spoke any English, the news didn’t make it to the increasingly ominously named outpost for like two decades.

That said, JM’s cover-up went much, much further than simply not translating the Toronto Star. The corporation sponsored research into asbestosis and other asbestos-related lung injuries at the Saranac Lake laboratory in Upstate New York and funded McGill University’s new occupational health program, allowing them to bury alarming reports from the two physically closest sources to Asbestos the town. This also all took place before universal healthcare, so the company provided doctors to its workers, who directed attention away from the effects of asbestos the rock with misdirection and some serious lies-by-omission.

The company policy remained through the 70s to not inform workers who were not “disabled” (read: made unable to work) by asbestosis that they had anything wrong with them at all, even while they were clearly dying. There’s an audio recording of the internal memo that literally said this included in CANADALAND’s Commons: Mining series. You have to listen to it, the dude reading it sounds like every cartoon villain ever, it’s insane.

And Johns Manville didn’t stop there, it went full Tuskegee Syphilis Study on its workers’ asses. This is the part that knocks me on my ass every time I read about it. When researcher Gerrit W.H. Scheper visited the Saranac Lake laboratory, he “found nine human lung cancer and two mesothelioma cases in a file identified as “Quebec Asbestos Workers.” He then visited Quebec, he wrote in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, and “ascertained from Mr. Ivan Sabourin, the chief attorney for the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA), that he had confidentially hand carried those case materials” to the lab. That’s old-ass doctor speak for ‘I found out that this lawyer smuggled dead miner’s lungs to a lab across an international border without their consent or that of their families.’ Dr. Van Horsen puts the number between 50 and 70 lungs.

Side note: it’s difficult to tell from Scheper’s article, but in the context it sounds like he might have uncovered this information in the fucking 40s, before the Quebec Asbestos miners even knew anything was wrong. I’m not trying to flame this guy, cause it seems like he was genuinely on the frontlines trying to regulate the asbestos industry, but I cannot imagine a universe in which I stumbled across that level of fuckery and just sat on the information. Then again, I was never a scientist in the 40s, so who knows what kinda shit those folks were cool with.

I’m gonna just let that one marinate, because none of this became public before, finally, in 1949, a French-American journalist named Burton LeDoux published an expose of the Jeffrey mine in Le Devoir, laying out all the evidence linking Asbestos to cancer. Guess what? Strike time, baby.

And this is where my main man Maurice showed up. Just in the nick of authoritarian time. His government swiftly declared the strike illegal, and sent the provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to break it up and protect scabs. The SQ violently assaulted strikers, sometimes in churches, allegedly, and also tortured strike leaders and threatened their families. According to van Horsen, the SQ did so while taking directions not from their institution’s superiors, but from Johns Manville’s, who egged them on, in English. Tell me the police don’t serve the interests of the corporate elite right now, I fucking dare you. Now might be a good time to also mention that Maurice Duplessis used to tell companies that they should invest in Quebec because its workers made for cheap labour. Nice.

This part backfired for JM though, because, as a result of the strike, the workers became the highest paid miners in the country. That said, they received no additional health benefits. Bit of a pyrrhic victory there, gang, but at least all that extra money can pay for a nice funeral when you’re 55.

So, not the best outcome for the miners, especially given, as I said, Johns Manville continued to deny the effects of its business on its employees for another decade or so. But they made a splash, and the shockwaves were felt in every corner of the province, and eventually the country. The Asbestos strike of 1949 turned the Catholic church a little bit against Duplessis, which is cool; it’s credited with kicking off La Révolution Tranquille (The Quiet Revolution), a period of drastic socio-economic progress; and it boosted the profile of a journalist covering the event, one M. Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Funny how things work out. The winds of time did eventually erode Johns Manville’s influence in the region. Facing a mountain of class-action lawsuits and a rapidly disappearing asbestos industry, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982. I don’t know if any Quebecois workers ever saw a dime, but whatever they did manage to claw out of their employer’s cold dying hands before that chapter 11 claim, it wasn’t enough.

And what the fuck about that lung-smuggling dude, am I right? He just gets out of this clean??? Yeah, seems about right tbh.


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