A Canadian Pilgrimage
When I met Leah Nielson and Stacy Cattran in Los Angeles last year (2011), we immediately connected. We shared the same cause and the same hunger; we were the voices of our loved ones now gone due, to the activities of a powerful industrial lobby. I promised the two sisters that, should they organize a second march to support the asbestos victims in the city of Sarnia, Ontario, I would be there.
When the date was set for September 29, I remembered my promise. I was aware that the asbestos dossier in Québec was becoming front page news with upcoming elections and conflicting reports about what might or might not happen regarding the regeneration of the exhausted Jeffrey Chrysotile Mine. Would the mine receive the $58 million that Premier Charest's Québec Government had promised or would a new Government turn its back on this deadly industry?
If I was going to go to Sarnia, I would have to also go to Québec to see for myself what was happening. I wanted to meet with local activists, victims and, why not, perhaps even the mine owners. With my family background, four relatives dead from exposure to Québec asbestos, and my fluency in French, maybe Québec's asbestos stakeholders would listen to me. After all, I too spoke the language of the Belle Province: French! As a Belgian, living in a two language country, I am sensitive to this kind of situation. This dimension might have been overlooked in the past by anti-asbestos activists! In my view, this was important. While it was easy for the Québécois to ignore messages in English, perhaps, if the facts were conveyed in their own language they might be more receptive. This was my theory.
As a result of contacting a number of French-speaking ban asbestos groups, Alain Bobbio, from the French asbestos victims' group ANDEVA, volunteered to accompany me on my journey. Alain and I left Belgium for Montréal on Sunday September 23.
Eric Jonckheere (left) and Alain Bobbio.
Michaela Keyserlingk, who became a ban asbestos activist after her husband's death from mesothelioma, opened her home to Alain and me. During our first three days we were introduced to the complexity of the Québec and Canada cohabitation. Anne-Marie St Cerny and Daniel Green, local activists and well known environmentalists, shared with us their thoughts about the September 4, 2012 elections won by the Party Québecois. The Province had gone through a veritable political tsunami and we just happened to be there! After so many years of government support for the asbestos industry and the export of chrysotile asbestos, the new Premier Pauline Marois was about to announce that Québec would keep the asbestos mines closed! Mixed signals had emerged during the electoral campaign but hope was definitely in sight.
On September 26, Alain and I set off for Montréal for a meeting with Richard Gascon, at the Institut pour Recherches en Santé et Sécurité (IRSST), a leading research institute with substantial resources for research into occupational diseases and injuries. On the subject of asbestos, Monsieur Gascon was clearly walking on eggshells. In Montréal, Alain and I were joined by Dr T.K. Joshi, from India who went with us to Toronto. The train journey provided us with a breather; as we watched the autumn colours roll by we were able to digest some of what we had learned that morning.
Toronto provided us with the opportunity to attend an Asbestos Symposium at St. Michael's Hospital; this event was organized by Alec Farquhar, Director of the Office of the Worker Adviser and was attended by representatives from several trade unions.
The content of the sessions was informative regarding the latest medical techniques in the treatment of mesotheliomas. Unfortunately, there have been no major breakthroughs!
On Friday morning, Alec, Dr Joshi, Alain and I drove to Sarnia. Once there, we had a guided tour which revealed an industrial landscape dominated by chemical plants, smokestacks and trailer trucks. Sarnia's nickname, Chemical Valley is appropriate was in full view! At 5 p.m., we met with some of Sarnia's asbestos widows; they had organized a candlelight vigil along the banks of the river. We stood in silence as we watched paper lanterns ascend into the bright blue sky.
On Saturday morning (September 29), 650 friends and families of asbestos victims turned out in response to Leah and Stacy's call for the second Walk to Remember Asbestos Victims.
The Mayor, Member of Parliament Pat Martin, Barry Castleman, Dr Joshi and me took to the microphone to express messages of hope before the walk began. One thought crossed my mind: why are the mayors of Sarnia, Libby and Casale taking the side of the victims and taking a public stand against asbestos while Monsieur Léo Peeters, the Mayor of Kapelle for 30 years, has not? As the conclusion to my remarks I asked Hey Canada, are you out of your mine d ?? Those words would soon come back to haunt me.
By now, our visit planned for Sunday (September 30) to the town of Asbestos had been reported in an article in la Tribune, a leading Québec newspaper. Bernard Coulombe, the President of the Jeffrey Mine, had told the journalist that our trip was funded by European companies which manufacture asbestos-free alternatives. We were, he said, only coming to Québec to stir up trouble. In preparation for our trip and hoping that I could meet with widows and victims in Asbestos, I had called the priest of the local church, church St Isaac, during the week to see if we could visit after Sunday mass. To my surprise, after a brief introduction, he indicated he had read about our visit. He then refused to meet us and said that, as far as he was concerned, there was no problem with Québec's chrysotile asbestos and no asbestos victims in the town. Then he hung up. He was baffled and shaken! But so was I to receive such treatment from a man of God. Omerta had, I guess, even affected the man in black!
When Sunday dawned, I was on edge. It was after all the day I would come face-to-face with the mine which had produced the mineral that had killed my Father, Mother, and two brothers. Fortunately, I was not alone. Alain and I were accompanied by Anne-Marie de St Cerny and Didier Green on the three hour drive to the pit on the outskirts of Asbestos. We had arranged a rendezvous with journalist Ivan Provencher near a huge excavation truck, a local landmark overlooking the open pit site. After preliminary comments by way of introduction from Alain and me, Mr. Provencher admitted he worked for the city of Asbestos as a freelance part-time journalist to "help" outsiders understand the situation in Asbestos. Things went belly-up from there.
In his opinion, mining in Asbestos could be done in a safe manner; there were no definitive data on whether anyone in the town was ill. Of course, Provencher did not have any data on the global death toll from asbestos. I told him I had made a quick count of the people inside the restaurant where we were sitting and there were 25 adult men and 42 adult women. At one table there were 4 women and only 1 man. Where did all the men go? Was there a football game in town on this rainy Sunday? Of course, this observation, he said, could not be validated or taken seriously. But I had made my point. We know where the men are I told him; in the cemetery just like in Sarnia, Kapelle, and Casale and...
Anne-Marie warned Provencher that the number of sick people would soon explode in the province, just as it is starting to explode in Kapelle, my home town. In Kapelle people are only now beginning to accept how the asbestos industry, their beloved Eternit, had lied to them. The same will, Annie-Marie predicted, happen in Asbestos. It is only a matter of time.
Following up on Annie-Marie's comments, Alain tried to explain that there is no such thing as a safe level of asbestos. You can guess how the rest of the meeting went: a total disaster. No concern whatsoever for the people who would be exposed to Québec's asbestos at the end of the line; workers in India, Thailand or Indonesia. Only the jobs in Québec matter.
Provencher took home the letter (in French) we had taken with us addressed to "to whom it may concern" stating the reasons we were in Asbestos. I also gave him a small poster with many portraits of asbestos victims but he wouldn't look at it.
After the restaurant, we drove to the pit. There is, well above the lip, a little deck built for tourists to observe the gigantic hole from which asbestos is pulled out of the ground. The scale is enormous and huge trucks look like Lego toys from this distance. The rain which had just started reminded me of Belgium. With the view partly obscured, I had the feeling that the devil was hiding behind the low clouds. Having looked the enemy in the face, we lowered our eyes and observed a minute of silence. Having paid our respects, we deposited two large bouquets of flowers at the site as our friend Annie-Marie filmed our activities.
The pseudo journalist was nowhere to be seen; he hid from the cameras. If his job is honorable, why was he hiding?
While we were there, a young couple arrived at the observation deck. Too bad we were there; they were obviously looking for some privacy. What a place for such a moment! Didn't these locals know that so much death and tragedy came from the mine under their feet?
Provencher offered to take us on a city tour and Alain courageously volunteered to accompany him, I was in no shape to listen one more minute to the propaganda. When Alain and I were finally on our own, we went to drop off copies of our letter at six different places: the mayor's office, two union offices, a pharmacy and, of course, the presbytery where the priest had hung up on me last Friday. I had a unique opportunity to deliver the letter to the waitress in the restaurant. Of course she had listened to our conversation and she knew who we were after the article in the local Gazette and the reaction of M. Coulombe. She was not really happy about our presence there. We had a frank and open conversation about the issues; her husband was an ex-worker from the mine. She looked shaken when I told her asbestos from Québec had probably killed four members of my family and seven people in the 400m long street where I grew up; the asbestos in my lungs might have been extracted by her husband. Did I see her face turning red, or was it just my imagination? Let's work together, I told her, for a better future; I cannot waste energy with revenge!
We left town just before darkness as the devil went back into hiding.
I had done what I had set out to do. I had stood at the mine head and looked into the face of evil, but I had also met some wonderful people on my journey: other asbestos victims as well as campaigners who were determined to end Canada's asbestos legacy. So, as painful as my visit was it was also an honor to spend time with so many dedicated activists. Québec needs our help. I will be back, but next time with a lighter heart and a hope that it will be to a country determined to rid itself of the asbestos stain.
October 19, 2012