Widows of the Workers: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

SEIU Healthcare Healthaholic Blog Widows of Workers

The following blog post has been written by Natasha Luckhardt, a community activist who is passionate about improving the lives of widows of occupational disease. While Natasha is a researcher at SEIU Healthcare who often focuses on OHS issues for the union, this particular passion project is independent from the organization.

The National Day of Mourning, which honours workers who have been killed on the job, falls on April 28th. From April 1st to April 28th, I will be raising funds for a documentary about widows of asbestos.

While there are many of these widows, this film will focus on the widows who have lost their husbands to occupational cancer at General Electric (GE) in Peterborough, Ontario.  

Sandy LeBeau is one of these widows.

“My girls were 15 and 17 years old when they lost their dad and five years before that, they sat at the table for supper when he said the chemicals will kill him,” explains Sandy LeBeau.  

Her husband, Ron LeBeau, worked at the GE plant in Peterborough for 20 years.  Along with many other employees in the plant, Ron was exposed to various hazardous, degenerative and lethal chemicals, including asbestos. He had that discussion with his daughters and wife right after he read the WHMIS report in the 1980s, which revealed the potentially lethal effect of the many chemicals he worked with at GE. 

Over the years, Ron LeBeau watched as his coworkers passed away as a result of cancer or other acute illnesses – many of whom were under 50.  

After Ron LeBeau’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with asbestosis after working in a manufacturing plant in Northern Ontario, his sister advised Ron to ‘get out of there.’ But it was too late.

Ron died of stomach cancer within three months after being diagnosed. He was only 39 years old.

It has been 20 years since Sandy LeBeau filed for compensation on her husband's behalf and she has not received a cent. 

Sandy was one of the 700 workers and widows who showed up at an occupational health intake clinic in Peterborough to investigate whether or not their cancer or her husband's cancer was due to asbestos or exposure to other chemicals. 230 of the 700 filed for compensation. To date, only 107 of these workers have received it.

Since their husbands have been silenced by occupational cancer, the widows are the ones who are left behind to tell the details of the asbestos-ridden clothing their husband would come home in. They remember how their husband always had a varnish all over his body that you could smell even after he had showered. They recall how their husband's shoes were tainted blue from the chemicals and white from the asbestos.

Like Sandy LeBeau, the widows are also the ones who can speak to the history of the “Electric City” as Peterborough was coined in its manufacturing glory; the dynamics of spending their whole lives in a town whose industry both kept the city going, and made the people sick.

They could also tell you that the GE property is now a ghost town. It used to employ 6,000 workers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it now runs with a much smaller staff of around 600-1,500 people.

They are also the ones who, after losing their husbands, have lost their battle with the compensation system or who, after 20 years, have still not received a final response either way.

And yet, their lives have not been overcome with pure grief; they still laugh, they cry, they reminisce and they remember. Sandy says she talks about her husband every day.

The goal of this documentary is for people to know about Sandy’s husband, the workers, the widows, the community and especially about asbestos. Asbestos is often seen as a relic of the past and I want to show that this toxic chemical is still very much alive and is having a grave impact in communities, such as Peterborough.

The documentary will talk about the history of asbestos, or what was known as the “magic mineral”, the conflicting dynamics of people who worked for a company to earn a living but were exposed to this poisonous dust, the head-spinning nature of the compensation system and the metallic odour that was always lingering around the manufacturing plants in Peterborough and staining the houses around it.

I’ll also be interviewing widows who were compensated, as well as workers who are still fighting cancer and trying to obtain some form compensation at the same time.  

It won’t be all sadness, though. I’ve interviewed these people before and their strength, wit and presence is inspirational and I want to share their stories with the world.

April 28th is The National Day of Mourning and this year, the Canadian Labour Congress has announced that asbestos will be the main theme raised. Simultaneously, there is a "Ban Asbestos Canada" movement on behalf of labour and other organizations for a comprehensive ban on asbestos and I want to add my voice and the workers' voices to this movement.

Any help that you can give – money*, advice, your expertise - to share these stories would truly mean so much.

To keep the momentum going, I’ll be releasing a few short videos leading up to April 28th, highlighting issues such as the extent of their husband’s exposures in the plant, their experience with the WSIB system and the socioeconomic and emotional impact of their loss.

#settlethedust #voicesforwidows #widowsofworkers #widowsofasbestos #banasbestoscanada

*The money will be going towards hiring people for audio, filming and editing.  I won’t be taking any of the money for myself as I’ll be contributing to the documentary as well. The budget is based off of the bare minimum for starting a small documentary project, based on conversations with people in the film industry.

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