General Articles

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Silicosis: The Dust Settles

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK August 15 1948
General Articles

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Silicosis: The Dust Settles

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK August 15 1948

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Silicosis: The Dust Settles

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK

AS A POLITICAL issue, the Quebec silicosis scandal (reported in this space July 1) came to nothing. Whether anything at all will develop from the affair is doubtful, but still an open question.

In March the Jesuit magazine Relations carried a sensational article about silicosis, a lethal industrial disease, among employees in a silica quarry at St. Remi, Que. In July Relations published a “rectification” of that article, withdrawing some half dozen specific allegations. It wasn’t a blanket retraction, but it had much the same effect—left the impression that the original article had been groundless.

“This rectification puts an end, so far as Relations is concerned, to the discussion raised by Mr. Burton Ledoux’s article on silicosis,” said the new “interim director” of the magazine. (The editor, Rev. Jean d’Auteuil Richard, S.J., has been removed to a post in Sudbury.)

Clerical authorities and both political parties, as well as the various industrial companies named in the Ledoux article, appear now to concur in the desire that nothing more be said about the silicotics of St. Remi. Only the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, three doctors in the neighborhood of St. Remi, and a few other interested persons are keeping the controversy alive.

ALL SIDES now admit, after the enquiries of . recent weeks, that the original article in Relations had a number of serious errors. For one thing, the author overstated the number of dead. He gave the names of 54 men said to have died of silicosis—it turned out. that some had been killed in industrial accidents and there were even some who had never worked in the quarry at all. Le Devoir had two of its senior writers on the story for weeks and they reported they could find medical certificates for only 28 deaths from silicosis among quarry workers and ex-workers. Doctors in Arundel and Huberdeau, near St. Remi, estimate the death toll at 35 so far, with more to come.

Most serious of Ledoux’s errors, though, was his failure to distinguish between tux) companies which have operated the silica quarry and plant at St. Remi at different times.

Second of the two companies, a subsidiary of Noranda Mines, has a good health record. It gave each worker a semiannual X-ray and provided remedial treatment for any who wanted to take it. It made a number of improvements which reduced the hazard of silica dust. From 1941, when this company took over, until the plant was closed a month ago, no new cases of silicosis have been detected in St. Remi.

All the men who have died of silicosis in the village were employed by the previous operator of the quarry, Canadian Kaolin & Silica Ltd., a subsidiary of N. A. Timmins Corporation (during Kaolin’s period of operations, some of the advanced preventive measures introduced by the second company had not yet been discovered). Another 20 to 30 ex-employees of Kaolin are suffering from silicosis and the local doctors say at least 10 of them will die of it. St. Remi has only 160 families, so the percentage of casualties is impressive.

Canadian Kaolin’s plant burned down in 1940. The Noranda plant was closed last month and its

machinery dismantled. Why, then, is anybody still making a fuss about silicosis in St. Remi?

The answer is in one word—compensation.

Silicotics have a hard time collecting under the Quebec Workmen’s Compensation Act. Dr. C. A. Pelland of St. Jovite, 15 miles from St. Remi, recalls the case of a patient of his, an employee of the Kaolin plant:

“He was silicotic to such a point that he was to die only a few days later. He got a letter from the Workmen’s Compensation Board and this was the last paragraph the dying man read:

“ ‘The enquiry we have made into your case shows that you were effectively exposed to this disease (i.e., employed in the silica plant) for a total period of 32 months and 21 days. Consequently, and by virtue of Article 105B of the Act, the Board regrets it is unable to accept your claim, because you were not exposed for a period of at least three years.’ ”

For that kind of reason, few of the Kaolin workers who developed silicosis were able to get compensation. Not only is the period of exposure set at a fixed minimum (which was increased in 1943 from three to five years) but it is also specified that a worker may lay claim for compensation only within a certain interval of leaving the company’s employ.

For a number of Kaolin’s ex-employees, the period of delay was too short. They were thrown out of work suddenly when the plant burned down in 1940; they didn’t realize, for months afterward, that anything had happened to their lungs. By the time they started the silicotic cough, and took it to a doctor, the prescribed time had run out. Local doctors say that more than half the St. Remi silicotics are getting no compensation either from their former employers or from the Workmen’s Compensation Board. The period of delay, one year in Kaolin days, has been increased to five years.

The same goes for the widows and orphans left by those already dead. Only a few have ever received compensation from any source. Finally, there is the future to think of.

Dr. Reginald Henry of Arundel and Dr. Jean Garon of Huberdeau are the two physicians serving most of the St. Remi families St. Remi has no doctor of its own. Dr. Henry has made many examinations on behalf of both silica companies; both doctors have many silicotics, from the pre-1941 Kaolin era, among their patients.

No new cases have been detected among the men who worked for the new company. But both doctors suspect that some among their patients are beginning to show symptoms of the disease. Their worry is that the symptoms may become visible on an X-ray plate only after the legal period of delay has expired -in which case, once again, St. Remi would have a group of dying men whose families have no legal recourse.

Neither political party was anxious to make an issue of St. Remi and its dead, because both must accept responsibility for the rigid Compensation Act that left the victims penniless and the sloppy inspection that permitted bad working conditions in the first place. Both were in power during the j>eriod of Kaolin’s operation; either could have cleaned up the situation; neither did.

When Relations took up the issue, it looked for a while as if the great power of the Catholic Church might be actively mobilized for this reform. That would have put the Duplessis

Government on the defensive, given the equally guilty Liberals a chance to make an issue of it.

Then Relations backed down. The editor, who refused to sign the “rectification” in its final unqualified form, was posted elsewhere and the new “interim director” proclaimed that “this rectification puts an end to the discussion.”

Le Devoir has always been, and still is, regarded as a peculiarly clerical

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newspaper; it often sounds like the very voice of the Catholic clergy. It was strange to read, last month, a leading editorial signed by Le Devoir director, Gerard Filion, which gave a stinging rebuke to the organ of the Jesuits:

“We have no right as Catholics to keep silence over this affair and to bury a second time the silicotics of St. Remi. Also, the detached air Relations takes in closing the debate is hardly suitable to a paper which has always

advertised its preoccupation with social questions. To sanction an injustice toward the weak, on the pretext of rendering justice to the strong, is no proof of courage . . .

“It is through dishonorable capitulations like the one we now witness that the working class, not of France or Italy but of Canada and Quebec, will gradually lose confidence in the Christian faith and turn to the leaders of the Left:. And then we shall see those same Catholics, who let the workers down when it was time to defend them, calling with loud screams for the maintenance of order by Padlock Laws and the application of social justice with the lash.” ★