The asbestos miners’ strike begins

February 14, 2018

On midnight February 14, 1949, workers at four Quebec asbestos mines walked off the job and with that action started a major political and cultural shift not only in that province but the history of Canada. It was, as Pierre Trudeau later wrote, “a violent announcement that a new era had begun.”

“What I found [at Asbestos]… was a Quebec I did not know, that of workers exploited by management, denounced by government, clubbed by police, and yet burning with a fervent militancy. I was later to describe the strike . . . as a “turning point in the entire religious, political, social and economic history of the province of Quebec.”

P. E. Trudeau, Approaches to Politics. 2010

The conservative Union Nationale was the government of Quebec. The Premier, Maurice Duplessis, was known as “Le Chef,” ruling the province with a strong hand. Supporters benefited from patronage, those in opposition were punished.  His time in office has been called La Grande Noirceur (“The Great Darkness”).  He championed a rural Quebec working with the Catholic Church to protect the population from the evils of Communism and militant Unions that would jeopardise American industrial investment.

In 1937 his government enacted the “La loi du cadenas” / “Loi protégeant la province contre la propagande communiste”, (Act to protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda or as it was known the ‘Padlock Law’). This act made it illegal to use a dwelling to propagate Communism or Bolshevism. A violation would allow the Attorney General to padlock the building for up to one year.  A person guilty of involvement in prohibited activities could be jailed for thirteen months.  (In 1957 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law.) So when the miners struck their employers they also were taking on the right wing provincial government of Duplessis.

The miners wanted a wage of $1 per hour, union security, a pension, and action to check the spread of lung choking ‘silicosis’ caused by exposure to asbestos.  They did not have to wait long for premier to respond to their demands. On February 23 their strike was declared illegal and Duplessis dispatched a battalion of provincial police to the small town of Asbestos. For over two months calm in the community was preserved with almost a holiday atmosphere as people strolled about with music entertainment for the workers and their families but all that was soon to change.

Quebec supplied 85% of the world’s asbestos and the American Johns Manville Company began to hire replacement workers. The police supported them by intimidation and threatening the miners, breaking up their picket lines, even padlocking a church to prevent the miners from meeting there. The strikers fought back setting up roadblocks to prevent the “scabs” from entering the town.  On March 14 someone set off an explosion on the railway track leading into the plant and a company official was beaten by the workers.

Duplessis called the strikes “saboteurs” and “subversives.” At the picket lines the police attacked the strikers with tear gas and fired warning shots into the air. Strikers responded by dragging police from their cars and beat them. On May 6 a heavily armed provincial police force arrived arresting several strikers and beating them in the process. However, now there was a photographer for Time magazine as a witness making the strike worldwide news and the brutality of the police the central issue. Journalist Gérard Pelletier labelled them “Hitler’s elite troops.”

The culture that had allowed the Union Nationale to rule with an iron fist was cracking. Young intellectuals like future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau came from Montreal to the support of the miners. The traditionally conservative union movement of the “Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labour (CCCL),” originally set up by the church to keep workers away from communist and radical unions, was itself fighting back against their employers and the government. Workers cheered militant union leader Jean Marchand when he spoke. Even the traditionally conservative Catholic Church found it was in sympathy with the strikers raising support to sustain the miner’s families.

The strike ended on July 1st with Archbishop Roy mediating a settlement. While Quebec was starting its Quiet Revolution the workers would have to wait.  Many were not rehired, those that were continued to work in one of the most dangerous workplaces in the world. Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier, would go on to play profound roles in shaping the political developments of Quebec and Canada. As for asbestos the health and safety struggles of 1949 continue to play out as it has taken Canada until this year to start banning it proposing the prohibition of the use, sale, import and export of asbestos and products containing the hazardous material.

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