The abandoned asbestos mine
The abandoned asbestos mine

The abandoned asbestos mine

The abandoned asbestos mine

Pioneers of white gold

Thetford Mines (Quebec), Canada

The history of the Thetford Mines region is closely linked to asbestos located in its womb. It was during the summer of 1876 that a farmer named Joseph Fecteau discovered asbestos in the area. Soon, the secret of his discovery gets out and Johnson Brothers and King brothers bought the land and therefore begins the  white gold rush.

Two years later, the King mine opens and starts the mining the precious ore. This is the era of the most savage capitalism where the government intervenes as little as possible. The weekly salary can range from $ 6 to $ 7 for ten to twelve hours per day, six days a week and most mining are agricultural workers.

While workers settled around the mines with their families, the town of Kingsville will be founded in 1892 which will later renamed Thetford Mines in 1905. In the space of 20 years, seven quarries will open and more than 350 workers are working there.

Initially, the work is done with the means at hand (wheelbarrows pushed by workers to the outside of the mine, then wooden rails with wagons pulled by horses, etc..). Moreover, in its infancy, the King mine was open sky, but a collapse of more than one million tonnes of rock will force the owners to opt for subterranean extraction in the 30s. This is the time where accidents are commonplace and when government authorities turn a blind eye to these rich businessmen and their business models based on wealth at the expense of the rest.

Moreover, at that time, the Mining Act of 1892 prohibits the employment of children under fifteen years old in underground work. However, as most asbestos mines are open sky, nothing prevents the owners to use children in the operation of their mines.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when will begin the golden age of capitalism and mines industrialization, they will be more profitable with new opportunities asbestos: papermaking, interior plastering buildings, imitation of wood and manufacture of shingles. In 1910, more than 3,000 people are working in the mines of the region. In addition, wages are more interesting for the region. While an unskilled miner can earn $ 1.75 per day, career miner can pocketing more than $ 2 for the same work.

World War I elicits a dramatic increase in the production of asbestos, as it is now used in the manufacture of many things as varied as surprising: ships, submarines, gloves, gas mask and more. The workers will start to ask to review their working conditions and wages and the first two unions will be created to fight against the employer. Unfortunately, they lose their energy to fight against each other.

Nevertheless, the workers join the unionism movement gradually to protect their assets and ensure a better future. Thus, February 14, 1949, they declared a strike when their demands are rejected by the employer (elimination of asbestos dust in factories, a wage increase of $ 0.15 per hour and the creation of a security fund administered by the union among others). Considered as radical requests, it is important to remember that at this time in Quebec strikes are rare and are almost always declared illegal. This one will not be will be an exception.

Maurice Duplessis, prime minister of Quebec, takes the side of the employer, because he judges that unionism is synonymous with socialism. He sent hundreds of police officers on site and Johns Manville's bosses hires scabs. The strike become violent when 5,000 strikers attacked and destroyed the homes of some scabs. Moreover, it was during this conflict that was initiated to unionism's world, one of Québec's largest unionist, Michel Chartrand.

Toxic and carcinogenic

Although the dangers of asbestos have been clearly identified in the 1890s, many studies will confirm that the inhalation of asbestos fibers is the cause of asbestosis (fibrosis), of lung cancers, as well as cancers of the pleura (mesothelioma) and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. The first victims are the mining themselves and their own families. That will be the main cause of the collapse of the asbestos market that will lead to the permanent closure of the King mine in 1986 and most of its neighbors.

Despite multiple attempts snapbacks, they all end in failure. With the closure of borders to asbestos in many countries, it will increase the difficulties to find new markets for the white gold.

Today, the site of the former King mine is part of a large project to revitalize the sector. Known as the Historic Centre of the King mine, the project is about preserving the mining heritage of the area while developing an urban park making a nod to the past. The project of the future historic site is divided into three phases, the first is valued at $ 6.6 million and funded 80% by a grant from the Quebec government.

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