The Asbestos Strike

“It made me sick to watch it,” said a photographer for Time magazine (the strike was now news the world over).

The strike which began on February 13, 1949 in Asbestos, Quebec, is one of those events that resonate beyond the immediate and define history. It was, as Pierre Trudeau later wrote, “a violent announcement that a new era had begun.”

At the time of the strike, Premier Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale party had a choke hold on the province of Quebec. Called “Le Chef,” he saw himself as a patriarch and the citizens as his children. Those who supported him received his blessings in the form of patronage; those who opposed him were ignored. Whenever he went too far, he had a gift for redeeming himself with a great speech or gesture. Above all he had mastered the fine Canadian art of rallying provincial support by reviling Ottawa.

One thing that Duplessis could not stand was change, and the events that were about to unfold in the obscure mining town of Asbestos would be the first serious threat to his hegemony.

In December 1948 negotiations began on a labour contract for 1949. The miners had six basic demands, including a wage of $1 per hour, union security, a pension scheme and some company action to check the spread of lung choking silicosis caused by exposure to asbestos. The negotiations hit a deadlock by early February and by law both sides were required to go to arbitration. This was a happy prospect for the company, for the government invariably chose pro-business arbitrators.

The dispute attracted a large group of activists from Montreal, who came to support the workers. Among them was union militant Jean Marchand, whose fiery speech to the workers on February 13, 1949 incited their cries of “On with the strike!” In the early days of the strike there was almost a holiday atmosphere as people strolled about. Fiddlers and accordion players provided music.

The 1949 Asbestos Strike in Quebec was one of the most violent in Canada's labour history (courtesy Montreal Gazette).

It did not take long for the premier to respond. On February 23 he declared the strike illegal and dispatched a battalion of provincial police. For two and a half months the strikers remained calm, but since Quebec supplied 85% of the world’s asbestos, the American owned Johns Manville Company grew restive and began to hire replacement workers. The police began active patrols and threatened the miners. The workers set up roadblocks to keep out the “scabs.” On March 14 there was an explosion on the railway track leading into the plant and a few days later a group of strikers abducted and beat a company official.

At the mill the police hastily gathered themselves to break the picket lines. They attacked the strikers with tear gas and fired warning shots into the air. The strikers dragged police from their cars and beat them unconscious. On the morning of May 6 a heavily armed police force entered the town, arrested several men and battered them. “It made me sick to watch it,” said a photographer for Time magazine (the strike was now news the world over). Now the brutality of the provincial police became the central issue – “Hitler’s elite troops,” journalist Gérard Pelletier called them.

Duplessis railed against the union leaders and called them “saboteurs” and “subversives.” But even the conservative Church found itself in sympathy with the strikers and it raised most of the support for the destitute families. When the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, openly championed the strike, Duplessis had him exiled to Vancouver. In June Archibishop Roy stepped in to mediate the strike and an agreement was finally reached on July 1.

The strike continued to play an important role in the minds of Quebec intellectuals in the years leading up to the Quiet Revolution. It led many to question the kind of nationalism that buttressed the conservative and anti-labour Duplessis government. It also provided the first stage for several intellectuals, namely Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier, who would later play profound roles in the political developments not only of Quebec but of Canada.

For the workers, back to work in the dangerous air of the asbestos mines, the strike was no revolution. Their material gains were small. Many were not rehired and little was done to alleviate the working conditions that would take many lives over the next generation. In 1974, Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, the world’s foremost authority on asbestos-related diseases, described the asbestos mining towns of Quebec as the most dangerous in the world. The town of Asbestos has a long memory. Even today, when a “scab” passes away, the only people at the funeral home are the priest and a few members of the Knights of Columbus to pray for his soul.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 



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