Advocates for miners who developed health issues after inhaling aluminum dust on the job will have to wait a little longer to receive an official apology from the province for its role in the practice, which spanned nearly four decades.
On April 28 — observed as Canada’s national Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed, injured or become ill on the job — Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas presented the case for an official apology in the Ontario Legislature.
“For 36 years, these miners were told that breathing in McIntyre Powder would protect them from harm,” Gélinas said.
“Unfortunately, it did not; it hurt them. Some of them experienced immediate health effects; many of them have long-term health effects.
"This is not fair; this could have been prevented.”
McIntyre Powder was a finely ground aluminum dust created by mine executives — and approved by the government of the day — as a preventive measure against the lung disease silicosis, which was common amongst underground miners.
Before every shift, miners would gather in the dry (changeroom) and breathe in the powder as it was pumped into the sealed room.
The practice lasted between 1943 and 1980, and was eventually discontinued when it was found to have no health benefits, but not before an estimated 25,000 workers across Canada and in other countries had been impacted.
Miners have since developed health conditions ranging from cancer and respiratory issues to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Since 2014, worker advocate Janice Martell has gathered information about McIntyre Powder and its effect on exposed miners.
Her work was inspired by her father, Jim Hobbs, who developed Parkinson’s disease after inhaling the dust while working as a miner in Northern Ontario. He later died of the illness.
Martell, her brother Jim Hobbs Jr., and daughter Jessica Rogers, along with others who have been impacted by occupational illness, were present in the Legislature's gallery as the motion to request an apology was read.
"This is a legacy issue,” Martell said in an interview. “They have this opportunity now, while the last of (the impacted miners) are alive, to be able to give that apology.”
Gélinas received a standing ovation and there was audible support among the Members of Parliament for the motion, but House Leader Paul A. Calandra said it would need to wait until Parliament's next sitting.
Watch below as MPPs France Gélinas and Paul A. Calandra speak in the Ontario Legislature to the request for an apology for miners exposed to McIntyre Powder:
Citing the last-minute nature of the request — Calandra said he only became aware of it the previous day — he said he would not support the motion for an apology, but would work toward making it happen at some future point.
“I think when we do something like this… something this important needs to be done in an appropriate fashion, with the consultation of the members and with the family and those who are impacted by it,” he said.
“The families do deserve an apology, absolutely. But we can't do it in less than 24 hours, Mr. Speaker.
“They have my word that when this house does resume in the next Parliament, we will honour the families appropriately and we will do it together.”
Parliament has now adjourned for the summer and won't return until the fall — after the provincial election.
It was a disappointment for Martell, who noted that Sudbury MPP Jamie West had first read a statement about McIntyre Powder in the Legislature as far back as February.
West then introduced the motion two weeks ago, just before Easter weekend, and all MPPs received a briefing package with background details about McIntyre Powder.
Martell contends that should have been sufficient time for sitting members to become familiar with the issue.
“If they were paying attention, they would have heard about this before the 24 hours (Calandra) was stating,” she said.
“I do appreciate the point that they want to do a proper apology. If they can take the time to read the (background material), I think it'll be abundantly clear why this apology is needed.”
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton used the opportunity to highlight a number of changes his ministry has made to address occupational illness under provincial law.
That includes a February announcement that Parkinson's disease would be formally recognized as an occupational disease under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.
It means miners whose diagnosis of Parkinson's has been directly linked to a McIntyre Powder exposure will automatically qualify for compensation from the Workplace Insurance and Safety Board (WSIB).
McNaughton then directly addressed Martell in the gallery.
"I have to say to Janice, specifically, one of my proudest moments as the minister of labour was making that phone call to you to thank you for your advocacy on behalf of your father, on behalf of all those miners impacted,” he said.
“Mr. Speaker, I’m proud to say, justice will be served."
McNaughton vowed that workers impacted by McIntyre Powder would not be the last to benefit from changes to the compensation system, noting that a full review of the WSIB system is being undertaken this year.
In assessing the current list of occupational diseases under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the province is aiming to “evaluate how occupational illnesses in Ontario are identified, monitored and prevented.”
The move comes following pressure from the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance, which publicly called for a review of the provincial compensation last year.
"No worker in Ontario should have to wait 40 years to receive compensation,” McNaughton said.
The province is also undertaking a review of the amount of pre-injury take-home pay a worker qualifies for after being injured or becoming ill on the job.
Currently, eligible workers are entitled to 85 per cent of their earnings before injury. But the province is considering bumping that up to 90 per cent.
The review is expected to be complete by December.
Though appreciative of McNaughton's comments, Martell noted that the issue is time-sensitive.
The youngest of the miners exposed to McIntyre Powder were born in the 1960s, she noted. Many are ill and dying, and she worries they won't live long enough to see reparations for the “human experiment” they were involuntarily subjected to.
“There was some acknowledgment yesterday; it's just the apology’s important, and we didn't get it,” she said.
“It was very difficult to take because I know that, between now and September or October, or a year from now, or whenever they do this again, my miners, some of them are going to die, and they won't hear it.”