Injured Workers Day: On the 4th Annual Justice Bike Ride in Northern Ontario

Yesterday I read a really interesting and inspiring article in the Ontario Political Forum on the theme of standing up for injured workers in Northern Ontario. Four days of action, centring around the fourth annual Justice Bike Ride, a quite wonderful initiative. This year it was called the Jim Hobbs Memorial Ride, with the first leg of the ride going from Elliot Lake to the late Jim Hobbs’ hometown of Massey for a reception. The riders biked to Sudbury the next day where they were met with a reception and BBQ at the Steel Hall. On May 28, the inaugural meeting of the Sudbury Injured Workers’ Group was successfully held. The activities included in-depth educational forums; eighty people, almost one per cent of Elliot Lake’s population, attended a seminar (see video) on McIntyre Powder. “We must take our compensation system back!” was the spirit that imbued the four days of events in Northern Ontario. The activities were organized by the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG) and the McIntyre Powder Project (MPP). The Justice Bike Ride lead-up to the annual June 1 rally at Queen’s Park as well as local actions held on the occasion of the 35th annual Injured Workers’ Day in the province.

Seminar on Occupational Disease in Mining and McIntyre Powder Research in Elliot Lake, May 25, 2018

McIntyre Powder is a mixture of aluminum and aluminum oxide. In the middle part of the last century, miners in Ontario’s gold and uranium mines were forced to inhale it at the start of each shift on the basis that it allegedly protected them from contracting silicosis. It has been connected with serious neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Almost 500 mine workers registered with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers at McIntyre Powder Intake Clinics that were held in Timmins and Sudbury.

The article touched me personally – a poignant reminder of the passing of a member of our family. Trevor Smith, originally from Oakville, though much older than myself was one of my favourite cousins, a gentle soul, very kind and one of the nicest and most humble men one could ever meet. My sister Debby me informs me that when his youngest sister Frances had been diagnosed with leukemia in her early 20s he took her on a tour of Europe and footed the entire bill. He was a miner who laboured in the uranium mines of Elliot Lake for his whole life. “He was very young when he first went to Elliot Lake, it was just the beginning, the workers were camped in tents. Our father was adamant that he not go down into the mines,” his sister Patricia recalled.

These mines were “established to provide a cheap and secure source of uranium for U.S. Cold War efforts, [which] caused the premature deaths of hundreds if not thousands of miners from silicosis and exposure to radiation and industrial chemicals. The situation was such that it gave rise to the Ham Commission which eventually led to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the limited rights of Ontario workers to refuse unsafe work. Uranium tailings and industrial chemicals severely polluted the Serpent River affecting the health of members of the Serpent River First Nation through whose traditional territory the bike riders also passed.”

This gave pause for reflection. Trevor worked above ground in the crushing room, no doubt not without certain hazards. After his retirement in the 1980s, Trevor had kept active, running the bar at the local curling club. He too died prematurely from stomach cancer. “In the end at the hospital, he was surrounded by men with illnesses associated with working in the uranium mines. Before all of this he made a life for himself there and was much loved,” Patricia wrote in an email. There was such a huge turnout for his funeral in Elliott Lake that the family was quite moved. But I had lost touch, having moved to Halifax, and I didn’t hear of his passing for some years. Until reading this article, I had never correlated his cancer with his occupation. Cancer is represented as something all-pervasive, individual and mysterious. I contacted one of those I thought would have been involved in the organizing, Dave Starbuck from Sudbury and an old friend, who thoughtfully suggested that if his death indeed was from occupational disease, his name could be inscribed on the Miner’s Memorial in Elliott Lake (see below). We were quite touched.

Bike riders at luncheon in Massey with members of Manitoulin & Northshore Injured Workers’ Group. On the table is a pair of commemorative miners’ coveralls that is being signed by mine workers who have suffered from occupational disease.

There is much more information, photos and activities described in both this inspiring article and this edition of the Ontario Political Forum. The level of organizing to bring everything together centred around the bike ride must have been quite sophisticated and determined. It really shows how these spirited disabled workers have activated and organized themselves, and are vigorously bringing their concerns forward during the Ontario election.

Ontario Political Forum explains, “The Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups began the campaign ‘Workers’ Comp Is a Right’ last fall to ensure this important fight for rights is on the agenda in the election. The problem of compensation for injured workers is not a problem just for injured workers and their families. It is a problem which concerns the society itself. Taking up this fight not only defends the rights of injured workers but the right of all Ontarians to compensation that permits them to live in dignity if they fall ill or are injured due to work.”

The key campaign demands for a compensation system that protects everyone are:

1. No cuts based on phantom jobs (known as “deeming”);

2. Listen to injured workers’ treating healthcare professionals;

3. Stop cutting benefits based on pre-existing conditions.

“The marginalization of injured workers by the Ontario government and the WSIB, where they are forced to fend for themselves to get treatment and the compensation they need, is not acceptable. The unjust denial of benefits and impoverishment of injured workers by the WSIB must be rejected. So too must all the WSIB schemes to let employers off the hook when it comes to paying the necessary premiums to fund the system.”

Read “Standing Up for Injured Workers in Northern Ontario” by clicking here. For an archive of the articles published by Ontario Political Forum on the Ontario election, click here.

The website of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups  is here

An earlier version of this article was published on Facebook on June 1st.

Elliot Lake Miners’ Memorial

Nearly three hundred names on memorial commemorate some of  the many miners who were killed on the job or died as a result of long time exposure to toxic chemicals in the Elliot Lake uranium mines.

Detail of a stone bas relief telling the story of the Canadian uranium mining industry.

A statue commemorating Canadian uranium miners outside the civic centre.

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