SUDBURY - At the end of this month, the Ontario legislature is expected to become united for a few moments as all members of all parties at Queen's Park will offer an apology to a select group of miners, their widows and their families.
On Tuesday, Sudbury MPP Jamie West held a news conference at the Miners’ Memorial in Bell Park to announce the Ontario legislature would offer a formal apology to a generation of miners who were forced to inhale a substance called McIntyre Powder, a substance that new research shows caused some of those miners to develop Parkinson’s Disease.
This follows what happened 79 years ago, back in November of 1943.
It was a time when Canada was fully involved in the Second World War, but the mining industry was as busy as ever producing essential minerals and revenue for the war effort. The official record shows that in Ontario that year, 36 people would die in various accidents at mining properties.
One of them was a 22-year-old man who died in the mill at the McIntyre Porcupine gold mine in Schumacher. His death was not the first fatality at the McIntyre and would not be the last.
But what also happened that year at the McIntyre was something that others have discovered was just as harmful as any industrial accident. On November 30 of 1943, the McIntyre mine introduced a new type of black aluminum dust that was believed to be a way to fight silicosis, a lung disease associated with inhaling rock dust.
The powder was developed by company doctors and scientists with The McIntyre Research Foundation. It was believed the powder was harmless. The miners were told it would coat their lungs, preventing rock dust from taking hold. The idea was that it would cause miners to cough up black sputum and rid their lungs of any silica-laden rock dust.
The McIntyre miners had no choice in the matter. If you worked at the Mac, you were forced to breathe the powder as you got ready for work in the change-house. The dust was exhausted into the dry and miners inhaled it, sometimes for up to 10 minutes as they prepared for their shift underground. If you didn't breathe it, you were sent packing.
In time the powder was accepted by other mining companies as a possible solution to silicosis, a disease that was crippling and in some cases killing hard rock miners. Although the powder was developed at the McIntyre, it was used in mines across Northern Ontario.
It wasn't until 1979 that it was finally understood that the fine black dust wasn't doing any good at all, according to news reports of the day.
Fast forward to 2014 when Janice Hobbs Martell began a volunteer effort to document the names of people who had been forced to inhale the McIntyre powder. Martell began the effort after her father, Jim Hobbs, developed Parkinson's Disease. Hobbs had been a miner in Elliot Lake during the years McIntyre Powder was in use. Martell’s efforts eventually resulted in formal research that found a link between Parkinson's and McIntyre Powder exposure. Martell's father died in 2017.
In recent years, and after meeting with Martell, MPP Jamie West took up the cause.
While West and Martell both believe more research needs to be done with respect to occupational disease associated with the powder, West also believes that an apology would be beneficial, if only to recognize that the miners were wronged. West said there is no political issue here.
West was joined by Martell for Tuesday’s news conference.
"This is to offer an apology on behalf of the assembly of Queen's Park,” West said. “So that would be all parties. It's not a partisan issue. So this will be the Conservative government, the Ontario NDP as the official opposition, the independent Liberals, independent Green Party would all have an opportunity to offer the apology to the miners and mine workers.
"I really do want to stress this is nonpartisan; that I have been working with the Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton, (and) we've been discussing this and how to move it forward.”
West said the effort is to bring all parties together for the Nov. 30 date because it will be the 79th anniversary of the first time that McIntyre Powder was used at the McIntyre gold mine.
Martell said the original plan was to have the apology voiced more than a year ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyone's schedules. She said it would be important for miners still alive to hear the apology.
"I want to be there for my dad, I want to be there for my mom, I want to be there for my family, for the mine workers who are exposed to this, all of my McIntyre Powder Project mine workers and the ones whose names I will never know. And I think it's very important that they hear this, while those, you know, of them are alive," Martell said.
"I started my McIntyre Powder Project voluntary registry in April of 2015. So in the last seven and a half years, 597 people registered with the McIntyre Powder Project; 276 of those are deceased. And 56 of those have died since they registered with me," Martell said.
She said that just adds to the reason why she believes it is important for family members to be able to go to Queen's Park to hear the apology.
Len Gillis covers mining and health care for Sudbury.com.