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Ontario's apology to generations of miners a long time coming

Province acknowledges its role in debunked practice during Nov. 30 delivery in Legislative Assembly

With miners and family members looking on, the Province of Ontario officially apologized Wednesday for its role in exposing underground hard rock miners to aluminum dust during their work in Northern Ontario over a span of nearly four decades.

The Nov. 30 address delivered on a promise House Leader Paul Calandra made last spring that the province would acknowledge its failure to protect miners who were forced to inhale McIntyre Powder as a condition of employment — a practice that was endorsed by the government of the day and later proven to be not only useless, but harmful.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton led the apology on behalf of the Legislature, calling it “long overdue.”

“While we know that an apology will not bring your loved ones back, it will not ease the pain and sadness so many of you have faced, this tragedy should not have happened to you,” McNaughton said, directly facing the roughly 30 people gathered in the gallery who had travelled from Northern Ontario to be there.

“It should not have happened to your loved ones, and to each and every one of you, on behalf of the people of Ontario, we are truly sorry.”

McIntyre Powder was created in 1943 by mining executives and doctors employed by McIntyre Mine in Timmins as a way to prevent silicosis, a debilitating lung disease common among underground miners at the time.

Before every shift, miners would gather in the dry (changeroom) and breathe in the powder as it was pumped into the sealed room. The idea was that miners would cough it out, bringing with it any silica dust they had inhaled and preventing the disease from developing.

The practice lasted until roughly 1980 and was 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.

“It has been more than 40 years since McIntyre Powder has been used in Ontario mines, but for the thousands of miners who were exposed to the powder, it might as well have been yesterday,” McNaughton said.

“They were told by their employers that this powder would protect them from lung disease and that they had to inhale it to continue working in the mines. These 25,000 miners across Northern Ontario didn’t have a choice; for them, their livelihoods depended on taking this powder, and it was supposed to keep them safe. Instead, this powder caused the very things it was supposed to prevent.

“The survivors have had to deal with the lingering effects — lung disease and Parkinson’s — while countless families have had to watch their loved ones suffer, helpless to do anything in relief.”

McNaughton noted that the province has taken steps to address how the Ontario worker compensation program deals with cases of occupational disease.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour announced that a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease that has been connected to work-related exposure to McIntyre Powder would be formally recognized as an occupational disease under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.

The change in status now means that the duty to prove exposure no longer rests with the workers, and miners submitting claims for compensation should have their requests processed more quickly.

Currently, the ministry is undertaking a review of the provincial occupational illness system, which McNaughton said would lead to “improved recognition of workplace diseases, better understanding of exposures that led to them, and more days like today.

“Our government will continue to make investments to identify and recognize occupational illnesses and support those who have been injured by exposure on the job, because anyone in Ontario who falls ill because of their job should have the confidence that they and their loved ones will be taken care of,” McNaughton vowed. 

McIntyre Powder had been largely forgotten by the public until 2014 when Janice Martell learned about the aluminum dust from her father, Jim Hobbs, a former miner who had inhaled the dust and later developed Parkinson’s disease.

After extensive research, Martell created the McIntyre Powder Project, a volunteer registry documenting the work and health histories of nearly 600 miners who were exposed to McIntyre Powder during the course of their careers. Many have since applied for and received compensation stemming from their exposures.

Martell’s work pushed the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to update its policies around aluminum dust and neurological disease, and in 2020, after publishing the study  Investigation of McIntyre Powder Exposure and Neurological Outcomes in the Mining Master File Cohort: Final Report, the board confirmed a definitive link between aluminum dust exposure and the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Jim Hobbs’ claim for compensation from his exposure to McIntyre Powder was approved in 2020, nine years after he first applied.

Unfortunately, Hobbs was unable to benefit from the award, as he died of his illness in 2017.

Martell, her mother Elaine Hobbs, and several members of her family were present for Wednesday’s apology, as McNaughton called attention to her efforts.

”Janice, I don’t need to have met (your father) to know how proud he would be of the fight that you have taken up,” McNaughton said.

Sudbury MPP Jamie West, who has worked with Martell to champion the call for a public apology, noted that Nov. 30 marks a significant date in the McIntyre Powder story, as it’s the 79th anniversary of the Ontario government first sanctioning the use of McIntyre Powder in a mine.

The immediate and long-term health effects experienced by impacted miners “wasn’t fair,” West said.

“We are here to tell you that we are sorry,” he said. “The use of McIntyre Powder was sanctioned by the Government of Ontario. It was not fair for the 25,000 Ontario miners; it was not fair for their friends, for their families. We are sorry.”

Sitting members held a moment of silence before unanimously approving a petition for an official apology to mine workers and their families.

Lindsay Kelly is a reporter at NorthernOntarioBusiness.com.