This article originally appeared in Northern Life, Greater Sudbury’s community newspaper on April 8, 2010 www.northernlife.ca
The ups and downs of working in the Inco Sinter Plant have been documented in a new book, Until The End, written by local author and Northern Ontario Business journalist Adelle Larmour.
In Larmour’s first book, she tells the story of Jean Gagnon, a Sinter Plant veteran of more than 11 years. The plant, which separated sulphur from the nickel rich ore, operated from 1947 to 1963 in Copper Cliff.
Gagnon, who was originally from Quebec, had been working at the paper mill in Espanola for five years, before he decided to come to Sudbury for higher wages. Twenty-three years old at the time, Gagnon said his first day on the job in 1951, made him realize the working conditions at the Sinter Plant left a lot to be desired.
“You could be talking to someone 20 feet away (in the plant) and you could not see them for the dust,” Gagnon said. He noticed the other workers tended to cough a lot, which prompted him to wear a dust mask from day one, and to refrain from smoking for fear of driving nickel-laden dust deeper into his lungs with the inhalation of tobacco smoke.
“I preached to the others to do the same,” he said, but the other workers laughed at his concerns. “None of the guys thought (their coughing spells) was from the workplace conditions.”
However, as the years went by and men became ill with various cancers, Gagnon began to be treated differently by the workers. Some started wearing masks, but by the that time it was too late, Gagnon said. “None of them are alive today.”
At its peak, more than 100 men worked at the plant daily in three shifts. Gagnon said there was no room in the plant for a proper dust collection system.
“(Management) crammed five machines into the plant instead of the three I would estimate that would have left enough space for dust control systems.”
Now 83, Gagnon has suffered from a number of ailments over the years, including prostate and colon cancers. He was also found to have asbestos in his lungs and still coughs today. He takes cough syrup to control his coughing, which he said would otherwise leave him breathless and fainting.
“Asbestos was everywhere in the plant. It was used as insulation. It would dry up and become part of the dust. We even had an asbestos linen cloth on top of our lunch table where we ate our sandwiches.”
Management was slow to react to Gagnon’s health concerns during those early years. Jean Gagnon, a health and safety activist who worked at the Inco Sinter Plant, received the Order of Ontario for his health and safety activism in January 2010. He is the focus of a new book, Until the End.
“I told a superintendent about my concerns about worker health and safety. He said he was not interested about that. He also said if I quit what I was doing about these issues, the company has some good plans for me.”
Gagnon refused to budge. He learned his shift boss was intent on having him fired due to his activism.
In the end, Gagnon was able to have $155 million awarded in claims against the company for health and safety issues at the plant. The Sinter Plant was closed in the early 1960s, not because of his activism, but because there was another process developed by Inco, he noted.
Gagnon has received many awards for his work during his life, including the International Steelworkers Award for Health and Safety in 1986. Most recently, he was awarded the Order of Ontario for his health and safety activism in January 2010, in Toronto from David Onley, lieutenant governor of Ontario.
The book is mostly focused on Gagnon’s life during his most active period of being in charge of claims for the union, until he retired in the late 1980s, Larmour said.
She first met him during an interview for Fabulous Northern Ontario, a 25-year history of 25 prominent people in the north, published by Northern Ontario Business in 2006.
“I thought he had a really good story,” Larmour said. “He did this because he wanted to. It seemed to me to be a selfless action on his part. It became his life’s mission.”
In the book, it is mentioned that Weir Reid, a Mine Mill Local 598 union recreation leader and activist, was a major influence on Gagnon.
Larmour said Reid was outspoken and became involved in union political struggles between Mine Mill and the Steelworkers union, which was in the process of consolidating its control over the Inco workforce in the early 1960s.
Larmour said Paul Reid, Weir’s son, carried on the activism, but in a different way. “I know that Paul Reid was a member of the community-based group that was seeking to get the cancer treatment centre established here.”
The book, 350 pages in length, is published by WynterBlue Publications of North Bay. It is available at Gulliver’s Book Store in North Bay, and Village International and Librairie du Nouvel-Ontario in downtown Sudbury on Durham Street. It will also be sold at the Sudbury Living Spring Show on April 11 at the Caruso Club. There are plans for wider distribution, Larmour noted.
There will be a book signing April 10 at Librairie Du Nouvel-Ontario, 93 Durham St., from 1-3 p.m.