Widows of the Workers: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

SEIU Healthcare Healthaholic Blog Widows of Workers

The following blog post has been written by Natasha Luckhardt, a community activist who is passionate about improving the lives of widows of occupational disease. While Natasha is a researcher at SEIU Healthcare who often focuses on OHS issues for the union, this particular passion project is independent from the organization.

The National Day of Mourning, which honours workers who have been killed on the job, falls on April 28th. From April 1st to April 28th, I will be raising funds for a documentary about widows of asbestos.

While there are many of these widows, this film will focus on the widows who have lost their husbands to occupational cancer at General Electric (GE) in Peterborough, Ontario.

Sandy LeBeau is one of these widows.

“My girls were 15 and 17 years old when they lost their dad and five years before that, they sat at the table for supper when he said the chemicals will kill him,” explains Sandy LeBeau.

Her husband, Ron LeBeau, worked at the GE plant in Peterborough for 20 years.  Along with many other employees in the plant, Ron was exposed to various hazardous, degenerative and lethal chemicals, including asbestos. He had that discussion with his daughters and wife right after he read the WHMIS report in the 1980s, which revealed the potentially lethal effect of the many chemicals he worked with at GE.

Over the years, Ron LeBeau watched as his coworkers passed away as a result of cancer or other acute illnesses – many of whom were under 50.

After Ron LeBeau’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with asbestosis after working in a manufacturing plant in Northern Ontario, his sister advised Ron to ‘get out of there.’ But it was too late.

Ron died of stomach cancer within three months after being diagnosed. He was only 39 years old.

It has been 20 years since Sandy LeBeau filed for compensation on her husband’s behalf and she has not received a cent.

Sandy was one of the 700 workers and widows who showed up at an occupational health intake clinic in Peterborough to investigate whether or not their cancer or her husband’s cancer was due to asbestos or exposure to other chemicals. 230 of the 700 filed for compensation. To date, only 107 of these workers have received it.

Since their husbands have been silenced by occupational cancer, the widows are the ones who are left behind to tell the details of the asbestos-ridden clothing their husband would come home in. They remember how their husband always had a varnish all over his body that you could smell even after he had showered. They recall how their husband’s shoes were tainted blue from the chemicals and white from the asbestos.

Like Sandy LeBeau, the widows are also the ones who can speak to the history of the “Electric City” as Peterborough was coined in its manufacturing glory; the dynamics of spending their whole lives in a town whose industry both kept the city going, and made the people sick.

They could also tell you that the GE property is now a ghost town. It used to employ 6,000 workers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it now runs with a much smaller staff of around 600-1,500 people.

They are also the ones who, after losing their husbands, have lost their battle with the compensation system or who, after 20 years, have still not received a final response either way.

And yet, their lives have not been overcome with pure grief; they still laugh, they cry, they reminisce and they remember. Sandy says she talks about her husband every day.

The goal of this documentary is for people to know about Sandy’s husband, the workers, the widows, the community and especially about asbestos. Asbestos is often seen as a relic of the past and I want to show that this toxic chemical is still very much alive and is having a grave impact in communities, such as Peterborough.

The documentary will talk about the history of asbestos, or what was known as the “magic mineral”, the conflicting dynamics of people who worked for a company to earn a living but were exposed to this poisonous dust, the head-spinning nature of the compensation system and the metallic odour that was always lingering around the manufacturing plants in Peterborough and staining the houses around it.

I’ll also be interviewing widows who were compensated, as well as workers who are still fighting cancer and trying to obtain some form compensation at the same time.

It won’t be all sadness, though. I’ve interviewed these people before and their strength, wit and presence is inspirational and I want to share their stories with the world.

April 28th is The National Day of Mourning and this year, the Canadian Labour Congress has announced that asbestos will be the main theme raised. Simultaneously, there is a “Ban Asbestos Canada” movement on behalf of labour and other organizations for a comprehensive ban on asbestos and I want to add my voice and the workers’ voices to this movement.

Any help that you can give – money*, advice, your expertise – to share these stories would truly mean so much.

To keep the momentum going, I’ll be releasing a few short videos leading up to April 28th, highlighting issues such as the extent of their husband’s exposures in the plant, their experience with the WSIB system and the socioeconomic and emotional impact of their loss.

#settlethedust #voicesforwidows #widowsofworkers #widowsofasbestos #banasbestoscanada

*The money will be going towards hiring people for audio, filming and editing.  I won’t be taking any of the money for myself as I’ll be contributing to the documentary as well. The budget is based off of the bare minimum for starting a small documentary project, based on conversations with people in the film industry.



We’ve come a long way, but we’re not done yet.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Every year we focus on all the work that needs to be done to attain women’s equality – and that’s still a long road. But sometimes let’s reflect on some of the important gains we have made since the 1960s.

In 1961 32% of women aged 22-44 had a job. Today, that number is more than 82%.

In 1969 only 33% of the workforce was female. Today, that number is over 48% – nearly half the workforce.

In 1976 women earned 41 cents compared to every dollar a man earned. While today, that number is only 68.5 cents, it still reflects a 60% increase.

Attitudes have shifted and the opinion that a women’s place is in the home has dropped dramatically since the 1960s.

Federal and provincial governments throughout the 1970s and 80s passed numerous laws forbidding workplace discrimination against women.

The number of women enrolled in college or university has increased as well.  In the 1960s only 10% of women earned a college or university degree. Today, the majority of students in post-secondary education are women.

Attitudes towards violence against women has evolved considerably. In the past, spousal abuse was sometimes considered a “domestic” issue – an internal affair that didn’t warrant police attention. Before the 1980s there was no law forbidding a man from sexually assaulting his wife. Today, romantic partners can be charged and convicted for spousal abuse.

While the quest for equality has advanced this cause significantly, the battle has not yet been won, but I believe it will be within my lifetime.

International Women’s Day: Why does it matter?


International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1917 and yes, amazing strides have been accomplished over the period. Yet almost 100 years later, equality is still far from a reality. According to the Canadian 2010 census, the population is made up by a small majority of women; 50.4% to be exact, however the scales are not as equal in regard to pay, aging, child care, domestic work, caring for seniors, C-Suite jobs, employment rates, and the list goes on. Factor gender in with any number of other differentiators such as age, race, or education level and the inequity is compounded.

For example, the better educated a woman is, the closer is her pay to the pay of an equally educated man. Close, but not equal as these stats from 2005 show.

Gender Ph.D. BA Apprentice or Trade School Certificate
Male 100% 100% 100%
Female 96% 89% 65%

Additionally, women are almost four times as likely as men to work part-time, likely due to family responsibilities preventing full-time work.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports efforts to close Canada’s gender gap are moving at a rate so slow, it could take Canadian women 228 years to catch up to men.

But beyond the realm of finances and employment, women face even more insidious threats; domestic violence and sexual assault. Here are just a few of the facts (from the Canadian Women’s Foundation) that should make everyone take a deep breath and a stand on International Women’s Day:

  • On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.
  • Each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence—that’s about 12% of all violent crime in Canada. Since only 22% of all incidents are reported to the police, the real number is much higher.
  • Exposure to violence can affect children’s brain development and ability to learn, and lead to a wide range of behavioural and emotional issues such as anxiety, aggression, bullying, phobias, and insomnia.
  • Research shows that children who witness violence are more likely to grow up to become victims or abusers.

So now you know why it matters. Show your support of women everywhere by joining SEIU Healthcare at the Toronto International Women’s Day rally on Saturday, March 7, 2015. Women and men alike will show their support to the strong SEIU women who make up approximately 85% of are membership and who are making a difference, working to close the gap in their workplace.


Labour rights vs. slavery on World Day of Social Justice

world day of social justice

It is hard to believe that slavery still exists.

Today is World Day of Social Justice, declared by the United Nations, and this year there is a particular focus on human exploitation and forced labour.

Forced labour is illegal by international standards—UN member countries have agreed on this. There is a law, a Forced Labour Convention that dates back to 1930 but has since been updated to reinvigorate the global fight against forced labour, including human trafficking, the buying and selling of human beings against their will.

It appears that where exploitation is possible and tolerated, some people will take advantage of the relative powerlessness of others for their own gain. Needless to say, it’s crass, it’s cruel, and it’s disrespectful.

While the fight for workers’ rights in Canada continues with employers continually trying to drive down wages and benefits, plus certain politicians who want to weaken unions, we are incredibly fortunate for the most part from a global perspective.

Let’s take a moment to be grateful for the labour laws brought to us over decades of struggle by worker activists in Ontario and across North America. It’s because of those workers and activists and politicians that worked with them that we have come so far.

Whether on our soil or off it, let’s show solidarity with global workers whenever possible. Everyone deserves to be paid for their labour and to be treated with human dignity.


Labour Day in St. Catharines. Wow!


Sun. Cold drinks. Crowds of people.

These are just a few of my thoughts that describe St. Catharines’ Labour Day Parade.

For many years I’ve marched in Toronto’s Labour Day parade. It’s always the biggest Labour Day event in Ontario, and perhaps the country. It attracts press coverage from Canada’s biggest newspapers and TV stations. But this year I marched in St. Catharines’ Labour Day Parade. Let me say it didn’t disappoint. There must have been several thousand people who came out to watch the parade. That’s quite a turnout for a city with only 131,000 people.

It brought together many different people from many different walks of life. It wasn’t just lined up with shop stewards, professors and left-wing activists handing out leaflets. There were young couples with their children, middle-aged families, singles, seniors and much more. They were all there to enjoy some sun, watch the parade, and toast the end of the summer.

And it wasn’t just unions who marched. Unions like SEIU Healthcare walked with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, the YMCA, the Shriners, performers from Gymnastics Energy, and several cheerleading groups.

As we marched from the Pen shopping centre to Merritton Lions Club, I watched as the crowds got bigger and bigger. Hundreds of people had set up their lawn chairs in the front of their house while enjoying the parade in the warm sun.

After the parade was done, the party didn’t end. Everyone got together at the Merritton for some cold drinks, juicy hamburgers and giant hot dogs. While the adults socialized with each other, families took their children on the ferris wheel and other fun carnival rides.

Once I left the Lions Club and walked back to my car, I noticed a dozen or so house parties still going on after the parade had ended. People strolled from one house party to the next. It was all very casual and very laid back.

In my opinion, this is what Labour Day is all about. It’s a day where everyone can get together, support one another and also have some fun before the summer ends.


St. Catharines Labour Day Photo Album


Dinner conversations & debunking myths

I had dinner with an old friend the other night. She invited me over for a home cooked meal and even baked me a cake. Since I’ve been on the road a lot lately with work I figured that it was great way to enjoy a home cooked meal and catch up with a friend who I’ve known for years. I was pretty excited for it too. We’ve always gotten along pretty well but never really crossed that line of leaving the “friend zone.”

On paper it seemed like it was going to be a great night, but it all seemed to take a turn for the worse once she asked a very common question: “How’s work?”

Work was busy. At the time I had just wrapped up a video shoot in Hamilton with two lovely personal support workers, Carmen and Rachel. The focus of the video was to shed some light some real life issues facing these two PSWs; this boiled down to the issue of pensions. I described the process of coming up with the concept of the video, showing the contrast between these two very different women in two very different stages in their lives. An older, more established woman whose children have left the nest to raise children of their own, versus a young woman about to have her first child while still living under the roof of her parents’ home. The contrasts were many between the two PSWs, but the love for their profession and clients was similar.

The shoot was a lot of work, but rewarding and inspiring. I got to work with some really cool people whom I respect professionally. Carmen and Rachel did an excellent job sharing some of their personal stories, giving some much needed insight into some of the challenges of being a personal support worker. This wasn’t my first time working with Carmen and Rachel; they both have both played a key role in educating and informing the public of the value of Personal Support Workers. In fact, both of them have sat and discussed the future of the profession with Premier Kathleen Wynne and deputy Premier Deb Matthews.

My date had seen the Justice 4 PSWs campaign that SEIU had launched, on her commute to work; she also made mention before that she read this blog, and has kept up to date of all the political happenings within the healthcare industry. She’s always been an outspoken person and I admire that quality greatly, but having just told her about work, she then felt the need to express her thoughts on PSWs.

“I don’t understand why they’re getting so much attention; they’re not even qualified to do much.”

My heart sank, I tried not to react too harshly so I took a moment and chose my words. Having worked so closely to many personal support workers within the past year, I thought of how they would react to such a harsh statement. I knew of the hardships that they had to endure during their strike, not being fairly compensated for the work that they do. Though they may not be ‘qualified to do much’, they certainly are expected to go above and beyond their call of duty- administering medicine, cleaning, caring, soothing, chatting, reassuring, befriending, and the list goes on. I thought of the issues of verbal and physical abuse that many of them had to endure in order to make an honest wage for their families.  My date was a nurse, so I would have hoped that she would understand some of the hardships faced by frontline healthcare staff; clearly she did not.

“The work they do is highly skilled, but the care they provide is priceless. Let’s hope you never need the help of a PSWs, because that PSW might be the last person you see before you die,” was my immediate response.

We chatted some more about the issue, but I knew that my mind that I had checked out from the date. My appetite was gone, even the beautiful cake looked less appealing after her comments. I thanked her for the lovely meal and made my way to the exit. The evening reminded me that though PSWs are continuing to educate the public and beat stigma’s, there is still work to be done.


The making of “Below the Line: Walking a day in a PSW’s shoes”

Cidalia is a 52-year-old SEIU Healthcare member from Cambridge and appears in a video we produced to show people just how hard it is to get by on a $1,500/month salary. During an election period, it’s easy for politicians and activists alike to keep repeating the mantra of “frontline workers” and “poverty-level wages”, without knowing what it actually means to fall behind on bills while working hard all day to keep people well and functioning at home.

So we decided to produce a video that would have an emotional impact, showing Cidalia’s day from her own point of view, hoping that it will drive home reality for people. Homecare and community care PSWs in Ontario were promised a raise of $4/hour over the next few years. They deserve a “Sweet $16,” but if Hudak is elected, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

blog photo

Shoot day wasn’t easy. We were set up in Cidalia’s home, in her space on her day off. We were fortunate that she volunteered her time for the campaign. She was in good spirits all day. But the interview portion was difficult emotionally. It was hard for her to talk about her financial worries. And thousands of workers (there are over 30,000 of these homecare and community care PSWs in Ontario) are in the same boat.

The idea for this video series originally came from a project by our SEIU sisters and brothers in the states, who even did a “walk-a-day” with then-Senator Obama. Here in Canada, SEIU Healthcare first did a “walk-a-day” with our member Juliette and Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews. Matthews has since shown the video several times in public, including at the historic homecare raise announcement on April 29, 2014. Seeing what PSWs do day in and day out—that experience really seemed to stick with her.

Over the next several months, we hope to share more “walk-a-day” videos with you to show homecare workers’ real stories and let people know about the four concrete things we need to do to fix the homecare system.