White Gold Pioneers: Asbestos Mining
Musée minéralogique et minier de Thetford Mines
In 1876 asbestos is discovered in Thetford township in Quebec. Men begin digging to extract this precious mineral from the earth. Up until 1895, despite the use of capstans and carts, it is horse power and human sweat that provide most of the energy required. The tools are simple and the workers often inexperienced: sometimes they are old men or young boys. In less than 20 years, however, these mining apprentices manage to dig impressive pits.
But in 1895 something new is happening down at the pits! Women are now in the shops separating the asbestos fibres from the rock. They have joined the big family of mine workers. It is the beginning of a stage of unprecedented growth. Mining is starting to be mechanized. Cableway excavators haul up bins full of ore and even the miners. Production is stepped up. The ore is transported in huge cars pulled by steam locomotives. The mines run even in winter, often day and night. The First World War stimulates the demand for asbestos. The shortage of men forces companies to recruit younger and younger workers and, as in other industries, women fill the breach. By the end of the war, mechanization is still only in its infancy, and although machines are increasingly being used, they cannot replace men.
Over time, workers learn the value of solidarity and unite to make their demands. Starting in the thirties, protection against mining accidents improves, but the work is still dangerous.
The pits and slagheaps are part of the landscape. Huge clouds hang over Thetford Mines and the surrounding area. The shop workers have been breathing this dust for years. Is it harmful- Is it dangerous for the growing numbers of miners working underground- No one ever really asks those questions until 1949. That is the year of the famous asbestos strike, which is to leave a lasting mark on labour relations in Quebec.