A Turning Point in Quebec History

This year is the 70th Anniversary of the Asbestos Strike. (1949-2019) It has often been singled out as a turning point in the history of the province of Quebec and has also been referred to as the beginning of the Quiet Revolution.

Asbestos, Quebec is a mining town located in the Eastern Townships midst a beautiful rolling countryside, approximately 120 kilometers from Montreal. It was a company town with an open pit (Jeffrey Mine) where asbestos, a non-flammable fibrous mineral was extracted. They also mined underground and the fibres were extracted and processed in the mill.

For several months before the strike in early 1949 the miners were becoming more and more disgruntled with the working conditions. They sought an increase in wages, better working conditions and an improvement in health care.

Our parish church, St. Aime, was the meeting place for the workers. The parish priest, Father Camillrand was deeply involved in the miners’ plight. The government of Quebec under the firm hand of Premier Maurice Duplessis was aligned with the Canadian John-Manville Company, (CJM) the employer and owner of the entire mining enterprise.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, 1949 the miners gathered in St. Aime Church in Asbestos. They voted overwhelmingly to go on strike the following day.

I was nine years old during the strike and although It was difficult to comprehend what was happening in our community, I knew that something was awry. I have vivid memories of several events that took place over five months.

Our Girl Guides and Brownies always held their gatherings in the nurse’s residence. At the time of the strike I was a Brownie. Our meetings were put on hold.

1st Asbestos Brownie Pack

At school there was taunting. Some of the students’ parents were on strike while others continued to work. This lent itself to an unpleasant situation for many. Despite the turmoil all around, all in all, life went on as normally as possible for children while the media covered the event in detail. Most townsfolk were sympathetic toward the miners. They were very generous with donations. Many workers did not have money to provide adequately for the families.

The newspapers covered the events daily and, in our home, we received the now defunct Montreal Star and Toronto Daily Star, that always arrived two days later than published. I was eager to read about the strike. At that time, I read articles by Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Gerard Pelletier, both journalists and Jean Marchand, who was a union organizer. They wrote daily columns and kept the public informed. Years later they became members of Parliament and Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada.

Everyone in the town was affected by the strike, particularly the merchants. Most of the population in the town worked at one of the CJM operations.

CJM was the main employer, however, the Asbestos strike was not localized in the one town. It included many of the small mining companies in the area. The town of Asbestos had the largest group of miners. The open pit was the largest in North America and one of the largest in the world where they produced what was considered a magic mineral and was used in a multitude of ways. The construction boom after WWII created a large demand for asbestos products; roofing shingles, floor tiles, insulation and brake linings in cars.

Negotiators for the union and the company officials attempted to come to an agreement. It was not to be, and the violence began to escalate when the companies hired outside workers.

In May, Premier Duplessis sent in the Provincial Police. They were lodged in the nurses’ residence where their headquarters were also located.

I remember being frightened seeing the black Mariah bus loaded with burly policemen arriving in town and wondered if there would ever be an end to the ongoing troubles. Would they be able to quell the unrest before lives were lost?

The strike continued throughout May and June. The Provincial Police tactics were brutal. Several miners were seriously injured.  It was time to put an end to the strike.

Finally, in early July all parties negotiated a settlement. The strike ended with the employees having gained few of their demands, one being a small increase in hourly wages. Most of the workers went back to work, while others moved on.

They were tumultuous times that left indelible memories.

Sources: Photograph: Jeffrey Mine 1944 By Harry Rowed – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/31123426351/in/album-72157665191042359/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56279338

There will be a follow-up to this article. ”Asbestos 70 Years After the Strike

Google Map showing Asbestos in relation to Montreal,
Trois Rivieres and Sherbrooke.
A 2018 Google Earth Pro aerial view of Jeffrey Mine no longer in operation.

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