Leah and Stacy
Left to right- Leah and Stacy

Late last week, Leah and Stacy, two sisters who joined together to fight against the asbestos industry after losing their father to mesothelioma, along with the entire anti-asbestos community, were outraged and saddened when the Canadian government in Quebec loaned the Jeffery asbestos mine $58 million to reopen their operations. Last year, the Jeffery Mine was closed because of financial troubles. With the well-known connection to cancer, the Jeffery mine's closing was a victory for those fighting to close it. Now, more than ever, Leah and Stacy could use the help of all anti-asbestos supporters to help victims and their families' have a voice against this deadly carcinogen and continue to fight to shut down asbestos mining!

Leah and Stacy were two sisters living in two different countries but were united over a single cause— banning asbestos use. Having lost their father to mesothelioma, a grim disease caused solely by asbestos exposure, they banded together to create awareness for mesothelioma, to bring about change in the asbestos industry, and to remember those who have been lost to this disease. Here is their story--

Stacy (the Canadian sister):

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was observed last year in Canada we honoured the two dozen Canadians and the thousands of Americans killed in that terrible act of terrorism. For ten years our armed forces valiantly fought a war based on that despicable act and the lives lost that day. The people that died in the twin towers did not deserve to die--they were just showing up for work that day, innocent and oblivious to the terrorists' plans that would soon unfold.

Imagine for a moment that after the dust settled and as the victims' families were grieving the loss of their family members, that instead of going to war to root out terrorist cells in Afghanistan, the government instead travelled to the terrorists' training camps, offering millions in taxpayer dollars to expand their operations and pledging their unyielding support.

How would victims' families feel? How should citizens of our nations feel in the face of such betrayal?

There are two main differences between this scenario and what is happening today to the victims of asbestos:

  1. The perpetrators of the workplace deaths are not in some far off land--they are in Canada.
  2. They haven't killed two dozen Canadians and a few thousand Americans: they've killed about two thousand Canadians and ten thousand Americans every year for decades.

And yet the provincial government of Quebec and federal government of Canada, continue to prop up an organization that knowingly causes death to increase its power, similar in nature to the terrorists who crashed their planes, but with greed as their ideology. This is a betrayal of the thousands of families who have been affected by asbestos. Like the innocent victims at the World Trade Centre, our family members showed up for work, never knowing until it was far too late what the asbestos industry had covered up for decades. To the families of asbestos victims, Canadian politicians are simply funding the terrorists who killed our loved ones.

Leah (the American sister):

I will never forget the day I found out my dad had mesothelioma. The phone was ringing as I walked in the house from delivering a wedding cake. I answered and heard my sister crying and asking if I had read my email from mom. Mom was too upset to call us to tell us about dad so sent an email instead, knowing we all check our accounts numerous times a day. In that instant my life changed forever. I closed my catering business and flew home to Canada, leaving my husband and two young boys, as soon as I could. Since dad’s dying wish was to stay home until the end, mom needed help caring for him. We had no idea how soon that would happen but two months and five days after his diagnosis he passed away. It was a blessing that he didn’t suffer long as it was excruciating for him even on high doses of hydromorphone and just as painful for us to watch a once vibrant healthy man slip away.

Leah and Stacy

For the past four years I have learned a lot about the fibrous mineral that prematurely took the life of my electrician father. I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what was going on in regards to asbestos and the government of Canada. I also had no idea that it wasn’t yet banned in the U.S. I think that is the way the government likes it. If we know, we ask questions and cause problems. We need to tell everyone we know what is going on. I like to call myself a ‘walking billboard’. I have shirts for every day of the week telling people asbestos is bad, it killed my dad and to stop importing and exporting it. I have educated more people that way than I can count.

Inspired by Heather Von St James' successful outcome, this past December I had my very first CAT scan on my own lungs. I was worried because I was exposed to asbestos through my Dad’s work clothes and also from the ceiling of my school gym. My shoulder has bothered me for months and that was the only symptom my dad had. He had gone to physical therapy, physiotherapy, the chiropractor and the doctor and even had x-rays. It was finally a physiotherapist who suggested that it was maybe my dad’s lung that was the problem and the pain was manifesting in the shoulder. My dad finally was able to get a CAT scan and it was then that they discovered the cause of the shoulder pain – mesothelioma. It was a great relief when my CAT scan came back clear with no evidence of pleural plaques.

Stacy (the Canadian sister):

Last spring Leah and I, angry by the Canadian prime minister's renewed pledge to defend the asbestos industry, and empowered by the Daily Show's episode skewering Asbestos, Quebec, decided it was time to do something. Leah, having married an American, lives in Utah, while I reside in Guelph, Ontario. I made a couple of anti-asbestos t-shirts online on Vistaprint and while talking on the phone to Leah about them I said “I wish we lived in Sarnia so we could do an a walk to raise awareness.” Sarnia, also known as “Chemical Valley” is where my parents had moved back to ten years before my dad's death and has the highest rate of mesothelioma in Ontario, and possibly Canada.

Instead of agreeing with me that it was too bad we couldn't organize a walk, Leah replied “Why can't we?”

This set off about twenty days of insane brainstorming and work as we aligned everything to be ready for Leah's and my arrival at our mom's in Sarnia the first week of July so we could start getting media coverage. Postcards for politicians, banners, and business cards were ordered. A new logo was designed. Posters were created. Contacts were made. A website was started from scratch. And our husbands and children adjusted to seeing us on our laptops endlessly. When Linda Reinstein of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization agreed to fly out for our October 1st “A Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos” we realized we were going big time. I also emailed Kathleen Ruff, a prominent Canadian anti-asbestos activist, to let her know about the Walk. Kathleen became a real mentor to Leah and I.

Before we knew it, the weekend of the event had arrived. On Friday evening we gathered at the Victims Memorial at Centennial Park for a Candlelight Vigil organized by the Victims of Chemical Valley group. Despite the rain and frigid temperatures, many families and friends gathered together to honour their loved ones lost too soon.

On the morning of October 1st, 500 people gathered for A Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos. The wind was fierce, as were some of our speeches as we called on the government to reject the stance that asbestos can be used safely. Bruce Bradshaw, a former co-worker of our dad's who is currently fighting mesothelioma, got up with oxygen tank attached and spoke with dignity: “I wish now I could talk to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, eye to eye and toe to toe and repeat Rick Mercer's 'Rant' that some of you may have seen on TV a week or two ago. This is what I remember: Mr. Prime Minister, Canadians are known the world over as a loving, caring, compassionate people. . . do you really want criminals and killers added to that list?” As Mr. Bradshaw concluded his remarks, people rose to their feet clapping, many not bothering to hide their tears. Linda Reinstein closed the speeches, honouring the community of Sarnia for all it has faced in the asbestos battle.

Filing out of the outdoor amphitheater, we walked a couple of blocks then curved around to come back along the waterfront past the amphitheater to end at the Victims of Chemical Valley Memorial. It was amazing to see the many people stretched out behind us in a unified mission and moving to see multi-generations wearing shirts and carrying signs to honour a lost uncle, mother, husband, sister, father, and grandfather. Ending the walk at the Victims of Chemical Valley Memorial, our brother passed out dozens of pieces of coloured sidewalk chalk for people to write their sentiments on the sidewalk. Some wrote how they would keep fighting until asbestos was banned; many simply expressed the potent sentiment “Miss you Dad.”

We have had many ups and downs over the last year. At times it's been discouraging to get form letter after form letter from Canadian politicians telling us how safely chrysotile asbestos can be used despite all evidence to the contrary. One Member of Parliament, Dr. Leitch, continues to side with her government's pro-asbestos policy excusing her lack of expertise on the subject because her “speciality is bones.” Perhaps Dr. Leitch doesn't realize that a person's bones aren't much use after he or she has suffocated to death from mesothelioma.

Remembering the victims of asbestos

On a more positive note, we have had some successes, including getting a handful of Members of Parliament to defy their party's position by refraining from voting on motions dealing with asbestos put forward by the opposition. It doesn't sound like much, but it was huge.

Sometimes the battle is two steps forward and one step back but with some more work, we feel there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Our advice:

Get inspired and fight injustice. It is unjust that the Canadian asbestos industry is planning to open once again with government support. It is unjust that Canada plans to ship most of this asbestos to people who have no protection in countries like India and Vietnam. It is unjust that asbestos continues to be legally used in Canada and the U.S. when we know better and have alternatives.

Build awareness. Put something on your Facebook picture or make an anti-asbestos t-shirt so that you can build awareness--even standing in line at the grocery store.

Find support. We're glad we've had each other for support (and supportive husbands!) to stay encouraged with letter writing and activism. And with email, Skype, and Facebook, our extended support group has been spread across the continent, so it's okay if you don't have anyone local.

And most important of all—come join us for “A Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos” on September 29th, 2012, in Sarnia, Ontario. Help us send a message loud and clear that too many lives have been shattered and asbestos must be banned. For details please go to asbestos.cattran.ca.