An Unlikely Hero – Health and Safety Union Activist John Gagnon – by Adelle Larmour

This article is from a special publication call Fabulous Northern Ontario which celebrated the 25th  anniversary of Northern Ontario Business. Adelle Larmour has written a book about John Gagnon’s valiant struggles for the health and safety of his fellow worker called Until the End. Contact the author to purchase a copy of Until the End:

He was a man ahead of his time. An ordinary person who had a vision and an unyielding drive to see justice done in his workplace.

Jean Gagnon, retired Inco employee and activist for sinter plant workers in Copper Cliff, spent his entire life fighting for the recognition of industrial disease and compensation claims for 250 men and their families, whom he affectionately refers to as “my boys.”

Sitting casually in the living room of his Sturgeon Falls home in a quiet neighbourhood near the shore of Lake Nipissing, he talks about the asbestos recently found in his lungs, as well as the half-inch thick lesion of nickel oxide sitting in the bottom of his left lung.

His own battle is about to begin, but he won’t fight it himself: “The lawyer who handles his own claim has a fool for a client,” said Gagnon.

For the past five years, Gagnon has battled colon and prostate cancer.

Born on March 8, 1927 in Fabre, Quebec, Gagnonwas the second eldest child in a family of nine. Raised on a dairy farm, he attained a Grade 10 edu¬cation, and completed two terms of trade school.

At the age of 17, he worked in a paper mill in Témiscaming, Quebec. His experience and desire to learn English led him to work in Ontario. When he turned 24, he was hired by Inco in Sudbury.

The date was Feb. 9, 1951, a day he recalls as the coldest on record – a bone-chilling -51 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You couldn’t see, there was such a dense fog,” Gagnon said. “A CPR train hit a bus in Coniston and many died.”
Was it a foreshowing of events? Perhaps, for when Gagnon walked into the sinter plant that frigid morning, he could not see his co-workers for the thick blanket of nickel oxide permeating the air in the building.

Hell hole

Described by some as a “hell hole,” the sinter plant’s function was roasting nickel and copper ore to eliminate the sulphur. Gagnon explained that once the sulphur is out, it takes the strongest acid known to science to dissolve the nickel.

Shaking his upheld finger, he emphasizes this point. “So once it is in your body, it cannot be dissolved.”
Because nickel is a carcinogen, Gagnon says an infection can trigger the cancer. When Gagnon began working there, he had no prior knowledge of its ill effects. Yet, instinctively, he knew it was a “time bomb” waiting to go off.

“You don’t have to be bright to know if you can’t see your fellow worker when you work with him because of airborne dust, something is awfully wrong.”
On his very first day of work, Gagnon’s preaching words to his co-workers and later to the supervi¬sors who threatened to fire him were: “Wear your mask and don’t smoke on the job.

“I was considered an idiot right off the bat,” he said.

Many laughed and bragged: “Puts hair on your chest.”

When Gagnon realized that even the most experienced men were not concerned, he decided if anything was to be done, he would have to do it himself.

“That’s when I took the saddle, and put it on my shoulder,” he said. “This game was not part of my character, but it became my character—fast.” The more he persisted, the more he was viewed as a troublemaker, to the point where supervisors told the men not to speak with him.

Guided by his religious beliefs through that lonely period, Gagnon persevered.

It was not long before the men came around, spoke with him, and eventually, wore their masks.

“They’d look around before they talked to me,” he said. “That was humiliating, but I swallowed it.”

So like a dog with a bone, Gagnon continued to preach his message in the workplace, despite supervision’s concerns.

“I knew my cause was just,” he said explaining that he was merely listening to his conscience.

“I was possessed with the idea that the important thing was the health of the people who created wealth for the employer.”

In 1958, Gagnon’s words proved true when several fellow workers fell ill, the beginning of many more to come. It was only once people started dying that other workers admitted the poor conditions of their work environment.

“I hoped to heck I would be wrong, but it was all so obvious,” Gagnon said in retrospect.

In 1962, the sinter plant closed down because the company had a more eco¬nomical way to process the nickel ore, according to Gagnon.

“That’s one thing I keep reminding Inco. You didn’t close the plant be¬cause of health conditions.”

The Fluid Bed Roasters in Copper Cliff took over from the sinter plant. While he worked there, he continued his fight to get Inco to recognize the sinter plant’s conditions as a cause of industrial disease.

Lonely battle

Initially, Gagnon fought a lonely battle, but after several years, he received sup¬port from Billy Braun, an employee who worked in the smelter; Weir Reid, known militant officer of the Mine Mill Union; and later, William Hall, compensation officer for Mine Mill Union – Local 598; and Mickey Maguire, chairman of the Health and Safety Committee, United Steelworkers, Local 6500.

Despite a six-year conflict between the Mine Mill and the Steelworkers unions, all of these men supported Gagnon in his cause to bring greater awareness to the unsafe working environment at the said, explain¬

sinter plant and recognition of its ill effects upon the workers.

In 1968, ten years after the first man fell ill with cancer, it was officially announced that the sinter plant was responsible for lung, nasal, and sinus cancer, and diagnosed workers were to be compensated by the Workman’s Compensation Board (WCB).

In 1970, Maguire assigned Gagnon all sinter plant-related compensation claims. Three years later, a commit¬tee of five people was elected to helphim. During that time, early can¬cer detection tests were established, concessions in contracts were won for sinter plant pensions and retroac¬tive survivors’ pensions for widows of industrial disease victims were negoti¬ated. The battle to compensate sinter plant victims served as a backdrop to the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, which produced the Ham Report, and then influenced the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Gagnon’s determination to take care of “his boys” carried on long after his retirement in 1985. A photo binder in his basement is testimony to his end¬less visits with co-workers in hospital in Toronto and to their funerals. Upon seeing the toll these long-distant can¬cer-treatment visits had upon the men, Gagnon rallied with a team headed by Maureen Lacroix, present-day chair of the Northern Cancer Research Foun-dation, to establish a cancer centre in the North. He was able to provide the labour point of view while Lacroix blazed the trail.

Today, in his 79th year, Gagnon has two cases ongoing. A host of awards, including the Governor General’s Car¬ing Award hang on his office wall in recognition of his advocacy and the $135 million of assistance obtained for sinter plant families.
He gratefully acknowledges the sacrifices his wife Jeannine and his children made while he performed advocacy work.

Gagnon’s commitment to see justice served in his workplace became his life’s passion. It was a journey driven by his beliefs, allowing him to remain true to his purpose, “his boys,” and himself.