‘… It’s so difficult now’
Mesothelioma strikes Thetford Mines
By Jessica Centers, Anniston Star, July 10, 2005
THETFORD MINES, Canada — Monsieur Herve Rousseau speaks in rapid French, waving his hands when he’s not shaking an accusatory finger.
Even though he knows his listener can’t understand a word he’s saying, he never breaks eye contact and he often pauses for emphasis – searching for a reaction.
His face is tan and rough. A playful gap between his front teeth presents itself when he smiles. His gray button down shirt and sweater have a silver hue that matches his hair – hair he has begun to tug on as he talks.
“As much hair as I have on my head,” he says in French, “that’s how many people I’ve seen die.”
Asked to tell the story of how he came to commence a one-man fight against the asbestos industry in Thetford, he laughs.
“Ooh la la.”
Though Rousseau has made a name for himself over the past 20 years by helping the sick and dying seek compensation, his story begins in the first half of the 20th century when he went to work in an asbestos mine.
He worked 18 years in a mine starting in the 1940s. That was where he first saw that people were sick and realized asbestos was dangerous.
There was no protection and bosses told their employees there was no danger.
It was a time of protests and violent worker strikes in the towns of Asbestos and Thetford Mines. The union then knew that people were sick from asbestos and fought for better conditions.
In the 1950s, Rousseau felt like great strides had been made toward safety. The industry acknowledged that asbestos caused sickness.
In 1959, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis told the people who were sick by asbestos that he would take care of them.
He died the same year.
In 1978, the asbestos mines were nationalized by the Quebec government as part of a political strategy to control profits that were being taken from Quebec by U.S. and Canadian firms.
The result has been an industry that, to this day, is heavily supported and protected by the government. At the same time, it’s the object of intense national pride.
Rousseau said it was at that time that doctors around the mines, who worked for the publicly owned hospital, began to say there was no such thing as asbestosis and stopped diagnosing diseases as caused by asbestos.
“That’s why it’s so difficult now,” Rousseau says.
One of those mountains sits just across the street from Rousseau’s front porch.
When it’s windy he says dust blows everywhere. For decades, he’s asked that tailings piles be covered and sealed.
In the mid-1950s, Rousseau left the mines and bought 220 acres to start a farm. A few years later, two asbestos mines opened across the street.
It wasn’t long before everything he had was dying. The trees and the grass were first, and then animals started to go. One year he lost 47 cows and all his horses. All his milk was bad, and no one would buy it.
When a beloved dog became sick and died, Rousseau ordered an autopsy that found asbestos in its lungs. He went to the mines to demand something be done about the pollution.
Rousseau’s wife was diagnosed with asbestosis and died in the 1980s.
The doctor wrote tuberculosis on her death certificate and said there was no asbestos in her lungs.
Rousseau had had enough.
He began trying to publicize the town’s pollution problems. Despite the threats he received, he persisted.
Today, most of his time is taken up offering free help to people who are sick with an asbestos-caused illness, or who have already lost a loved one to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Rousseau has helped more than 200 people file claims with Quebec’s health and safety agency, the CSST.
In Quebec, he explains, people can’t file lawsuits against companies like they do in the United States. Any compensation comes from the federal government.
He said he is only successful with about 60 percent of the cases, and the most anyone ever receives is $100,000. That is usually to the widows of mineworkers. For women who get sick or people who can’t show an occupational history in the asbestos industry, there is no recourse.
“When the government says no, it’s no. They can’t come back.”
In the corner of his living room are two filing cabinets stuffed with the papers of people he’s helped and articles on asbestos. Rousseau constantly is standing to dig for one document or another. He pulls out a photocopy of a newspaper article in French and holds it out angrily. It’s about a woman in the United States who won an $81 million settlement against Philip Morris.
It enrages him that someone who chose to buy cigarettes and smoke could win such an award when people who just go to work or are exposed in the environment through not fault of their own get little or nothing.
Below the article, Rousseau has scribbled notes in French. He writes that asbestos is breathed by workers, women, children and animals.
“C’est la mort, c’est la mort, c’est la mort.”
Translation: It’s death, it’s death, it’s death.