It was Prime Minister Stephen Harper who inspired Leah Nielsen and Stacy Cattran to take action.
The sisters became angry after seeing Harper tout his government’s support for the asbestos industry while campaigning this spring in Asbestos, Que., home of the Jeffrey asbestos mine.
Three years ago the sisters’ father, Bill Coulbeck, died at age 72 of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, a material restricted in Canada but still mined in Quebec and exported mostly to developing nations.
“We need to stop exporting it and we need to stop producing it in Canada,” Nielsen said.
“Because there’s no doubt about it, you can’t refute the facts, the evidence is there — it causes cancer.”
The sisters hope several hundred Sarnia-Lambton residents join them on Oct. 1 for a Walk to Remember Victims of Asbestos, beginning 10 a.m. in Centennial Park.
Linda Reinstein, the California-based president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, is scheduled to attend and speak at the event.
Cattran lives in Guelph and Nielsen lives in Utah, but they are promoting the walk during a visit with their mother in Mooretown.
Along with honouring asbestos victims like their father, the sisters say they hope the event will pressure Ottawa to stop providing millions of dollars to Quebec’s asbestos industry, and stop ignoring the growing calls to end asbestos exports.
“To be honest,” said Cattran, “if the government had just kept subtly supporting the asbestos industry, I don’t know if we’d be doing this walk.”
But Harper’s visit to the home of the mine and the way he “blatantly” supported the industry spurred her to action.
Their father, an electrician, worked at Dow Chemical in Sarnia and the Lambton Generating Station before transferring to the Bruce Nuclear plant.
He and their mother returned to the Sarnia area after retiring 13 years ago.
A lingering pain in their father’s shoulder led him to visit his doctor in early 2008. He was diagnosed with the cancer and died two months later.
“He never complained once about what happened to him,” Nielsen said.
“He didn’t blame the companies he worked for, where he was exposed to asbestos. He did what he was supposed to do — go out and support a family.”
Mesothelioma incidence rates among Lambton males were three times higher and mortality rates 4.5 times higher than in the rest of Ontario between 1995 and 2003, according to a report by Lambton County’s Community Health Services Department.
Exposure to asbestos in workplaces during the 1960s and 1970s account for most of the local cases, the report says.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Nielsen said. “It takes 20 to 50 years to present, and by the time it does it’s too late.”
There is no cure for mesothelioma but “it is completely preventable,” she said.
The sisters have a website http://asbestos.cattran.ca where people can go for information on the walk. They hope with a large turnout Ottawa can no longer ignore calls to end the shipping of Canadian asbestos overseas.
“We’re exporting death to them and nobody seems to care about it, except those who are trying to make a buck off it,” Nielsen said.
“Something needs to be done.”
The sisters have also printed postcards that local residents will be able to pick up at the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, 171 Kendall St., in Point Edward, or at Scotty’s Chip Truck at the Vidal Street Industrial Park.
They’re addressed to the prime minister and call on him to end asbestos mining in Canada and to “stop supporting a killer industry.”
Cattran said “so many” families like theirs have suffered because of asbestos.
“This gives them an opportunity to speak up.”