Raven Thundersky steps forward from the pews of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church to light a candle. Pausing in the dim, flickering light, she glances down at the photo in her hand. It is her sister, Malvina, who died 10 years ago at the age of 35. In her late sister’s arms is Ms. Thundersky’s niece, who lost her mother because of asbestos poisoning in government reserve housing decades ago.
Since then, the deadly insulation fibre has claimed the lives of Ms. Thundersky’s mother and three sisters. One sister died of cancer just days before the Anglican-hosted vigil. Her father and brother are ill, and Ms. Thundersky is uncertain of her own fate.
All this could have been averted, she said, had the government and mining companies come clean to the public about the dangers of asbestos. Today, Canada is a leading exporter of asbestos in the world, despite bans in many countries.
Ms. Thundersky, recently named a Canadian Hero by Time Magazine, told Anglican Journal that her struggle for justice has strengthened her faith.
“For a long time, I was just so devastated,” she revealed. “I never wanted to believe we would all die from this poison. I was at a point in my life when I didn’t know where to turn. It shook up my faith.”
After years of government denial, she and her husband Allan Aitken launched a lawsuit in June, suing both the federal government and WR Grace Corp., which produced the asbestos.
Neither WR Grace, which has filed for bankruptcy as a result of similar lawsuits in the U.S., or Grace Canada, its Canadian affiliate, would speak to the Journal.
Still, Ms. Thundersky wants answers for her family and others who have died of mesothelioma, a deadly asbestos-related lung cancer. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is “a rare form of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body’s internal organs.”
At a vigil hosted at St. Matthew’s, supporters lit candles to commemorate victims of the disease and bless Ms. Thundersky in her struggle.
She told 40 supporters about her childhood on reserve in Norway House, Man. In 1964, an Indian agent, acting for the federal government, condemned her family home—labeling the log cabin, with traditional moss insulation, “unsuitable for habitation.” Her family was pushed into modern housing built with the deadly insulator asbestos, even though it had been linked to disease for decades.
“This is a public relations disaster for Canada because they haven’t given Raven’s family the respect they deserve,” said Chief Terrence Nelson, of Roseau River First Nation.
Allan Aitken believes moving the family was part of Canada’s now-discredited strategy towards aboriginal people.
“That was (the federal department of) Indian Affairs’ way of assimilating the Indians,” said Mr. Aitken.. “Get ’em into a house that looks the same as the others. They were forced into it.”
While asbestos has long been known to cause harm, it was widely used throughout the last century for insulation, fireproof tiles, and brake pads.
Once exposed to asbestos particles, which are less than one-hundredth the size of a human hair, it may take between 25 and 40 years to show symptoms. Many victims develop asbestosis, lung scarring which blocks oxygen intake. For some victims, it is far worse. Asbestosis can develop into mesothelioma.
Manitoba sees 15 to 20 cases per year of the cancer, explained Dr. Andrew Maksymiuk, an oncologist with Cancer Care Manitoba. Once diagnosed, he added, victims usually live between four and 24 months, depending on treatment.
“Once it’s developed, always it’s too late,” he said. “We’re fighting an uphill battle against all the odds, and we’re not winning. WR Grace knows they have time on their side. When I think about it, it scares me.
“How can someone consciously make a decision to sell a product they know is going to kill people?” he asked. “Money isn’t going to bring back the people who died, of course. But what else can you do? It isn’t going to heal us, but it sends a message to the perpetrators: you can’t get away with this.”
Supporters at the vigil expressed hope that the church would join their struggle for justice and help stop Canada’s asbestos industry.
“I ask the people in this church to pray for them, that they’re blessed to carry on,” said Dr. Sydney Garrick, Grand Chief of 32 northern Manitoba First Nations. “I hope we will continue to build good living conditions for poor First Nations people. Raven is carrying a torch for many people.”
Through all this, Ms. Thundersky has found an unexpected source of strength: her faith. “I used to go to bed angry,” she said. “(Now) I can go to bed at night and thank God for a wonderful day. I don’t go to bed vowing revenge on the people who did me wrong. Life is a miracle. You can go through just about anything and know you can make it.”
One Sunday in 2004, Ms. Thundersky wandered through the doors of an Anglican church in Winnipeg. After so much death in her family, she had almost given up her faith. “My beliefs were really challenged,” she admitted. “I didn’t think any church could speak about a loving God. Then I started to turn my life around. My faith became really, really strong because I firmly believe that God will help us through it. I am not going to wait for the government to tell me when I should heal or how much money it’s going to take. I’m going to do that on my own. A lot of good things have come out of this—rediscovering myself, finding strength I never knew I had.”
David Ball is a photojournalist from Winnipeg. He is currently in Lebanon as a volunteer with the United Church of Canada.