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Documentary detailing cluster of cancer cases at GE Peterborough and the fight for justice to air on CBC

PETERBOROUGH-A documentary detailing a cluster of cancer cases and other illnesses at the General Electric plant in Peterborough and the widows and workers fight for justice, will air on CBC on Thursday.

In Town of Widows co-directors Natasha Luckhardt and Rob Viscardis chronicle former GE workers and widows seeking compensation for decades of contamination that caused hundreds of fatal and chronic illnesses. They open up to Luckhardt and Viscardis’ camera, sharing their anger with GE and frustration with the WSIB’s compensation system.  First-hand accounts from survivors, and interviews with labour leaders, medical experts and Toronto Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, are woven together with archival photos and footage of the century old plant and decades long fight.

News of the cluster of cancer cases was initially exposed by our own investigative reporter Pamela VanMeer while she worked at CHEX News in Peterborough.

Peterborough was home to a GE plant for over a century. With 6000 employees at its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s, GE threw Christmas parties for the community of workers and helped to start the town’s university. But over time, employees and their families noticed more and more GE workers dying from cancer.

Jim Dufresne says he is sick of going to funerals. Roger Fowler has regular surgeries to stay alive. Sandra Condon will never give up her late husband Ed’s fight. Their town is sick, and they want justice. Three thousand chemicals and forty known carcinogens, including asbestos, flooded the General Electric (GE) plant where they or their loved ones worked, and 685 former employees or their families have filed an occupational disease claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Around two thirds of the claims were initially denied, pending,  withdrawn or abandoned according to the filmakers.

Looking back, the warning signs and symptoms were there—the nosebleeds and headaches, the red patches on their skin, the coughs that wouldn’t go away—and workers had a hunch GE was making them sick.

You will meed one feisty widow named Aileen Hughes, who talks about taking her late husband’s laundry outside to shake out the asbestos. “I’d come in with chunks of it hanging in my hair,” she says.

Another widow, Sandra Condon, and her daughter, Cindy Crossley, talk about the “snowstorm” of asbestos that their late husband and father described in the plant, and the permanent varnish he felt on his skin.

Sandy LeBeau, whose husband died of stomach cancer at 39, talks about the “GE smell”: the pungent yet familiar scent her husband carried home from work. Her dad and three uncles had also worked at GE — and had also died of cancer.

Following widows and former workers over the course of three years, Town of Widows sees ordinary citizens transform into extraordinary activists.

The challenges they face are formidable. Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is supposed to compensate workers and their families for work-related injuries and illnesses, but widows and workers report that their claims have been routinely rejected or that they have been left waiting, sometimes for decades.

During the filming of Town of Widows however, something miraculous happened. A national asbestos ban was announced (Canada is one of the last industrialized countries to ban the substance), an investigative exposé on GE workers’ plight by award-winning Toronto Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh was published and their fight was finally thrust into a bigger spotlight.

In a precedent setting case, Roger Fowler’s denied 1992 claim reversed at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT). And, catalyzed by the hard work of the coalition of widows and workers, 250 denied claims were re-opened and reviewed by the WSIB.

Luckhardt says, “It was always important to me that the film capture the humour, resilience and strength of the survivors. To give a voice not only to their great personal losses, but to the hard wins that were possible due to their gritty determination.”

What was once a town of widows and workers left behind becomes a force against all odds.

Town of Widows  will air on CBC Docs POV, Thursday, August 8, 2019, 9 p.m. ET (9:30 NT). 

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