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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Still a hero in Asbestos after all these years

Trudeau helped strikers battle Duplessis,
asbestos industry and the church in 1949

Monday, October 2, 2000

ASBESTOS, QUE. -- There were many in his home province who saw him through critical and even hostile eyes, but for one small and dwindling group of Quebeckers, Pierre Trudeau was a hero who could do no wrong.

They are old now, and their memories slide uncertainly into other memories of half a century ago, when they and Pierre Trudeau were young and when they took on the world together.

But on the essentials there is no doubt. Pierre Trudeau was one of the people who came to help when the workers of Asbestos took on the combined might of the multinational asbestos industry, the Quebec government and the Roman Catholic Church.

The four-month asbestos strike in 1949 was one of the nastiest in Quebec's history of nasty strikes, and it was, as Mr. Trudeau wrote later, "a violent announcement that a new era had begun."

Rosaire Drouin, 74, remembers Mr. Trudeau as part of the large group of union activists who came to Asbestos and Thetford Mines from Montreal to help the uncertain union leadership.

Among the others were Jean Marchand, then a leading union militant in Quebec, and Gérard Pelletier, then a journalist with Le Devoir. Much later, both men went to Ottawa and became major figures in Mr. Trudeau's government.

"The whole gang of them. We saw them often during the strike. He did a lot of good. I have pictures of him and the others somewhere. He was sort of the ambassador for the union. He explained to us our rights against Duplessis."

For Mr. Drouin and the others, if there was a demon in the strike, it was Premier Maurice Duplessis.

It was Mr. Duplessis who controlled the provincial police and who told the Catholic church to transfer the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, to Vancouver because he was an outspoken champion of the strike.

Mr. Drouin still remembers the bitterness of the strike, of strikers throwing rocks at the scabs recruited by Johns Manville, the asbestos company, and of provincial police beating the strikers.

He describes Mr. Trudeau, who was variously lawyer, economist and journalist, as "a guy who spoke well. You had to be tough to face Duplessis."

Gisèle Drouin, 70, heard about Mr. Trudeau from her husband and others. Still, whatever he did in 1949, it is the later Trudeau -- a good, elegant man, well-dressed, always with a red rose on his lapel -- she adores. Her favourite prime minister, she says. He had class.

Her husband smiles: "He defended the workers. He was good for Quebec and Canada. It's a long time since we've seen a good one like that."

At the large pink house at the top of the street, Emile Lalonde, 74, is helping with the gardening.

He remembers the young visitor to Asbestos as a man who had charisma and power. He was there when Mr. Trudeau, as prime minister, returned and visited the mine-mill cafeteria and talked about the old days of the strike.

Roger Brown, 78, was slowly walking his dog. Oh sure, he remembers Mr. Trudeau. A good guy and a good prime minister. Better than the ones we have now. Most people around here have been Liberal since the strike, he said.

Bertrand Perreault was washing his truck. He liked Mr. Trudeau for fighting the Duplessis regime, but criticized him for the 1970 War Measures Act. He went too far, gave too much power to the army.

Roger Carbonneau, 73, is part way through his 25-kilometres-a-day walk.

He doesn't remember Mr. Trudeau all that well, but he did see him a few times in those days and he remembers him as a guy who was good for the union and good for the workers.

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