Town of Widows
Title translated into English
Town of Widows
Film: Duration in minutes
Two versions: 45 or 90 minutes minutes
We have two versions of the film - a broadcast edit (45 minutes) and a feature-length version (90 minutes).
The broadcast version aired nationally on TV in August 2019, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the feature length version just had its world premiere at the ReFrame Film Festival in January 2020. We are now distributing both versions, depending on what format each conference and institution prefers. The 45-minute version allows for greater discussion afterwards, but the 90 minute version goes into much greater detail about what workers were exposed to, such as asbestos, and its impact on the community.
My name is Natasha Luckhardt and I'm the producer and director of the film, Town of Widows. My full-time day job is in the prevention system in Toronto, Ontario developing health and safety training, but I was compelled to tell this story on film in my spare time.
Five years ago, a family friend told me workers were “dropping like flies” from cancer after working at General Electric in Peterborough, Ontario, and that widows were fighting a compensation system stacked against them.
My first question was, “how have I never heard about this issue?” I live only an hour away in Toronto. The answer was like many other towns, Peterborough was a company town. Nicknamed “The Electric City” by Thomas Edison, it employed 6000 workers in its heyday, threw Christmas parties for the community and helped to start the town's University.
I was doing my Master’s degree at the time and wrote my thesis on why it was so difficult for workers and widows to access compensation, and why the issue was insulated in the town. During the interviews, they workers talked about the “snowstorm” of asbestos in the plant, the permanent varnish on their skin, the taste of chemicals in your coffee, the “burning odor” that would overwhelm their senses even after they left the plant each day.
Then they talked about the signs – the migraines, nosebleeds, the cough that wouldn’t go away – all symptoms that could seem normal, if a whole community of people wasn’t experiencing them. What was uncanny was that people who had never met before were giving me the same or similar accounts over and over.
After I published my thesis, my next question was, “How do I get other people to hear about this issue?”. I got a crappy camera from work, set up a GoFundMe and received some local press. Rob Viscardis, an established cinematographer and editor in Peterborough contacted me, and we filmed for three years since.
As we were filming, something miraculous happened. A national asbestos ban was announced, an investigate exposé was published by The Toronto Star, the workers met with government, the compensation system, and many claims were compensated.
What started as a story about a community of widows left behind, became a story about widows, workers and family members taking on the government, compensation system and one of the largest multinational companies – and seeing wins.
We would love the opportunity to share the power of this “Town of Widows” with the global health and safety community to highlight the importance of prevention and the will for history to never repeat itself.
Town of Widows is a 90-minute feature documentary exposé of former General Electric workers and their widows in the ‘Electric City’ of Peterborough, Ontario, fighting for justice in a system stacked against them, produced by Natasha Luckhardt, Rob Viscardis and Dave DeSario.
Asbestos, forty known carcinogens, and 3,000 chemicals flooded the GE plant. According to data collected by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Peterborough has a 40% higher rate of mesothelioma compared to the provincial average. Almost 700 former General Electric employees or their families filed an occupational disease claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Of these, around one third were compensated.
General Electric was the lifeblood of Peterborough, Ont. With 6,000 employees at its peak in the 60’s and 70’s, GE threw Christmas parties for the community of workers and helped to start the town’s university. But over time, workers and their families noticed more and more GE workers dying from cancer.
The widows described their husband’s yellowing eyes, varnish on their skin, the daily nosebleeds and headaches, the nightly cough, and what they call “the GE smell”.
So they started a list. The names of each worker and what they died from. “Brain tumour, heart attack, cancer, cancer… People give me names every time you go somewhere or do something,” says Jim Dufresne.
Jim Dufresne is the list keeper. He worked at General Electric for decades and recalls “plucking the goose [asbestos]” out of the vents and having snowball fights with it. Widow, Sandra Condon, and her daughter, Cindy Crossley, mention the “snowstorm” of asbestos their late husband and father described in the plant. Another widow, Aileen Hughes, talks about shaking it out of her husband’s clothing when she did his laundry.
After years of experiencing what they call a “conspiracy of silence”, widows and workers started talking to award-winning investigative reporter, Sara Mojtehedzadeh, from The Toronto Star.
Filming over three years, we witness a Town of Widows make front-page news in Canada and working class history.
Natasha Luckhardt (Producer and Director) is an advocate for workers' rights, with a focus on work-related diseases. Her day job involves developing worker-centric training programs for a health and safety prevention organization. She has also worked in research, labour, journalism, fundraising and politics. Natasha published a thesis on an occupational disease cluster at General Electric in Peterborough during her Master's degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Not able to shelf the issue, Natasha continued her work in the community by producing a documentary project called “Town of Widows” which follows an empowered community of widows and workers fighting for justice. Natasha has been interviewed about the documentary on various platforms such as Peterborough this Week, CBC radio, Sirius radio and Hazards Magazine. During her spare time, Natasha sings folk labour music with her mum. Natasha resides in Toronto, Ontario where she was born and raised, but visits her family in Melbourne, Australia as much as possible.
Rob Viscardis (Co-director, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor) is a versatile filmmaker early in his career, with credits on award-winning films. Rob began his career as a musician playing original music in bands around Canada, while keeping a toe in the film world. Since 2012 Rob has been film editor on a slew of short and feature documentary projects including his latest, Last Beer at the Pig’s Ear (2019). Rob also has credits on a dynamic array of productions including feature films, television series, music videos and commercial work. His experience as a musician has given him a unique perspective on the language of film. He came to the project Town of Widows after noticing a news story in which his soon-to-be collaborator Natasha Luckhardt was crowdfunding for the documentary. It struck so close to home, he was compelled to help her tell the story.
David DeSario (Associate Producer) is an advocate for precarious workers and for occupational safety & health. He created the 2015 documentary A Day's Work which won film festival honors and screened at hundreds of events in the US and Canada. Dave started his communications career as a freelance video reporter for the New York Post's website, built the leading online resource for information on the temporary staffing industry, and is the Founding Member of the Alliance for the American Temporary Workforce.
Occupational disease professionals
Canadian Labour International Film Festival - Best in Festival, Beating Heart Award, Best Canadian Film