Features | I Heart Asbestos

Why does the town of Asbestos, Quebec want to reopen a mine that's been giving its residents cancer for a hundred years?

In 1949, the town of Asbestos, Quebec was rocked by one of the fiercest labour disputes in the province’s history. Nearly 2000 workers at the Jeffrey Mine – which produced chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos – went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions from the Johns Manville Corporation. At the time, “asbestos dust was as omnipresent in the air as the air itself” as the journalists John Grey and Stephanie Nolen put it in the Globe and Mail.    

From the beginning of the strike, the notoriously corrupt government of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, the hierarchy of the Catholic church, and the asbestos industry colluded to break the picketing trade union. Violence was widespread – miners blew up a company-owned railroad track with dynamite, and dozens of strikers were severely beaten by police. After four months of bitter conflict, the union caved.

Although the workers lost their fight, they became folk heroes in the process. The newspaper Le Devoir wrote dispatches testifying to the heroism of the union. Journalist Burton LeDoux went so far as to compare the Asbestos mining towns to concentration camps. And Pierre-Elliott Trudeau co-wrote a whole book on the strike. He saw in the strike the birth of modern Quebecois nationalism. The strike was a “turning point in the entire religious, political, social, and economic history of the Province of Quebec,” he wrote.

Some scholars now think Trudeau was exaggerating. But there’s no question that residents of Asbestos were politically active and aware of the health risks their bosses were subjecting them to. One of the strikers’ main demands was protection from asbestos dust, after all.

Since then, things have changed. Two weeks ago, I drove two hours northeast to Asbestos in a rental car with a group of Daily editors to find out what residents think of the strike today. After a long a day of interviews, I learned something surprising: most residents of Asbestos don’t see their city as a cradle of social change. Eerily, the health risks of asbestos dust – one of the main concerns of the strikers – are often actively downplayed by townspeople. Today, the strike of 1949 is an obscure and distant memory.

The reasons for this amnesia are at once perverse and entirely rational, and speak volumes about the future of the asbestos industry. That future hangs in the balance right now: the Quebec government is offering a company called Balcorp Ltd. a $58 million loan guarantee to help reopen the Jeffrey Mine, if the company can raise $25 million of its own from private investors. The town of Asbestos is rooting for them.

***

There were clues before I even arrived in town. At the intersection of Boulevard Coakley and the narrow, winding road that leads to the town, the tourist office had displayed a thirty-foot tall orange truck, with hubcaps you can comfortably crouch in and a transmission that could serve as a jungle gym. Until it was decommissioned, the truck was used to transport asbestos.

Further up the road, we were greeted by a jaunty sign that read, in French, “Welcome to Asbestos: A Mine of Attractions.” (The joke works better in French.) It’s hard to think of a less enticing name for a town than Asbestos. But here it was, trying to put a good face on it, disarming visitors with a pun.

One of my first stops, naturally, was the Jeffrey Mine. For a long time, it was the world’s largest asbestos mine. It’s almost two kilometers wide, and 350 metres deep. It could fit the Eiffel Tower, with room to spare. It’s so big that it looks more like an asteroid crater than an actual mine.

Every resident is somehow connected to that hole – it’s been a source of jobs and wealth for the past hundred years. Asbestos was originally used as a flame retardant – the German Kaiser Wilhelm II built an entire cottage out of asbestos to protect himself from firebomb raids in the run up to the First World War. When North Americans began moving to the suburbs after the Second World War, there was a boom in the demand for the fibre. Everything from oven mitts to shingles to domestic taps used the stuff. In 1973, asbestos production in Canada peaked at 1.7 million tonnes.

But asbestos is highly carcinogenic. Research into the health risk of asbestos was first conducted in the 1920s, and it soon became known that the mineral was responsible for shortened life spans. In 1977, a study of a textile factory in Montreal that used chrysotile asbestos in its products revealed that the rate of lung cancer among the workers was 9 times higher than in the general population of the region.

While the health effects of asbestos on previous generations of miners are heavily documented, it’s hard to say if today’s generation of miners is at risk. Mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis, the three diseases caused by asbestos exposure, can take up to forty years to manifest themselves.

And while safety standards have been vastly improved for miners in Quebec, workers in places like India that import the fibre from Quebec often handle it with nothing more than a bandana over their face for protection.

Asbestos kills you by embedding tiny white fibres in your lungs. These fibres can scar your lung tissue, a condition called asbestosis, and give you pulmonary cancer or mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lungs. A pamphlet published by Le Devoir in 1949 describes breathing in asbestos as like having a spider inside your chest, spinning a web around your lungs until you die. Asbestos is responsible for the death of more than 100,000 people each year, according to a 2004 World Health Organization (WHO) study.

Still, before its closure, the Jeffrey Mine and another nearby mine together employed 900 people. In economically anemic Asbestos, that’s a lot. Consequently, locals are wary of industry critics. I ran into a man named Paul-Marie Perot next to the mine shaft. He said he had been a miner for 35 years before he retired. As we looked out on the gloomy hole in the ground that had been his meal ticket for the better part of his life, I asked him what he thought about the WHO death figures. “They don’t understand; they’ve never been here,” he told me. “And I don’t have any health problems.”

Others I spoke to were equally breezy about the health effects of asbestos. After a religious service at the St. Isaac-Jogues Church, a volunteer named Jean Poitras explained his position. “They buy a lot of our asbestos in Asia,” he said. “They wouldn’t be buying it if they didn’t think it was safe. And it can’t be more dangerous than the other products we use in our home.”

Five minutes walking down 1ère Avenue, the town’s main – and only – commercial street, gives you a sense of why Asbestos wants its mine up and running again. The town looks ragged. Dozens of stores are boarded up. A youth employment service called Carrefour has advertisements everywhere, and a prominent storefront right on 1ère. The street is dotted with restaurants that all seemingly serve cheap, greasy Quebec soul food.

Next to where I had lunch – Resto Max-Ime, whose sign was missing the letter “e” in “Resto” – I spoke to Doris Côté, another local. Her father was a miner for 44 years and, according to her, never became sick from working. She called asbestosis and mesothelioma “bullshit.”

I tried talking to a diverse group of people in Asbestos, but the responses I got were mostly uniform and not always polite. The town has been widely criticized, and mocked, in the press – most recently by the Daily Show – so locals are wary of outsiders, especially ones with notepads. At one point, I was told the French-Canadian equivalent of “fuck off” (décalisse) for asking too many indiscreet questions.

It’s easy to mock their constant denial of asbestos’ health risks. On the surface, their stubbornness seems akin to that of creationists and climate-change deniers. But the reality is much more complex.

***

Jessica Van Horssen probably knows more about the history of Asbestos than anyone else in Quebec. She’s a post-doctoral fellow at McGill, and wrote her thesis on the history of the town. “The people of Asbestos.” she told me in an interview, “were not told about the health risks. The company had doctors who didn’t speak French and didn’t tell the workers why they were getting sick until the 1970s. That’s about a hundred years of history of not knowing what’s happening to your body.”

After the company started to warn workers about the health risks in the 1970s, they refused to wear masks. “They didn’t see Asbestos as being so deadly,” she explained. “They thought they were getting sick because they smoked or because when you’re seventy years old, you get sick.”

And indeed, in my interviews with locals, “smoking” came up on a number of occasions as an explanation for the respiratory illnesses of their relatives

At the St. Isaac-Jogues Church, Claude Jutra, a former miner, told me how his cousin worked in the mine and now he suffers from a respiratory illness. The cause? “Smoking,” he said. A similar story, one woman named Pauline said her husband, a miner, died of lung cancer a while ago. But, she said, it was because he “smoked a lot.”

To see if any current miners were worried about getting sick from asbestos, I stopped in at Club Aramis, a miner’s bar. As soon as I entered, the miners stared me down for what seemed like an eternity. With my relatively skinny jeans and my notepad, I obviously looked like an outsider. I decided not to stay for a beer. When I did manage to talk to Yvon Moffett, a miner, as he smoked a cigarette outside, he answered my questions tersely and unenthusiastically. I honestly felt that any mention of “lung cancer” or “mesothelioma” would have earned me a black eye, so I didn’t press him on the issue.

The residents I spoke to were resolute in their support for the mine. They agreed that the city wouldn’t survive without it, but they were convinced that it would re-open soon.  In the presbytery of the St. Isaac-Jogues Church, I asked Poitras if he had any intention of leaving town if the mine were to close indefinitely. “No,” he said. “We were born here, and we’re going to die here.”

Before we drove home, my editors and I decided to look for the local cemetery. We found it a few miles from the town center. The road leading up to it was flanked by muddy fields and badly maintained bungalows. As we drove, we were followed by the sound of barking dogs.

A gate told us the cemetery was called Notre-Dame de Toutes-Joies. A dense fog hovered overhead as I walked through the rows of elaborately engraved headstones. The average life expectancy of the people buried there seemed alarmingly low – rarely was there an age above seventy.

Just 100 meters or so across a weedy field loomed an abandoned factory, its chutes and silos rusty with neglect. It was the asbestos processing plant.


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