On June 29, the Liberal Party of Quebec announced a $58 million loan to assist in reopening the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Asbestos, Quebec. Now, months after that announcement and a subsequent Parti Québécois announcement that they would reverse Charest’s decision, the federal government has finally promised $50 million of investments to diversify the economic activities of towns like Asbestos, which have suffered since the closing of the mine.
Quebec, once a leading global exporter of asbestos, has had a lengthy, historical, and torrid love affair with the product. It has not simply lined the walls and pipes of Quebecers’ homes; it has lined the pockets of their executives, politicians, and institutions – including McGill – as well.
Charest’s announcement of the reopening was largely seen as a populist attempt to engender Liberal support in the riding around Asbestos – and it worked: the riding encompassing Asbestos elected a Liberal candidate.
But the Liberal government was only one investor in the re-opening project headed by Bernard Coulombe, president of the Jeffrey mine. Charest’s loan was contingent on additional private financing of $25 million. This financing came from Baljit Chadha and Bernard Coulombe, under a company named Mineral Fibre Inc., and a Thai investment company, which has sold asbestos roofing sourced from Quebec for twenty years. It must be mere coincidence that Baljit Chadha, the president of Balcorp (and husband of a former McGill Board of Governors member) threw a fundraiser in 2009 at his Westmount home for the PLQ, and that he chummed around with Charest on a trade mission in India in 2010.
Supporters of asbestos are not naive, nor are they blind to the negative publicity Asbestos received that led to its fall from grace. They now posit that a different form of asbestos – called chrysotile – is less dangerous, and therefore justified to produce and export. This claim has been assisted by work done at McGill between the 1960s and 1970s by professor John Corbett McDonald, now retired. According to a CBC documentary which aired last year – amidst much protest from McGill and others involved – McDonald received over $1 million from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA) for his research into chyrsotile asbestos. Last year, Dimitri Soudas, Stephen Harper’s communications director, expressed his party’s support of the industry when he told reporters, “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” As of last week, the Federal Government has conceded that asbestos is dangerous, but this “realisation” is too little, too late. While less dangerous than other types of asbestos, chrysolite asbestos has still been known to increase rates of lung cancer nine-fold.
Local support of the plan to reopen the Jeffrey mine, which would bring around 400 jobs to Asbestos residents, is more understandable if one considers the economic risk inherent in single-industry towns and cities.
Premier-elect Pauline Marois (PQ) has wisely promised that the money pledged by Charest will go to economic diversification in the region, and the federal government has added its support, but in Quebec politics, things don’t always translate. Case in point? As a spokesperson for the mine told the Gazette last week, “Look, we have an agreement with the government, work is continuing, and we have no further comment.”