Canada and Asbestos

What’s in a name? At one point, a town in Quebec (a province in Canada) named itself after a naturally occurring mineral known as asbestos because of all the financial opportunities it once provided them. They weren’t the only ones though, the mineral was once reveled for its positive contributions to industrial and community infrastructures all around the world. More specifically, asbestos has a hardy composition that allows it to resist the effects of fire, electricity, and chemical corrosion, making it an invaluable construction material that was quite cheap and accessible. Adding to that, an abundance of the mineral existed deep in mines and dirt deposits and could be easily extracted. Eventually, the mineral was made a star and became the highlight of every construction project in countries everywhere. Think insulation, textiles, plumbing and pipes, drywall, machinery, tools, automotive, steel, and more. There was one major caveat to the mineral’s great success though, those exposed to asbestos fibers for extended periods were beginning to develop serious respiratory health issues.

A Poisonous Mineral Once Loved

By the 1950s, asbestos was thought of as a “service to humanity” because of how many uses it had in such a wide variety of industries. This was a mere one year after the long asbestos strike in 1949 that happened in Asbestos, Quebec, which many note as the beginning of the “Quiet Revolution” against the toxic industry. Despite opposition, by 1960, the Jeffrey Mine in southeastern Quebec was extracting over twenty-five thousand tons of the mineral daily, making it the top name in asbestos world production.

Owned by US-based Johns Manville Company, the Jeffrey Mine’s major exports caused local businesses to thrive. New jobs were created almost overnight to handle demand, causing more people to move to Quebec and further stimulate the local economy. The people were thrilled. Eyes gleaming with promise, the people of Quebec were proud of their success. It made sense that everyone celebrated a mineral that so amply provided financial security and boundless opportunity for their community to flourish.

Back in the U.S., researchers were discovering the mineral’s latent, harmful effects on human health, and enacting national bans to protect their workers, servicemen, and everyone else at risk for harmful exposure. Canadian lobbyists were denying this research and trying to convince citizens, shareholders, investors, and politicians, that only some types of the mineral were harmful. They had studies that proved (later disproved) that of the 6 different types of asbestos, chrysotile (the type Jeffrey Mine was exporting), was one kind that wasn’t toxic when handled correctly.

No groups or organizations existed to combat these claims while on the other side, several notable Canadian organizations backed aggressive asbestos marketing campaigns displayed around the world. This was happening as recently as ten years ago. Groups consisted of the Quebec and Canadian political parties, The Chrysotile Institute, and the International Chrysotile Association (both stationed in Quebec).

Health Effects on Humans

After the continued discovery of chrysotile toxicity, global demand began to fall. More and more patients who were exposed to the mineral began developing mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other lung diseases from prolonged ingestion of the mineral’s harmful fibers. In 1982, health-related lawsuits backed the Johns Manville company into a corner. They ended up filing for bankruptcy and selling the Jeffrey Mine. Soon, campaigns against asbestos were put together by concerned Quebec scientists to expose false arguments about the mineral. They rallied with other scientists, activists, and asbestos victims to expose the truth and make sure that everyone had access to it. Those in power were put in the spotlight and held accountable. Eventually, the campaign won the support it needed to fight the lucrative asbestos industry in Canada.

Fighting for a Ban

In 2006, even after gaining public support, the Canadian government still refused to list chrysotile as a hazardous substance under the United Nations Rotterdam Convention (a treaty put in place to streamline shared responsibility in regards to importing and exporting harmful substances). In 2009, the fight was still in full swing, and Quebec and Canadian health experts brought their concerns to the Canadian Minister of Health. The journey to ban the toxic mineral in Canada was a tough one, with any talk of chrysotile asbestos being considered taboo and pushed to the side. The Minister further dismissed the health experts and refused to acknowledge their research.

In 2010, scientists, researchers, and other health experts from around the world challenged the Quebec province head of government to halt all mining and exporting of the dangerous mineral. The letter extensively documented evidence proving their asbestos policy was ethically and scientifically unjustifiable. This damning proof realized worldwide brought international infamy to Quebec. Later, calls for the end of asbestos mining and export began to come. Business was not good for Asbestos, Quebec, or their beloved Jeffrey Mine, and operations were suspended due to lack of funds.

Re-Fueling the Flames

The town with the name Asbestos held firm their faith in the mineral and their beloved Jeffrey Mine. Mine president G. Bernard Coulumbe had the loudest voice of all when he promised to rekindle the mine and bring back successes of the past. The president lobbied for a 58 million dollar loan from the Quebec province to draw in more investors and get the mine back to its former glory. Coulumbe gained traction when he claimed to have a lucrative export strategy in place that would keep Canadian citizens uninvolved: sell the mineral to countries like India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Countries that were known for celebrating cheap asbestos, a celebration that would often go hand in hand with lenient regulations regarding workplace health and safety.

Despite the majority of Canadians outside the Quebec providence seeing the Jeffrey Mine as an international failure, Coulombe was not dismissed. “The whole asbestos debate is purely emotional”, said the vice president for cancer control at the Canadian Cancer Society and opponent to Coulombe. “As Quebeckers, we were once so proud of our mining industry, including asbestos.” The mine’s president declared his acceptance of health problems caused by the mineral but continued to insist that the trouble was from other types. In 2012, Coulumbe was approved for the 58 million dollar loan.  Private investors led by Balcorp Ltd. also agreed to throw in an additional 25 million to help start the mine back up.

Rebuilding an Identity

Continued studies proving chrysotile’s toxicity paired with support from anti-asbestos organizations caused Bernard Coulumbe’s plan to fall through before it could really start. Not long after approval for the loan, the Parti Quebecois, (former democratic political party in Quebec), canceled it and decided to take a different path: move away from the toxic asbestos industry and rebuild. The government dispersed a 50-million dollar regional diversification fund to invest in securities across the market.

In 2016, many of the 7,000 residents of Asbestos, Quebec expressed their need to change the controversial name of their town, move away from the industry, and rebuild their identity. Mayor Hugues Grimard heard their voice and developed a 30-million dollar plan to help build a new processing plant and hatchery, producing approximately 150 new jobs. Other businesses emerged, including a brewery, cheese factory, and pharmaceutical company. Despite the call for change, the mayor was still hesitant to agree to a new name, however, stating that “it’s our past and I’m proud of it.”

It wasn’t until 2020, after many arduous debates, committee meetings, and socially distanced voting, that the Quebec town’s mayor accepted the people’s desire to change the name Asbestos. Mayor Grimard regards the name change as an emotional subject, referencing the event as “historic.” In October 2020, citizens voted in the name ‘Val-des-Sources’ with 51 percent of the 3,000 casted votes solidifying the decision. The town expects to implement the new name in December 2020, pending approval from the provincial government and the minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. After resisting for several years, it finally appears this small town in Quebec will be able to step away from its toxic past and build a healthier future, away from the asbestos industry.

Last updated on August 17th, 2021 at 08:50 pm

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