MAC: Mines and Communities

Residents vote to rename Quebec mining town of Asbestos

Published by MAC on 2020-10-24
Source: New York Times

Home to one of the world’s largest former asbestos mines is renamed as Val-des-Sources.

The town is home to the Jeffrey Mine, which was the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in the world. Blue water fills the pit where miners once worked, providing crucial material to outfit World War I and II soldiers. The town, about 100 miles east of Montreal, is also home to 7,000 residents, some of whom have sought to distance themselves from the cancer-causing material that formed the backbone of Asbestos’s economy and identity for decades. According to the World Health Organization, all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic. Exposure can cause cancer of the lungs, larynx and ovaries, as well as mesothelioma and other diseases. “It’s not because we’re changing the name that there won’t be a hole in the ground full of asbestos”, a resident argued.

Official press release (French):

See also:

2020-08-11 Quebec commission issues landmark asbestos report

2018-10-19 Canada is set to ban asbestos mining & use

2016-06-17 Quebec National Assembly applauds efforts to ban asbestos

2012-10-23 Last Quebec asbestos mine abandons plan to re-open

2012-08-06 Canada: Concerns about loan to reopen Jeffrey Asbestos Mine


Asbestos, a Canadian Mining Town, Votes to Detoxify Its Name

The Quebec town is home to one of the world’s largest former asbestos mines. Residents voted to rename the town Val-des-Sources, or Valley of the Springs.

Marie Fazio

Oct. 21, 2020

What’s in a name? Not a carcinogen, according to a Quebec mining town that no longer wants to be known as Asbestos.

The town is home to the Jeffrey Mine, which was once the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in the world. Blue water fills the pit where miners once worked, over the years providing crucial material to outfit World War I and II soldiers.

The town, about 100 miles east of Montreal, is also home to 7,000 residents, some of whom have sought to distance themselves from the cancer-causing material that formed the backbone of Asbestos’s economy and identity for decades.

On Monday evening, after lengthy debates, committee meetings, discussions and days of residents’ voting from their cars, the mayor unveiled the people’s choice for a new name: Val-des-Sources, which translates to Valley of the Springs.

If all goes as expected, the town will be rid of the carcinogenic reference by December, the mayor said. The new name still needs the approval of the provincial government and the minister of municipal affairs and housing.

“I know that changing the name is a very emotional subject — for us, too — since the beginning,” Hugues Grimard, the town’s mayor, said on Monday, deeming the decision “historic.”

“But to have all the citizens who came out to vote, that tells me that we succeeded in winning over the population,” he said, “and that makes me very proud.”

After the town council approved a name-change plan, a choice of six names was put before voters. All residents above the age of 14 were eligible, according to a spokeswoman for the town. Nearly half of the eligible voting population — around 3,000 residents — participated. After three rounds of voting, Val-des-Sources emerged as the winning name, with 51 percent of the votes.

In 2006, six years before the mine shut down, town officials proposed the idea of a name change but ultimately failed to gain necessary support. A second push for a name change succeeded last November, and the mayor sent out a call for suggestions.

“The word ‘asbestos’ unfortunately doesn’t have a good connotation, especially for Anglophones, and it’s hindering the city’s plans to develop external economic relations,” the city said in a news release at the time.

The six proposed names on the ballot, whittled down from 1,000 submissions, included options like Trois-Lacs (Three Lakes) and L’Azur-des-Cantons (Azure of the Townships) — a reference to the blue water that now fills the mine — that gestured to the natural beauty of the area.

Asbestos — the commercial name used to describe different fibrous minerals that until the 1970s were used around the world in insulation, roof tiles, fire-resistant clothing and many other products — was not one of the options.

The new name, Val-des-Sources, is an homage to the natural landscape that surrounds the town: the Nicolet River that flows into Lake Trois-Lacs, three interconnected lakes, and the hilly horizon, the mayor said.

Asbestos the town has a deep and complex history with asbestos the mineral, said Jessica Van Horssen, a professor at Leeds Beckett University and author of “A Town Called Asbestos.”

The town was originally named after a group of miners who discovered what they initially thought was a small asbestos deposit in a farmer’s field but eventually became the largest asbestos mine in the world, Professor Van Horssen said.

When business was good, children in town could write their names in asbestos dust that floated down from the mines, and the dust would coat laundry drying on lines outside. During World Wars I and II, miners in Asbestos provided material for ships, aircraft and fireproof soldier’s uniforms, she said.

“They were heroes, and took a lot of pride in their work and community because of that,” she said. Many historians agree that a lengthy, violent labor strike at the mine in 1949 was the beginning of broad political, economic and social changes in Quebec that became known as the Quiet Revolution.

The Jeffrey Mine officially shut down in 2012, many years after scientists deemed asbestos dangerous and cancer-causing. According to the World Health Organization, all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic. Exposure can cause cancer of the lungs, larynx and ovaries, as well as mesothelioma and other diseases.

Though many countries have taken steps to ban its use or production, including Canada in 2018, the World Health Organization estimated in 2005 that about 125 million people worldwide were exposed to asbestos at work.

Some residents of the town, particularly older inhabitants, vehemently fought the change, as some French Canadians don’t necessarily associate “Asbestos” with the deadly mineral because the French word for asbestos is “amiante.”

“Us older people are all in favor of the name Asbestos,” André Thibodeau, a 76-year-old lifelong Asbestos resident, told CBC News while casting his vote. “You don’t change names for nothing!”

Young people and small-business owners — it can be difficult to sell products labeled with “asbestos” — were among those who pushed hardest for the changeProfessor Van Horssen said. She said she hoped that the name change reflected hope for the future of the town.

“The community has been through incredible changes in its history, from having to move their homes every few years so the mine could expand to having their world completely change when they were finally told what the mineral was doing to their bodies,” she said. “They’ll survive this, and hopefully begin a new era that’s not reliant on a toxic industry.”


After years of debate, Asbestos, Que. is getting a new name in hopes it will help the economy

Years of debate has polarized the community that once thrived as a leading supplier of the cancer-causing chrysotile asbestos.

Eric Andrew-Gee

October 18, 2020

The owners of Moulin 7, a microbrewery in Asbestos, Que., are not embarrassed by the name of their town. In fact, the pub, run by high-school friends Yan St-Hilaire and Danick Pellerin, is downright asbestos-themed.

The beer selection includes White Gold, a nickname from the mineral’s heyday. A photo of the gaping Jeffrey Mine hangs behind the bar. The pair once even made a batch of suds from the bright blue water that started to fill the pit once operations stopped nearly a decade ago. (They tested it; it was asbestos-free.)

But despite their defiant pride in the town’s past, they are among the residents who support its rechristening. The brewers are about to get their wish. After years of debate, the local council will release results of a five-day popular vote on a replacement name Monday evening, taking a major step toward cutting ties with a toxic word.

The decision may seem obvious but as the ambivalence of Moulin 7 suggests, it has been agonizing to arrive at and still has opponents. For more than a century, local workers extracted one of the world’s leading supplies of chrysotile asbestos, whose cottony fibres were widely used in insulation and fireproofing, until it became clear they cause cancer. The deadly material was also the town’s life source and bound up with its identity.

Sitting on a chair repurposed from one of the mine offices in his sprawling brewpub, Mr. St-Hilaire insisted that the move is not about renouncing the past. “You have to understand, the mine gave birth to the city; if there was no mine, there would be no city,” he says.

But it comes down to this: He believes – no surprise – that abandoning the name Asbestos will be good for the economy. The goal now should be rebirth, exemplified by one of the new names on the ballot, Phénix, which refers to a mythical bird that is born from the ashes of its own demise.

“It’s time for people to realize we’ve passed on to other things.”

In Asbestos, asbestos is omnipresent. Just around the corner from the bar is the Jeffrey Mine, named after the farmer who discovered deposits of the mineral in the 1870s. This vast hole in the ground does not appear on tourist maps – except for an icon indicating a lookout point – but it is an imposing presence in the sleepy industrial town of about 7,000 two hours east of Montreal. The pit is roughly two kilometres wide and deep enough to fit the Eiffel Tower standing up.

It’s easy to see how Quebec was once responsible for half of the world’s asbestos production, with much of that coming from “the Jeffrey,” as Jessica van Horssen, a senior lecturer in North American history at Leeds Beckett University in England, explains in her book A Town Called Asbestos.

“There were other asbestos mines in the world,” she writes, “but for much of the 20th century, none of them were as large or as far-reaching.”

The uses of asbestos were growing rapidly before the Second World War, from airplane oxygen bottles to hospital ceiling tiles to car brake pads, creating thousands of blue-collar jobs for generations of residents, and making the owners of the mine rich.

The resulting class and language dynamics would divide the community for decades. Directors of the New York-based Johns Manville Company had a private golf course and hotel on the edge of town, and used their political clout to have bilingual street signs installed in the overwhelmingly francophone community.

Meanwhile, for French-speaking workers, the benefits of the mine were more double-edged. Clouds of mineral dust chronically hung over the town. The danger of exposure was well known even in the 1940s, when a Quebec journalist described breathing in asbestos as akin to having a spider in your chest, weaving a web around your lungs.

Most doctors in town were employed by Johns Manville, however, and minimized the health effects to workers at free annual checkups provided by the company, Dr. van Horssen says in an interview. “It’s a very sad tale of how a company can manipulate a population to defend a product that’s killing them.”

Residents of Asbestos were not merely passive victims. In February, 1949, fed up with low wages and dangerous conditions, a group of mine workers walked off the job, launching a months-long strike that quickly became a cause célèbre.

Among the activists who came to help the union was a young Montreal lawyer named Pierre Trudeau. Like many observers, he saw the episode as a current of electricity shooting through a deeply repressed society and illuminating the exploitation of francophone workers. The future prime minister later described the strike as a “turning point in the entire religious, political, social and economic history of the province of Quebec.”

On the ground, the strike was largely a failure. A hoped-for 15-cent raise became five cents instead. The issue of dust exposure was left untouched. In the end, international pressure and U.S. legal claims would force the company to address the health effects of asbestos, and kill the mine in the process.

By the time the World Health Organization declared asbestos a human carcinogen, in 1987, the Johns Manville Company had declared bankruptcy and the Quebec government had nationalized the industry. The Jeffrey Mine limped along until 2012, when it closed for good.

Because this public reckoning put their jobs at risk, many workers came to doubt and resent the science showing they were mining a poison. Some resorted to publicity stunts, like the group of four men who ran in the 1997 Paris marathon to prove their lungs were healthy.

The town experienced a sense of whiplash when the lifeblood of its economy was stigmatized and eventually banned in parts the world. The famous mineral had been considered not only safe, but life-saving. It was even used as insulation in Allied ships during the Second World War.

“It felt like a snap of the fingers – all of a sudden the work of your life and your family’s life is foolish,” Dr. van Horssen says.

The debate over changing the town’s name began in earnest in 2006, at the initiation of town officials, but even then it was shadowed by feelings of beleaguered local honour and quickly abandoned.

Today, the city walks a fine line between acknowledging its history and trying to move past it.

An exhibit in the town library still displays various kinds of asbestos – including chrysotile, of course, with white tufts jutting out of grey-green rock – and old photos of workers in overalls and bowler hats stuffing fluffy fibres into sacks without a mask in sight.

The town administration has tried several times to turn the mine itself into a site for adventure tourism, most recently with a slackline spanning 1.9 kilometres over the open pit, which six people traversed on foot in 2018 (they claim to have set a world record).

After years of severe economic depression, transition funding from the provincial and federal governments helped spur a mini-industrial boom, which now includes a stretch of businesses making ecofriendly building materials, slippers, Latino cheese, generic drugs and duck products. Asbestos is a company town no more.

Moulin 7 is a poster child for the local revival. The name is a reference to the mills, or moulins, that process asbestos. Even the pub’s long communal tables are made from steel beams recovered from the asbestos works.

“We’re not ashamed of our history,” Mr. St-Hilaire says. “It’s like an old smoker – just because he smoked, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.”

Although both their fathers worked in the mine, Mr. St-Hilaire and Mr. Pellerin didn’t have the option when they were coming of age. They opened the brewery in 2014, when it was clear the Jeffrey wasn’t coming back.

Being from Asbestos hasn’t hurt the business yet. They sell their beer all over Quebec, where the name doesn’t carry the same stigma as it does abroad. For one thing, said Mr. Pellerin, some Quebeckers don’t know that Asbestos refers to asbestos; the French word for the mineral, amiante, is much more common.

Still, the men know if they want to export into the United States or the rest of Canada, the current mailing address printed on the back of their growlers will be a problem. U.S. border guards already make fun of their hometown, and they know of businesses that are waiting to set up shop until the name change becomes official.

“The name harms economic development,” Mr. St-Hilaire says. “You have to be realistic.”

No one thinks giving up the name Asbestos will be easy, or that the new name will be especially beloved. That may be why there was no referendum on whether to make the move in the first place, and why “Asbestos” did not appear on the ballot last week.

Town councillor Caroline Payer said a yes-or-no vote on the name change would have been too divisive and created single-issue candidates in municipal elections. She supports the rechristening but acknowledges that the town is living through a “mourning process,” and that the decision was forced on Asbestos by outside attitudes.

“It’s David versus Goliath,” she says. “We’re a little town that’s comfortable with its name, versus the wide world which takes two steps back.”

Officials believe opponents of the change are in a minority, based on public consultations, but the town showed its finger was not exactly on the local pulse when it bungled a vote earlier this fall. The possible names offered to residents in September – including Jeffrey and Apalone, the name of a local turtle species – were rejected by popular outcry, and the ballot was cancelled.

“The first four names created unanimity, I would say, against,” says Georges-André Gagné, the town director-general, with a droll smile.

This time, the vote has gone off without a mass uprising, but not without protest. Voters were presented with a ranked ballot containing six names – including the geographically rooted l’Azur-des-Cantons and Val-des-Sources – but on Facebook, some insisted they would choose none of the above, and write in “Asbestos” instead.

A group of citizens is preparing a petition urging the provincial government to block the name change, according to Dave Bédard, a local pro wrestler who also goes by his ring name, Dave La Justice. “There are many people in town who don’t want the change,” he says. “It’s been more or less imposed on us.”

The economic reasons for the move are understandable, Mr. Bédard argued, but to him it still seems hypocritical for the town to turn its back on a name that has always defined the community, for good and ill.

Anyway, he says, trying to erase the past is futile in a town like theirs. “It’s not because we’re changing the name that there won’t be a hole in the ground full of asbestos.”

Quebec town of Asbestos votes to change name to Val-des-Sources

Eric Andrew-Gee

October 18, 2020

The town of Asbestos, Que., has finally chosen a new name: Val-des-Sources.

The former mining community two hours east of Montreal, long synonymous with the carcinogenic substance it produced for more than a century, will make the change pending provincial approval.

Municipal officials decided to rechristen the town last year as a way of spurring economic development, long stalled by the grim associations of its namesake mineral.

The new moniker, which refers to the valleys and bodies of water of the surrounding landscape, as well as the figurative source of future hopes, received 48 per cent of first-place votes in a ranked ballot with six options.

In a special session of council, where the change was unanimously approved, Mayor Hugues Grimard called the decision “historic.”

“With the new name, I’m confident that we will be prosperous and happy,” he said.

Cutting ties with a word seen as repellant in much of the world may seem like an obvious decision, but it has outraged a segment of the population that see the move as a repudiation of their history.

Local miners were once proud to excavate the so-called “white gold," but a shift in scientific consensus and public opinion about the product has left some feeling resentful of their pariah status.

The cottony fibres of chrysotile asbestos were used for decades in insulation and fireproofing, at a time when half of the world’s supply came from Quebec. Another point of pride was the famous 1949 Asbestos strike, seen by some scholars as a spark for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which modernized the province in the 1960s.

But in more recent decades, overwhelming evidence of the mineral’s cancer-causing properties turned a reputable name into a stigma, and later a dark joke. Having Asbestos as a mailing address also repelled new investment that was sorely needed once the mine finally shut down for good in 2012.

The word’s connotations were always less sinister in Quebec, where the substance usually goes by its French name, amiante. But Yan St-Hilaire, co-owner of the microbrewery Moulin 7, said being from Asbestos hurt local entrepreneurs in the international market.

“Americans are like, ‘What the hell, a town called Cancerville?’ ”

After an abortive attempt to rename the municipality in 2006, residents haltingly debated the question for years, before finally staging a five-day popular vote last week.

The six choices presented to voters were Jeffrey-sur-le-Lac (a reference to the name of the old mine), Trois-Lacs, Larochelle, l’Azur-des-Cantons, Val-des-Sources and Phénix, like the bird that rises from the ashes.

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