Asbestos looms large in Quebec politics. Both the ore and the town it created have been mired in controversy, most recently the announcement of a $58-million loan to help reopen the fabled Jeffrey Mine. On the line are 400 full-time jobs in a region dependent on the industry for more than a century, despite clear warnings about the persistent health and environmental danger of asbestos, a fibre that provides superior insulation but that in some forms has been linked to cancer.
While the industry has suffered a dramatic decline worldwide because of these concerns, Canada continues to actively promote its trade and defy multilateral efforts warning of its hazards. Asbestos is already banned in most countries that Canadians consider their peer group: the European Union, Australia, Japan. In the U.S., the industry is entangled in extensive litigation, bankruptcy filings and class-action suits. The export targets are, instead, countries such as China and especially India, where building booms are fuelling demand for asbestos for use in cement and infrastructure.
The fallout from the announcement reflects a decades-long conflict between the industry and health experts, but also larger questions about the trade-off between local jobs and public health, and the tension between money and science. Despite the distinction between “chrysotile” asbestos – which the industry claims is safe – and “amphibole” asbestos, which has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, the global health community – including the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association, and Quebec’s public health specialists – is adamant that no matter how safely the product is handled, asbestos is an altogether dangerous substance.
It may seem ironic that the Quebec government, an avid promoter of public health, should be so dismissive of these concerns. But then, the politics of regional economic development and the more specific concerns of this region – part of the Eastern Townships, next door to Premier Jean Charest’s fiefdom, and the epicentre of Conservative support in the province – have rarely been easy to unravel.
The town of Asbestos was created out of the discovery of the ore in Quebec’s Appalachian foothills in the late 19th century. In its heyday the Jeffrey Mine was the world’s largest asbestos mine, creating employment for thousands of workers and considerable profits for its American parent company. But Asbestos was also the site of the massive 1949 strike that led to the Quiet Revolution. Union demands were radical for the time – wage increases, overtime pay, mandatory union dues and social security – and they included health concerns about worker exposure to asbestos dust. The Duplessis government responded with force, decrying the illegal “socialist” strike: strikebreakers, riots and arrests ensued. The tide of public opinion, including the Catholic Church, supported the workers, and a new political generation – including Jean Marchand, Gérard Pelletier and Pierre Trudeau – would soon emerge from the conflict.
Health concerns about asbestos dust continued. In 1974, disease specialists denounced the working conditions and miners’ health in neighbouring Thetford Mines, leading to further strikes and, eventually, the collapse of the industry. Across Quebec and Canada, millions of dollars were spent ridding buildings of hazardous asbestos insulation.
And yet, here we are: even with these dire warnings and despite the economic uncertainty (the Thetford Mines facilities closed in January; the Jeffrey Mine had been dying a slow death), the Quebec government is now committed to propping up this controversial industry that has found it increasingly difficult to raise money on its own. In fact, the only major backer of the mine is Balcorp, led by a well-known lobbyist, Baljit Chadha, who is committed to using the mine as a pipeline for projects in India.
Playing down environmental and health concerns, defying the international community, investing in politically connected industries and betting on strategic electoral ridings: perhaps the Quebec Liberal government has more in common with the federal Conservative Party than it would care to admit.