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A faded out sign signals the town of Asbestos, Quebec, in front of the Jeffrey mine, September 20, 2012. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
A faded out sign signals the town of Asbestos, Quebec, in front of the Jeffrey mine, September 20, 2012. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

As asbestos industry collapses, a town's fibre is torn Add to ...

The sign by the side of the highway is hard to miss: ASBESTOS. No, it’s not a health warning to motorists about hazardous material ahead.

It’s the name of a proud community in southern Quebec, waging a fight to survive in an increasingly lonely stand against the world.

Asbestos has become a mineral with a dubious reputation and a doubtful future, and its namesake town faces a similar fate. Medical experts link asbestos to cancer. Countries worldwide ban it and Canadians rip it out of their walls. And now, in the space of less than four weeks, formerly staunch political allies in Ottawa and Quebec City have abruptly jettisoned their support for the asbestos industry.

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Yet here in the town that asbestos created, where a onetime miracle fibre made fortunes, built schools and enriched hard-working families, embattled residents defend asbestos the way a parent defends a misbehaving child. It’s theirs, they know it well, and there’s no way it can be as bad as everyone says.

“Go ahead, you can touch it,” Pierrette Théroux says as she shows off a chunk of asbestos displayed proudly on her desk. The president of the local historical society scoffs at the dire warnings about the white mineral. “Don’t worry, it won’t give you cancer. It won’t make you blind either.”

Asbestos is impossible to ignore in this Eastern Townships community of about 7,000, two hours’ drive east of Montreal. It defines the town’s landscape, its past and its very existence. The tailings from a century of mining have created fortress-like hills at the edge of town. The massive open-pit mine in the heart of the community is deep enough to swallow the Eiffel Tower; it’s an eerie place today, silent except for a desolate wind whistling through its maw.

Like virtually everyone in town, Ms. Théroux believes the worldwide campaign against asbestos is misguided. The mantra here is that the mineral is safe if handled properly.

“We’re treated like idiots because we defend chrysotile,” Ms. Théroux says, referring to the type of asbestos mined in Quebec. “On the contrary, we defend it because we know it.”

The belief is sincere, but it runs up against the harsh realities of the Third World exports on which the industry relies. To critics, shipping asbestos to developing countries that can’t ensure health safeguards amounts to a moral stain on Canada’s name.

Belatedly, political leaders seem to be coming around to the same view, displaying a sudden change of heart after years of unstinting support for the wobbly industry. Last week, federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis said Canada was dropping its long-standing opposition to asbestos’s inclusion on the list of hazardous materials under United Nations guidelines. The announcement came after Quebec Premier Pauline Marois pledged during last month’s election campaign to cancel a $58-million government loan to revive Asbestos’s Jeffrey Mine.

The one-two punch could permanently knock out Canada’s asbestos industry, the last vestiges of which are in Quebec. But officials in Asbestos are soldiering on defiantly, vowing to reopen the Jeffrey Mine and press their case with the new PQ government.

“If you want to invest in zero risk, that doesn’t exist,” Asbestos Mayor Hugues Grimard says. “What about cigarettes? Or cars, and planes? Are we going to ban those?”

Mr. Grimard welcomes government promises of financial help for Asbestos and nearby Thetford Mines to help diversify their economies, but, in the meantime, 500 jobs related to the asbestos industry hang in the balance, he says.

“I’m okay with minimizing risk, but we have the right to earn a living in Quebec,” the mayor says. “It’s the future of the region that we’re talking about – not just a company.”

Other towns in the world, saddled with a name associated with a life-threatening disease, might have changed it. Asbestos considered a name change but refused. “We’re proud of our history,” Mr. Grimard says. “It’s not by changing our name that we’ll change our identity.”

That identity was forged in the fibre whose resilience and fire resistance earned it the title of “white gold.” In the industry’s heyday, asbestos particles were so thick in town that a child like Gaston Bossé would write his name into the white layer of asbestos that had settled on his bedroom dresser each morning.

Mr. Bossé went on to work for 43 years in the local asbestos mill. About four years ago, he felt he couldn’t breathe; he was diagnosed with asbestosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling tiny asbestos particles.

Mr. Bossé remains an ardent supporter of asbestos mining nonetheless, and wants to see the mine resume operations.

“If I could, I’d return to work again today,” the 80-year-old says. As for asbestos’s detractors, “I think they’re crazy.”

Today, Asbestos is no longer the boom town that Mr. Bossé knew. It’s a place where working-age men like Jean-Guy Doyon, unemployed since he was laid off from the Jeffrey Mine, drinks coffee at the town shopping centre in the middle of the afternoon. “We are the Gaulois,” he said, comparing Asbestos residents to the ancient Gauls who stood up to the Romans. “We feel like we’re alone against the world.”

There were once 10 elementary schools in Asbestos. Now there are two. The population that once topped 10,000 has shrunk by a third. A nice home with a yard can be had for under $100,000, and seniors’ residences are taking over former grade schools. The town of Asbestos may have kept its name, but firms that deal with the outside world – like local trucking company Transport Asbestos Eastern – removed the word Asbestos from its name and trucks long ago.

The town of Asbestos hitched its fortunes to a maverick product, and a younger generation is already seeking its prospects elsewhere. On the sidewalk outside an adult-education school, young students taking a smoking break say they’re not sticking around Asbestos. “There are no more jobs here because they say asbestos is toxic. For me, it’s pretty much over,” says 18-year-old Alex Daudelin, who plans to look for work in the Northwest Territories or northern Quebec.

Maxime Blake, 24, says virtually his entire high-school class has left Asbestos. He says the mine served his grandfather well, with steady and well-paying work, and even if he’d like to see it return, today’s generation isn’t banking on its future. Mr. Blake, who’s expecting his second child this winter, is pursuing a career as a chef and plans to leave Asbestos.

“Asbestos is becoming a ghost town,” he said at the restaurant where he works as a cook.“Without the mine, there’s no future here.”

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