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

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Marc, who works at the Moulin 7 microbrewery, watches birds from the lookout into the open air Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Que. on Oct. 13, 2020.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.

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Yan St-Hilaire, left, and Danick Pellerin pose for a portrait at Microbrasserie Moulin 7, a microbrewery he is part owner of, in Asbestos, on Oct. 13, 2020.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.

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Voting signs are perched beside the 200t truck (affectionately named the TONKA truck).Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.”

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The tower by the Jeffery mine, once the property of JM Asbestos Inc., is photograhed on Oct. 13, 2020.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.”

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The now defunct open-air mine.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.

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The former Beton Asbestos building on the Boulevard Industriel.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.

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An LED panel advertises the voting dates for the town's new name by the strip mall.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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.

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This December 13, 2010 file photo shows the Lab Chrysotile asbestos mining operation site in Black Lake, Que.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

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.”

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The open pit of the now closed Jeffrey mine.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

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.”

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A faded out sign signals the town of Asbestos.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

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.

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A man stands at the edge of a cliff looking down into the asbestos mine at Thetford Mines, Que., on Aug. 13, 1926.

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.”

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