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ASBESTOS, QUE. — 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.
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.
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