MONTREAL — To Canadians and much of the world, the word “asbestos” is synonymous with poison and a slow, painful death. But to 7,000 people in southern Quebec, the word is the name of their home. Now they are struggling over whether to turn their backs on it.
Ottawa’s announcement this week that it would ban the fibre has revived a debate in Asbestos about changing the town’s name, a symbolic gesture that would, in effect, wipe the product and the word off the map.
“To improve the economy, I’m ready to analyze all proposals, including changing the name,” the mayor of Asbestos, Hugues Grimard, said in an interview on Friday. “People are talking about it. I’m not closed to it.”
The move would mark a rupture with a product that is threaded into the town’s history, identity and very existence. For decades, asbestos was the bounty that paid for new homes and new cars, for hockey leagues, arenas and schools. Today, residents have learned to accept that their town’s former “miracle fibre” is linked to deadly disease.
Yet Ottawa’s announcement this week still felt like the final repudiation of what their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had devoted their lives to. “The word ‘ban’ – it’s pretty rough. There is no next step. It’s over,” said Ghislain Tessier, 30-year-old president of Transport ATD, a trucking firm just across the street from the yawning maw of the defunct Jeffrey Mine.
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