On 12 May 2011, the Daily Show aired correspondent Aasif Mandvi’s visit to the town of Asbestos, Quebec.
As someone who’s studied the community for the past six years, I was excited to see how the show would approach it. This isn’t the first time Asbestos has been featured in a comedy show, and Australia’s Gruen Transfer did so quite successfully in June 2010:
However, the Daily Show treated the people of Asbestos with such ignorant disrespect that it was painful to watch. Mandvi’s visit to Asbestos was the equivalent of a visit to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, poking fun at people living in the Superdome, still believing in God.
As someone who has focused on the town of Asbestos for so long, it’s natural I’m a bit protective and quickly push for a historical perspective on what, when it comes down to it, is a short comedy sketch by one of the Daily Show’s lesser correspondents. But Mandvi’s report is just so offensive that I couldn’t help but feel it was a cheap laugh at the expense of the dignity of the townspeople who have already been through so much:
Mandvi certainly had the right to be offended at Bernard Columbe’s final remarks on why asbestos workers in India aren’t adversely affected by the deadly mineral, but when an intellectual comedy show, based in New York City, goes into a small working-class community surely nobody could be surprised by such comments. I’d even suggest there was an unsettling power dynamic at play throughout the whole process, in favour of Mandvi. The Daily Show is not the first American organization that’s exploited the people of Asbestos, but I do hope it will be the last.
In 1918, New York’s Johns-Manville Co. purchased the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos and brought a “bigger is better” mentality to the community, consuming the surrounding farmland and neighbourhoods to make the mine the largest in the world. While achieving this goal, Johns-Manville established a hospital in the community where every worker at the mine would be examined by a company doctor to prove Canadian asbestos was safe. Prove it they did, but only by the manipulation of workers and medical evidence.
In his visit to Asbestos, Mandvi interviewed Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, Deputy Editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), who stated that he was embarrassed Canada was selling asbestos when it was so obviously dangerous. Rather than making fun of his tie, Mandvi should have asked Standbrook how he reconciles his opinion and his position with the fact that the CMAJ is one of the last medical journals in the world that acknowledged asbestos was dangerous—not adequately doing so until just a few years ago. Don’t worry, the Canadian Cancer Society only seriously acknowledged the risk around two years ago, so the CMAJ isn’t so far behind within a national context. Internationally, however, well, that really is something to be embarrassed about.
In addition to this, the CMAJ also has a history of having its publications on asbestos and asbestos-related disease vetted by the Johns-Manville Company, beginning with Dr. Frank G. Pedley in the 1930s, who established McGill University’s Occupational Health Institute with the help of the company, on the condition of course, that any report on asbestos could be edited by Johns-Manville officials.
Throughout the 20th century, the people of Asbestos were lied to by their employer and their doctors about the dangers of the mineral they had such a close affiliation with, as clouds of deadly dust hovered over the town and coated the windows of houses and cars so thickly that children often wrote their names in it, and huge rocks were blasted through their family’s roofs as the mine continued to expand. The community was seen as a giant laboratory and the citizens were simply test mice for the company to watch the progression of disease and the collapse of the industry with both fascination and horror.
The long term effects of this history are still being seen today in people like Columbe and others who remain in a community that constantly faces ridicule and scorn. Along with confusing the community with the industry, Mandvi seemed to find the local insistence that nobody in Asbestos was sick hilarious, but he obviously did not actually walk around, as he would have seen the massive cancer treatment centre in the middle of town, the boarded-up schools, the houses for sale, and the cemetery, located between the massive pit and the dusty mill. Instead, the Daily Show made spoofs on the social media attempts at boosting local pride, giving the town a Facebook status of, “at a funeral…again” and an especially offensive Twitter post of, “waiting to see oncologist…LOL!”
There’s no way Mandvi did not realize there was a deeper story to the community of Asbestos, but rather than backing off, for the sake of cheap laughter he chose to mock local suffering, to make light of environmental cancers, and kick townspeople when they were down. Jon Stewart is known for having historians on his show and for finding alternative perspectives on tired issues, but in this case, the Daily Show decided ignorance is good for ratings. What’s truly fascinating about the town of Asbestos is not that it’s a place of ridicule, but rather a place of resilience.
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