The Lessons from Asbestos, Quebec

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My research is focused on the town of Asbestos, Quebec, a small community with a big reputation because it is home to the largest open pit chrysotile asbestos mine in the world. Although it is small, Asbestos has global reach, and my study of the town is also a study of massive environmental change, controversial health and safety issues, and international responsibilities.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral resembling a woolly rock. You can break it apart and weave the long fibres much like one would weave cotton or wool. Asbestos has been used for clothing in the past, included in firefighting and military uniforms, as well as aprons and oven mitts. Asbestos is fireproof, and this is what made the mineral and the community world famous in the 20th century.

However, the mineral is also extremely harmful. It causes asbestosis, a hardening of the lining of the lungs that leads to suffocation, and mesothelioma, an extremely fast-acting cancer of the lining of major organs. It also causes breast and ovarian cancer in women. The benefits of fireproof materials were outweighed by the threat of asbestos-related disease in the 1970s. Asbestos the mineral began to be feared. My research has made me re-evaluate the way Canada industrializes and markets its natural resources.

The lessons the community, the province, and the nation have learned from Asbestos can be applied to many situations today, including the Alberta tar sands. Millions of people rely on the oil found in Alberta, just as it once relied on the asbestos found in Quebec. The natural environment in Alberta is undergoing radical technological changes because of the market demand for oil, despite the fact that global organizations are working towards reducing the use of petroleum because of its negative effects on the environment and human health.

This is the same pattern that unfolded when the public became aware of the health effects of asbestos. Just as the mineral was to Quebec, oil is a main supply of wealth and employment in Alberta and it will be extremely difficult to forego, having become a fundamental part of the economy and local identity.

When a reliable, safe replacement for oil comes to market, the Alberta tar sands will collapse much in the same way as the town of Asbestos did in the 1980s, and all that will be left is a mangled natural environment and communities that no longer have purpose.

The governments of Quebec and Canada subsidize the industry and towns like Asbestos to the detriment of our international reputation, and it is possible that the same will happen in Alberta. As long as there is demand, there will be supply, and what reporters and officials of international organizations fail to understand when they criticize this support is the historical and personal context of communities built on the industrialization of the environment.

There is an intimacy that forms through life and labour in these communities. Past glories, if understood from the perspective of the locals, are difficult to challenge. My research has shown how international responsibility clashes with local obligation and the choices communities and governments have to make in order to survive are not always easy. The industrialization of the natural environment may be inevitable, but examples like Asbestos, Quebec should help us think of new ways to interact with the land, to use new technologies, to rely on governments for guidance rather than damage control, and to manage our own ambitions.

Jessica is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario.

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Featured image: “Asbestos” by Joey Gannon.
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I am an Associate Professor in the Department of History at McMaster University m. My research interests are in transnational environmental health and contamination, and I always seek to blend historical research with public engagement. I’m currently a Co-Investigator on the Mining Danger SSHRC Insight Grant, while also developing an augmented natures project. My monograph, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Change, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community was published by UBC Press in 2016.

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