The Town (Once) Called Asbestos

Featured photo of Asbestos in the Johns-Manville News Pictorial, October 1950.

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What’s in a name? This is how I begin—and finish—my monograph, A Town Called Asbestos (2016), which examines the history of Asbestos, Quebec. The community has been in the news recently as, after much debate, it voted by referendum to change its name to Val-des-sources. The name change caused a bit of a media sensation, possibly because during a global pandemic and US election season, there are few “quirky” news stories floating about. I’m not sure the New York Times would have devoted the space that it did to a small Canadian town otherwise.

It’s important to note however, that throughout its history, Asbestos has always drawn media attention because of the Jeffrey Mine and what it meant to the world. First as a supplier of a “magic mineral” that could keep people safe, then as the epicentre of a toxic product that was lying in wait somewhere in your home, the mine was a constant presence dictating the rhythms of local life. Over the past decade, the community has been mocked for its commitment to its name and its attempts at survival on television shows like the Daily Show and Australia’s Gruen Transfer, which only heightened the feeling that maybe a change was needed. It also made me very cautious when speaking with reporters, as in no way did I want to continue the trend of making residents appear foolish. 

Speaking to reporters from Canada, the US, Britain, and the Netherlands, it was fascinating to hear what the media wanted to find out about the town of Asbestos. I can talk about Asbestos nonstop all day/week/year, but to fit everything I had to say about the name change into a 5 minute interview with a Boston radio station, or even into an hour phone conversation with a reporter from the Globe and Mail, was hard work. My short answer was that this is a community struggling for survival, and we should all wish them well. My long answer was…it’s complicated. 

Understandably, the Canadian media were the most well-versed on the issues the community has faced over its history, and a general awareness of the 1949 Asbestos Strike and what it meant for Canadian History. This awareness helped make the community less of a quirk and more human in those stories. Canadian reporters also spent time in the community leading up to the referendum, getting a small appreciation for the divided sentiments of residents, including one man who said he was born in Asbestos and would die there too. Many of us know small communities on the brink of collapse, and so to emphasise that this really isn’t an unusual example was important. Aside from the initial “where did it get that name in the first place?!” sort of questions, what was interesting was the appreciation reporters had for a community looking towards its future. Everyone over the age of 14 was able to vote in the referendum to decide on the new name, and this illustrates the aspirations of a (former) resource town looking to keep its community together for generations to come.  

As someone who has studied the history of this community, and indeed, who thought about “the town called Asbestos” every day for more than a decade, the news of the name change has triggered somewhat of a personal identity crisis, but it also felt a bit like a homecoming after spending a few years away from my research on this fascinating place. I found myself revisiting my book, my graphic novel, and a whole slew of other pieces that helped establish my career, taking the time to pause and reflect on yet another momentous event in the town’s history. These feelings are obviously felt much more acutely by community members attempting to alter the course of their future by taking a step away from their past, which is how I see the change.

Asbestos, Quebec, was given its name in 1884 when a post office was established beside what was then the small Jeffrey-Webb mine, simply because that’s what was there. The same can be said for the new name, Val-des-sources, which refers to the springs that filter through the local landscape. Environmental historians are used to looking to the wisdom that sits in places, and the fact that the growing mining community was given an English name, rather than the French “amiante” illustrates the power the small Anglophone population of the region had over the Francophone majority in the 19th century. What this meant though, is that for the largely French Canadian population of what became Asbestos, the name itself simply meant “home,” while “amiante” was the product that gave the community reason for being there.

The Jeffrey Mine and the town of Asbestos/Val-des-sources

Quebec’s asbestos industry closed for good in 2012, so by the above rationale there is no longer a reason for the town to exist. In many ways the name “Asbestos” shackled the community to its past, and the referendum to change it has been a call to the future. Illustrating the wry humour of the community, there has been a general local understanding that regardless of the new name, the giant hole in the middle of town would not disappear. The Jeffrey Mine, once the largest opencast asbestos mine in the world, still lies dormant at the centre of town, 2km wide and deeper than two Eiffel Towers high.  

There are many former resource communities across North America in a similar situation, but no other has been plagued by their name immediately triggering thoughts of cancer and poison, rather than “home.” The community was historically lied to by the Johns-Manville Company, as well as the Canadian and Quebec governments, about the harm asbestos does to the human body. This included Johns-Manville doctors secretly autopsying mine workers so the company could monitor the severity of asbestos-related disease from the comfort of a secret laboratory in upstate New York. The town was used as a living experimental lab, and the disinformation this corporate deception spread resulted in residents believing that the mineral was not as deadly as outsiders claimed. In fact, they believed they were heroes, mining a product deemed essential first to Allied efforts in the First and Second World Wars, and then to keeping people safe from fire in the decades that followed. Europe was rebuilt with asbestos cement and suburbs fitted with asbestos insulation spread across the western world.

The harm asbestos causes to the human body became widespread knowledge in the 1970s and 1980s, and Johns-Manville left the community in 1983 after declaring bankruptcy. Their bankruptcy was largely caused by class-action occupational health lawsuits from the company’s American workers who processed the raw mineral extracted from the Jeffrey Mine. Quebec asbestos workers were not eligible for this kind of litigation due to a deal the provincial government made with asbestos corporations in the 1950s. The provincial and federal governments stepped in to subsidise the industry, keeping it—and the community—afloat until 2012, selling asbestos to nations that didn’t have strict workers’ safety or building code legislation. Once worth more than gold in global markets, asbestos was sold at a bargain basement price to countries like India and China, which kept a percentage of local people in work.

Why would people still want to work at the mine? Practically speaking, this was more a question of home, and people wanting to stay living in the community where their families had lived, worked, and died for generations. We often forget to acknowledge the emotional sway of “home,” even when it has a name (or smell/taste/sound) that other people find alien. Working at the Jeffrey Mine was one of the only ways residents could pay their bills if they wanted to stay in the community, so they did. As I told various media outlets since the referendum results were announced, not everyone who lives in the community has a form of asbestos-related disease, but everyone does have a story about a family member working at the mine for decades and dying a natural death in their 80s. This is the same rationale behind people talking about a grandfather who smoked a pack of cigarettes a week until his old age, as they themselves light up. Local and familial understandings of place and risk are unique and personal. For that to change requires time and, to some extent, mourning.

Featured photo of a family of Jeffrey Mine Workers in the Johns-Manville News Pictorial, c. 1950

Changing the name has been a long process of reconciliation for the community, coming to terms with their past, and looking to the future. The first attempt to change the name came in 2006, but the town rejected these plans, and voted out the mayor who had proposed them. The reasoning behind keeping the name at the time was rooted in the belief that to change it would be to acknowledge that the industry was never returning, which again is not uncommon in resource communities so inherently tied to one source of income. Changing the name could also be interpreted as townspeople being ashamed of their history, which they are not. They too were lied to about the health effects of the mineral, and then were caught in a difficult trap, either to move away or to stay working at the mine.   

When operations at the mine ended in 2012, the community was thrown into crisis. Why would anyone stay in a town called Asbestos if there was no work? What sort of other industry could thrive with that name on their mailing address? Would you buy a product that had “Made in Asbestos” on the label? While changing the name wouldn’t get rid of the giant hole in the centre of town, it had the potential to change the community in other ways, bringing new industry to the area that could provide jobs—and a reason to stay—for future generations.

The media frenzy over the community’s name change has now calmed down, but what’s important to remember is that the town of Val-des-sources still has some way to go to adjust to their new identity, once so rooted in the Jeffrey Mine and the global asbestos industry. For many, the town may always be “Asbestos” to them, but for others, “Val-des-sources” promises new opportunities for generations to come. The name change is about more than simply leaving an old, toxic industry behind. This is a community taking a risk to keep the place generations have called “home” alive. Despite the giant hole in the centre of town, that part of the community’s history is over, and I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the town (once) called Asbestos.

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I am a Senior Lecturer in North American History at Leeds Beckett University. My research interests are in transnational environmental health and contamination, and I always seek to blend historical research with public engagement. 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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