September 21, 2012

The last asbestos mine in Canada

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — I grew up in an area where they mined asbestos (and gold, silver, nickel, zinc, copper and, now, diamonds).

I remember having a sample or two around the house and marveling at how a rock could have fibers soft as silk. The “magic mineral” they called it, taking its name from the Greek word for indestructible.

It is, of course, those fibers that science has proven to be not so much marvellous or magical but a deadly menace if taken into the respiratory system. In fact, it was a huge class action by miners and the like, suffering from or killed by asbestos-related diseases, that in the 1980s forced the huge Johns-Manville Corp. that operated the local mine and others in Canada, the United States and elsewhere, into bankruptcy.

The legacy of asbestos mining haunts the area still. Municipal officials recently issued a warning to people using the mountains of fiber-laden tailings for racing dirt bikes and ATVs.

For years, Canada had been the world’s leading producer of asbestos. The single biggest open-pit mine, and longest producing, was the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, about an hour east of Sherbrooke. The mine has been operating steadily since the late 1800s and became a Johns-Manville property in 1918.

The company (founded by New Yorker Henry Ward Johns) built a modern town for the workers who extracted the pierre à cotton (cotton stone) from the earth.

That open pit is still, for my money, one of the most extraordinary examples of the power of humans to dig a giant hole. It’s a popular stop for tourists who are left agog at the enormity of the excavation.

As of last year, though, the Jeffrey mine had become the last producing mine in Canada, whereas at one time there had been 13 operations, 10 of them in Quebec.

This last mine, now in idle mode, has become the subject of a political tug-of-war pitting health activists saying Canada should not be exporting death against an industry claiming it now safely produces a product that is in high world demand for supposedly benign uses, like pipes and cement.

It’s not the first time Asbestos has been the flashpoint in political warfare. The mine was the scene of a bitter and violent strike in 1949 that historians consider the spark that set Quebec off on a turbulent course to modernity and heightened nationalism.

That strike also launched the political career — and provided some valuable street cred — to a young millionaire intellectual named Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He would go on to be one of Canada’s most influential prime ministers and a mythic, if not controversial, figure in his native province.

This summer, in full anticipation of an looming election, the Quebec government extended a $58 million loan guarantee that allowed the owners of the mine to proceed with a project to reopen the mine and supply eager customers.

But, as they vowed they would do in the election campaign, the incoming Parti Quebecois government (which does not have a seat in the Asbestos region) cancelled the loan, leaving the project in limbo.

This move allowed the federal government to score some political points with a certain constituency by saying Canada would now agree to have the United Nations Rotterdam convention declare chyrsotile asbestos, along with other types of the fiber, a hazardous substance. Critics say it’s easy for a country to declare a product dangerous if it doesn’t actually produce it.

This does not necessarily mean the end of the last asbestos mine in Canada or any other operation still producing around the world, in places like Russia, China and Zimbabwe. But without the financial and moral support of either the provincial or federal government, it’s unclear whether the current owners of the mine, including a company specializing in exports to India, can continue.

And that would mark the end of the long history of the magic mineral in Canada.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at