Nearly everyone else on the planet agrees the age of asbestos is over. But the generations of men who’ve built their lives harvesting this powerful poison aren’t ready to turn out the lights.
Night was still upon us when Gilles Gauthier, in his mid-fifties, stepped outside of his home. Noting the dreary dark grey sky, he exclaimed, “It’ll be another cloudy day!”
As he drove to work, he could spot, here and there, the silhouette of a farmhouse with one or two lights on emerging from the darkness. Past the highest peak, the scenery that lay ahead of his headlights morphed. The fields, the windy roads and the rustic homesteads gave way to looming and lifeless piles of mining residue, often referred to as tailings, created by a century of looking for and extracting asbestos. Zig-zagging through abandoned mining installations, Gauthier outlined his bio. He was born here. Went to school nearby. Married here. And, like his father and grandfather before him, started working in one of the mines as soon as he could. He was 22 then. Thirty-three years later, he was still working there.
Over breakfast one day in December 2010, Gauthier shared his worries: asbestos’s bad reputation had already decimated most of the mining industry in the area. Of the ten operations that provided 3,500 jobs, only one was left: the Black Lake operation, where Gauthier worked alongside nearly 300 others. “If they were to close this one too, the repercussions would not only be financial,” he warned then. “The people that have built this industry, they built it with their hearts and their souls. A little bit of that would be lost too.”
Prior to the discovery of an asbestos seam in 1876 by Joseph Fecteau, the region was like every other in rural Quebec: People relied on agriculture and forestry to make ends meet. Fecteau, a farmer-turned-prospector, described the newfound mineral as akin to silk and quickly sold his plot to Roger Ward, who built the Bell Mine (which operated for 130 years before closing in March 2008). Simultaneously, the expansion of the railway system, which at once connected this region to the rest of the country and the United States, helped the burgeoning asbestos industry in the town of Thetford Mines soar. Daring entrepreneurs bought land, hoping to make a fortune. Workers rolled in, expecting to make a quick buck. Chaos ensued. Without any urban planning guides, the mine’s interests prevailed. Living quarters were built on the edge of the pits. If the operation grew – and it always did – entire neighborhoods were moved out of the way.
The appeal of asbestos resides in its unique attributes and affordability. The mineral, which is thinner than a human hair and can be stretched and weaved, is fireproof and resists both corrosion and acidic chemicals. For a long time, it was considered the best way to insulate a building — even NASA used it to protect the steel case of the reusable solid rocket motor. There were once 3,000 products that counted asbestos as one of their components, including home cladding and car brakes.
But the “white rush” was short-lived. By the 1950s, several medical studies on the adverse effects of asbestos exposure were published, outlining diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. The former, which occurs after constant exposure to very high concentrations of asbestos dust, is usually found in people who have worked in the industry for most of their lives. Their lungs become laden with scar tissue, causing respiratory problems, poor blood oxygenation and an increased risk of cancer. The latter is a rare type of carcinoma that develops in the protective membrane of the thorax or the abdomen. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, more than eighty percent of mesothelioma cases are related to asbestos exposure in the workplace.
In 1974, with their health in mind, the workers in Thetford Mines began a seven-month strike in the hope of improving safety regulations. Though their demands were eventually met, their actions also further alerted global public opinion to the downsides of using asbestos, compelling governments to take a stance. Some, including all the members of the European Union, banned the use of the mineral within their borders and called for worldwide prohibition. The decline in demand forced many Canadian mines to close. At its height, in 1973 – a year before the strike – the country’s asbestos production accounted for about a quarter of the world’s output, with 1.8 million tons extracted per year. By 1984, production had shrunk to 695,000 tons.
When Gauthier recalls the working and living conditions of his father and grandfather, he speaks of bagging asbestos with a mere shovel, of having to dust the porch and the car every morning. “That was the ’70s,” he shrugged. “It changed after that.” For the few mines that remained open through the ’90s, modernization of their operations was imperative. They invested in new and cleaner technologies.
By 2010, most of the controversy had to do the sale of asbestos to developing countries, where health norms were either non-existent or unenforced. Images from abroad showed laborers scooping the white, hair-like mineral with only a handkerchief covering their mouth and nose. One of the unions representing Indian asbestos laborers staged a protest during the visit of Jean Charest, then Quebec’s Premier, to their country.
“Detractors called us ‘merchants of death.’ I was just trying to earn a living,” Gauthier reminisced. Though he believes that his counterparts in other countries deserve better working conditions, he also thinks it is the responsibility of the authorities within those states to implement safety regulations. “LAB Chrysotile, the company that owns the Black Lake mine, shared its expertise with others. It is up to them to use it,” he adds.
Miners felt vilified by these accusations and feared for their jobs. After seeing the mines close one by one, they struggled to keep the Black Lake operation open. In 2004, they were forced to accept a salary reduction of nearly thirty percent, a loss of approximately five dollars per hour, to keep the company afloat. “Yes, it was a setback. But what else could we do?” Gauthier asked.
Despite their sacrifice, the firm continued to lose money, and as 2011 came to a close, the Black Lake Mine shut its doors. Diminishing demand, dwindling mineral seams and two landslides finally got the best of it. Most workers, like Gauthier, went into early retirement. Few found other jobs in the area. The rest move around, looking for contract work here and there. “It’s the end of an era,” observed Gauthier. “But it’ll always be part of our history.”
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Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.
This week of Narratively stories is a collaboration with Boreal Collective, which is the common ground between ten internationally-based photographers. From August 14-16, they are presenting the 3rd “Boreal Bash” in Toronto, featuring workshops, speakers and portfolio reviews.