Asbestos, Quebec, was built atop a gigantic deposit of its namesake fireproof rock fiber, the resource that underpinned its economy throughout the twentieth century. Typical resource towns decline when the resource runs out or the market changes, but in Asbestos, Quebec, abundant asbestos caused both boom and bust, the latter once international markets began to understand the human health impacts it caused, turning the town’s mineral wealth into a frightening liability. Van Horssen explores the townspeople’s “unique, place-based understanding of their local environment” (p. 3). The book’s eight chapters advance the story of Asbestos in a roughly chronological way. Chapter 1 recounts the development of the Quebec “asbestos belt” and the Jeffrey Mine specifically. Next follow three chapters on life and labor in Asbestos before 1949. Chapter 2 charts the tightening connections between town and mine, technological advancements in mining, and the expansion of the pit. Chapter 3 discusses the medical history of the town’s workers before 1949 (when an exposé of health impacts from asbestos was made public to the francophone population). The company and its doctors began to discover the dangers of asbestos but kept their concerns under wraps, continuing to expose workers and residents. Chapter 4 discusses the political relationship between mine and town, with an emphasis on labor union activity. One of the finest in the book, Chapter 5 examines the watershed year of 1949 in nuanced detail when a major strike, romanticized by outsiders as a key moment in Quebec’s political history, brought violence and profound dislocation to Asbestos. The strike was ultimately settled with much bitterness, and pre-strike concerns about health were laid aside as workers tried simply to regain their jobs. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 cover 1949 to 1983, exploring how the post-strike Asbestos community reshaped itself in response to a changing work environment and growing awareness of medical risk. In 1983 Johns-Manville, facing massive litigation for its role in promoting asbestos, sold the mine and left Quebec, an episode covered lightly in the conclusion. The book’s structure makes it needlessly difficult to follow the thread of narrative in some places. Rich source detail occasionally contributed to a sense that multiple discussions were happening in the same paragraph. The semi-chronological structure of the book, while understandable, sometimes contributed to the confusion because relevant contextual detail might not be presented until a later chapter. For example, Chapters 6 and 7 detail the acquiescence of politicians and townspeople to change and risk after 1949, in response to company actions and medical uncertainty, but it is not until Chapter 8 that an important change in company leadership is revealed. Ending the analysis at 1983 is also puzzling, since the mine continued to operate with support from the Canadian government, with continued impacts on humans in Asbestos and elsewhere, until final closure in 2012. Although no attempt is made to compare Asbestos to other resource communities, this study has much to offer scholars interested in such places. The author convincingly demonstrates the importance of language and culture in shaping resource communities. Even as English-language studies of the hazards of asbestos were coming to light, the francophone population of Asbestos and the French-language medical community of Quebec remained uninformed about the danger. French-Canadian cultural bonds and institutions were likewise vital factors in shaping the 1949 strike. Especially noteworthy is Van Horssen’s use of internal Johns-Manville correspondence (revealed through lawsuits) that depict a conspiracy of silence and deception about the health impacts of asbestos on workers and the public. The extent to which medical personnel employed by the company were willing to go to downplay risk is truly chilling, and it should encourage other authors of resource-town studies to pursue similar questions about the medical implications of corporate paternalism. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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