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When a government preparing for an election has a job-creating investment to announce, it does not usually schedule it for a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. But when the announcement is in Asbestos, Que., and the funding will revive a dormant mine producing the carcinogenic fiber that gives the town its name, officials prefer not to make too big a splash.
So it was last week, as Quebec’s Liberal government announced a $58-million loan to the Jeffrey Mine to convert the open pit to an underground operation that is expected to yield chrysotile asbestos for another 25 years beginning next June.
The timing could not completely stifle the backlash, and the government has come under fire from health professionals and environmentalists — the head of Quebec’s association of community-health physicians said the loan amounts to subsidizing cancer.
For Hugues Grimard, Mayor of Asbestos, such attacks are nothing new. Last year his town was made a laughingstock by the American TV program The Daily Show, whose interviewer asked the mine’s president, Bernard Coulombe, whether the word asbestos meant something different in French. “Because in English it means slow, hacking death.”
Mr. Grimard spoke to the National Post’s Graeme Hamilton this week to set the record straight on the true nature of his town. An edited transcript:
Q: Why was last week’s announcement a moment of pride for you and your region?
A: In the past, our region was focused on mining, but in the last 15 years, the mine has operated only sporadically. Still, everyone believes in the Jeffrey mine project. Everyone is behind it. Everyone has hoped for it. At the same time we are relaunching the entire region.
Q: What is the current situation? Why is there a need to relaunch?
A: The Jeffrey Mine project represents 500 jobs. For us it was essential to maintain the mine here. It gives us 20 years to diversify the economy. We want to develop the agri-food sector, and we have already started with three plants. There is Viandes Laroche [a meat processing plant], Fromagerie Oiseau-Bleu that will open in July. It’s a new producer of fine cheeses. The other is Produits de nos bois, which produces fiddleheads. Starting in 2015, Jeffrey Mines must contribute to a diversification fund, paying $1.5-million a year for five years to the community to speed up our development, so if Jeffery Mine is no longer operating in 25 years, other resources will be in place and we will not be a one-industry town.
Q: Last Friday must have been a joyful day for the people of your town. But when you watch the news, day after day it’s presented as a dark day for Quebec and there is a lot of criticism of the Liberal government. How do you deal with that reaction?
A: I don’t even pay any attention because I expected that kind of reaction. We have to stop being against everything in Quebec. That is not the way to advance the economic development of our regions. We will create no wealth, and one day we will want services but not want any development. That doesn’t work. Zero risk does not exist anywhere. There is a risk in everything. We have to look at pros and cons of every situation, minimize the risks, and make the right decision. We need brave people to make the right decisions.
For the rest of this interview, please go to the National Post website: http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/07/06/mayor-of-asbestos-says-misunderstood-towns-history-is-a-source-of-pride/