In his monumental work, A Display of Heraldry, first published in London in 1610, the antiquarian and officer of arms John Guillim wrote of a stone “that being once kindled and set on fire” will “never extinguish or goe out.” Such a stone possessed “admirable vertues . . . whereby strange and unwonted effects may be wrought.” Guillim thought this unusual rock, which he called asphestus, was to be found in Arcadia, that most pastoral of utopias. Had he lived another three hundred years or so, he would have learned that a lot of it was also to be found not far from Montreal, in the Eastern Townships.
In 1879, a Welsh miner discovered what he thought was a small deposit of asbestos near Quebec’s Nicolet River. A few years later, an entrepreneurial pair realized they were, in fact, standing on pay dirt. What became known as the Jeffrey Mine opened in 1881 and steadily grew into the world’s largest source of the fibrous silicate material. For decades, workers would cross Boulevard St-Luc each day to dig into the earth and to pull out of “the hole,” as the locals called it, an essential ingredient for modern industry. The stuff went into the ships and airplanes that defeated the Third Reich. It went into schools, hospitals, and homes all over Canada and the world. It made the village, and later the town, of Asbestos rich.
In 1949, thousands of those miners went on strike and helped lay the foundation for the Quiet Revolution. But after five months, they returned to work and continued digging. Then, suddenly, the well-paid workers and their thriving town found their wagon hitched to a carcinogen with few redeeming qualities; the strange and unwonted effects that Guillim once imagined turned out to be mesothelioma and other diseases. By the time operations ceased, in late 2011, the sprawling open pit that had been dug resembled an impact crater some two kilometres wide and 350 metres deep.
In the decade since, Asbestos has tried to reinvent itself — with a microbrewery, a duck hatchery, a pharmaceutical company, even an attempted adventure-tourism retrofit of the mine itself. But it’s been hard to attract new businesses and industry when return address labels will forevermore remind customers of cancer. For many boosters, the town’s name is a liability whose time has come.
So this past October, as record numbers of Americans cast early ballots for president, just under 3,000 Asbestrians — including some as young as fourteen — went to a drive-through polling place and elected to remediate the toponymic damage, rechristening the place Val-des-Sources, or Valley of the Springs.
A “car vote” in a town of 7,000 is not the most consequential act of civic engagement, but it is so wonderfully 2020: a metaphor for this longest of years, with its pandemic, its unrest and divisions, its engaged youth, and its lingering uncertainties around our collective health and identity and path forward.
Because, like most things 2020, the choice of Val-des-Sources is not without controversy. For many, especially older French speakers who refer to Guillim’s admirable rock as “amiante,” the historic name Asbestos speaks not to a dangerous substance now banned in scores of countries but to a proud heritage. To dismiss the town’s distinctive moniker is to dismiss its very identity. “You don’t change names for nothing!” one lifelong resident told the CBC before the physically distanced vote. (Swastika, a tiny place close to Lake Champlain in New York, took a similar stance when it recently doubled down on its own name, originally from 1913.)
Even though the voters were clear — that Asbestos’s appellation, like so many things, ought to evolve at last — the end is far from certain. The provincial minister of municipal affairs and housing must approve the change before it’s official, and hundreds have signed a petition that urges her to reject the results; they argue the entire process was somehow rigged behind closed doors. We may not know the final outcome for quite a while.
But we do know this: The mine that did some good and did some bad will never reopen, the old jobs are gone, the extraction-based economy that powered a century is over. We know social change is inevitable. We know that names — like monuments and statues — have powerful symbolic purchase. And we know that not even the ballot box will help us find common ground.
Whether future generations call the place Asbestos or Val-des-Sources or something else entirely, the take-away is the same: some fires are almost impossible to extinguish, and sometimes we find that we have dug ourselves holes we may never fully climb out of.