Montreal

Town of Asbestos, Que., changing its name

Officials in Asbestos, Que., say the town's name causes nothing but trouble — and it's time for a change.

Former mining town asks residents to submit suggestions

Asbestos, Que., will change its name in 2020 as part of an ongoing effort to develop the local economy. (Jean-François Dumas/Radio-Canada)

Officials in Asbestos, Que., say the town's name causes nothing but trouble — and it's time for a change.

"There is really a negative perception around asbestos," Mayor Hugues Grimard told CBC News, referring to the widely banned mineral that was mined there for more than a century.

"We have lost businesses that don't want to establish themselves here because of the name."

The name-change discussion has been brewing for some time, he said. Over the last few years, officials have tried to improve the town's image with a new slogan and colours.

But, try as they might, the name is loaded with negative connotations, the mayor said.

"It's really the perception that you have to change," Grimard said. 

Asbestos was once a popular material for insulating buildings, and the town's mine was the largest single source of the product in the world. It drove the local economy for decades.

But asbestos mining and use are now banned in many places around the world as breathing its fibres can be deadly, causing different types of cancer that kill tens of thousands of people every year.

The name-change process should cost the town about $100,000, and will begin in January, Grimard said.

Residents will be invited to contribute ideas, and the name will be changed sometime in 2020.

The town's Jeffrey Mine closed in 2012, but name-change discussions date back to at least 2006 when the local chamber of commerce suggested it, though the idea was voted down by the council. 

It was discussed again in 2016 but never acted upon. There was no public consultation this time, before council unanimously approved the name-change plan.

Facebook debate erupts

The town — a community of just over 7,000 people, about 40 kilometres north of Sherbrooke — announced that plan Wednesday on Facebook, citing the roadblock the name creates with English-speakers.

That post quickly drew hundreds of comments, with some supporting the idea and others lashing out against the council.

Commenting in French, Lyne Mayer, wrote, "No need for Anglos to invest. Since I've lived here, the town has evolved without your English, sir."

The Jeffrey Mine, once the world's largest source of asbestos, closed in 2012. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

She was not alone. Many called the idea absurd or an insult to the town's history, but Alain Perron-Grondin, in the nearby town of Thetford Mines, was among those voicing support. He described it as a "brave and logical gesture."

Others suggested a range of replacement names, from the serious to the humorous.

Suggestions included Ville des Trois-Lacs, Nobestos, Amianteville, Asbestos 2.0 and Poumontousse (a play on the French words for lung and cough).

Awkward interactions abroad

Because the mineral is a known as amiante in French, the town's name isn't really a problem locally, explained Grimard. It's when officials travel outside of Quebec that people react strongly to the name. 

Grimard recounted how once, in the United States, a man involved in economic development refused to take a municipal business card because of the town's name.

Another time, he said, people clearly distanced themselves from municipal officials in an elevator because they were wearing Asbestos pins.

"They thought we were contagious," said Grimard. "I think we have reached the point of changing our name."

With files from Radio-Canada, The Canadian Press and Steve Rukavina

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