Closeup/Politics

Quebec's white gold

To the PQ, asbestos is more than a business

Graham Fraser June 12 1978
Closeup/Politics

Quebec's white gold

To the PQ, asbestos is more than a business

Graham Fraser June 12 1978

Quebec's white gold

Closeup/Politics

To the PQ, asbestos is more than a business

Graham Fraser

In most parts of Canada, asbestos is just another mineral. As any Grade 6 student knows, it does not burn; as any newspaper reader knows, its dust damages the lungs. It is fibrous, white, fireproof, strong. To scientists, it is a hydrous magnesium silicate, theoretical formula: Mg6Si4O10(OH)8.

But in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, it is white gold, the hope of future wealth, esteemed enough, in fact, to have had its name adopted by a town. Asbestos, to Quebeckers, is the stuff of myth and symbol. As the minister of natural resources, Yves Bérubé, told a Toronto audience recently, in Quebec asbestos represents hard times, death and foreign economic exploitation—“The holes left in the ground and the piles of dust are a symbol of wealth that could have been and never showed up.”

The gritty town of Asbestos, 80 miles east of Montreal, is a kind of political Bethlehem where the Three Wise Men of Quebec federalism, Gérard Pelletier, Jean Marchand and Pierre Trudeau, visited in 1949—the year, in Trudeau’s words, when “asbestos... caught fire.” For the Asbestos strike of that year was the first spark of resistance to the oppressive practices of industry, and the anti-union policies of thenpremier Maurice Duplessis. Duplessis’ provincial police came to Asbestos to protect scabs, provoking a series of violent incidents, but despite enormous pressure the strikers hung on and won their battle. Trudeau later called it “the violent announcement that a new era had begun.”

Now, almost 30 years after that cataclysmic strike, the potent symbolism of asbestos is once again in the forefront of Quebec affairs. The Parti Québécois government, galled by the foreign control of this massive, important industry, passed legislation late last month enabling it to take over the giant Asbestos Corp. Controlled by General Dynamics of St. Louis, Missouri, Asbestos Corp. attracted the government’s acquisitive attention as the only one of the five giant, non-Canadian companies running the mines in Quebec that produces no secondary asbestos products. It mines asbestos and it exports it, and with declared assets of $228,676,080 last year, it particularly stands for the mass export of raw, unprocessed resources from Quebec.

With its troubled labor relations, its poisonous working conditions and its foreign ownership, the asbestos industry has longj grated at Quebec’s consciousness. Con-lt; sider this: the Eastern Townships contain; the richest deposits of asbestos in the

world, and Quebec produces 35 per cent of the world’s supply of the insulating fiber. But none of the mining is Canadianowned, and on top of that fully 97 per cent of the mined asbestos is exported, raw, to be converted into asbestos products elsewhere. Manufacturing with Quebec’s asbestos, then, amounts to about 1,500 jobs in Quebec and 150,000 elsewhere. In the flat, neutral phrasing of the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Canada is the major source of asbestos fiber and the United States leads in the manufacture of asbestos products.”

The PQ government has now set early autumn as its deadline for reaching a negotiated agreement with General Dynamics and has engaged the New York financial analysts Kidder Peabody to evaluate Asbestos Corp.’s assets.

“They’re buying a symbol. And they’re going to saddle the taxpayers with a tremendous liability. ’’—John Ciaccia, Quebec Liberal MNA.

“Since the 1880s, the asbestos companies have done pretty well what they liked and told everyone else to go to hell. Asbestos is a

needling sore in the psyche of this place, and in the psyche of anyone who cares about this province. ’’—Economist Eric Kierans, former Quebec and federal cabinet minister.

The imagery of the asbestos industry is at the root of Quebec’s history and self-image, and echoes through the culture. One of the most vivid images of industry paternalism in Quebec comes from the film Mon oncle Antoine, set in the asbestos (and Asbestos Corp.) town of Black Lake. At Christmas, the owner of the mining company is pulled through the town on a sleigh—and throws Christmas presents for the children onto the snow in front of the employees’ houses. Silent, angry and humiliated, the workers stand and watch as the sleigh moves down the street.

The Parti Québécois program on asbestos is explicit: The government is committed to “ensure Quebec majority control” in the industry, create a marketing bureau that would have a monopoly, “set up a secondary asbestos industry . . . and draw up legislation requiring that a minimum percentage of the asbestos ore be processed in Quebec.”

The government’s current strategy,

however, like other PQ economic legislation brought forward since the November 15, 1976, election, is a compromise between idealism and the constraints of a tight treasury.

Last October 21, after six months of study, the decision was announced. René Lévesque and Yves Bérubé made their way through the winding country roads south of Quebec City to Thetford Mines, where the piles of asbestos tailings seem to overpower the town itself. There, before a packed hall of 2,500 applauding asbestos workers and their families, they let it be known that the government was going to buy one of the five companies, Asbestos Corp., and, in the phrase that was to be repeated many times, “join the club.”

Lévesque, his voice cracking with emotion, told the crowd: “Finally, finally, we can say that the asbestos industry is going to be profitable to the fullest extent for Quebeckers!”

During the 1976 election campaign, Yves Bérubé seemed an improbable winner to the reporters who passed through the rural Gaspé riding of Matane. A 36year-old professor at Laval, running in the area his parents came from, he looked like a Québécois Ichabod Crane; tall, skinny, bespectacled, with a neat professorial beard around his jawline, a bit awkward in manner, and quite out of place. But Matane was one of the ridings the Parti Québécois had felt confident of winning, and Lévesque had personally asked Bérubé to run there. In 1973, Bérubé had been an important campaign organizer for Claude Morin, and Lévesque’s principal campaign strategist, Michel Carpentier, had known him since childhood.

With his, and his party’s, victory, Bérubé was given two portfolios—natural resources and lands and forests—and soon impressed colleagues and civil servants with his grasp of the complex files of the two ministries. He quickly stood out as an expert and technocrat in a cabinet of technocrats and experts—a mining engineer and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a cabinet that prides itself on its brains and technical ability.

Bérubé revels in numbers and can riffle them off like a pianist playing Chopin without a score—a skill that has impressed some and infuriated others. He appeared on CBC radio last year with a vice-president of Consolidated Bathurst, former federal cabinet minister Maurice Sauvé. As Sauvé fumbled with a file to find a figure to support the company’s case for shutting down a factory, Bérubé quoted it from memory. Impressed, Sauvé said later : “He is serious, conscientious, well briefed and works hard. My only regret is that he is in the PQ government. He is a courageous guy.”

Similarly, John Ciaccia, one of the Liberals most critical of the asbestos proposal, has grudging praise for Bérubé’s technical skills: “He’s one of their most competent guys. He knows his subject; he knows his files, he’s technically competent. That’s

more than you can say for a lot of those guys. To tangle with him, you’ve got to know your facts.”

Bérubé is the architect of the government acquisition plan, but the real salesman on the hustings is his parliamentary assistant, Gilles Grégoire. Member for the riding that includes Thetford Mines and known jocularly as “The Asbestos Member,” Grégoire is a vivid contrast in style to the academic minister.

Grégoire is steeped in the traditions of back-country Quebec politics. An exCréditiste, he was Réal Caouette’s right hand man for six years, crisscrossing the province with him, speaking weekly on rural TV stations. He was the federal MP for Lapointe from 1963 to 1968, but in 1966 he broke away from the Ralliement des Créditistes and sat as an independent, the only declared separatist to sit in the House of Commons. During this period, he formed the right-wing Ralliement National, which he led into a merger with the Mouvement Souverainté-Association. It was Grégoire who coined the name for the new party: the Parti Québécois.

Now, out in the rural parishes and small town city halls, with the number-juggling and salty humor that is central to Social Credit, Grégoire is selling the asbestos plan. So with Bérubé and two PQ deputies from the region, Grégoire went to Asbestos a few weeks ago to present the government program at a public meeting. About 100 people made their way through the light rain to the City Hall to hear a classic evening of political rhetoric. Michel Clair, the youngest member of the National Assembly, gave a fine old-fashioned speech, blasting the opposition parties for their inaction over the years, and Bérubé explained the nature of Quebec’s dominance in asbestos production. But the star was Grégoire. In almost a rhythmic chant, he skimmed over the statistics for asbestos production, asbestos imports from Quebec, and asbestos manufacturing jobs in the United States, Europe and Japan, spraying numbers like sawdust, to show how Quebec was exporting not only asbestos but jobs.

Then he reminded the audience that lots of governments had talked about nationalizing the asbestos industry—not one had done anything. “It’s like the Arabs,” Grégoire suggested. “They were poor countries, and didn’t pay attention to their oil. The Arab sheiks were busy with their harems—they each had about 30 wives. They didn’t have any time to pay attention to oil!”

The audience laughed heartily.

“But when they left their harem, it was their sons—for they had sent their sons off to university in the U.S., in Europe, in England—who said ‘Papa, come out of the harem, I’ve got something to tell you! This oil you’re selling for $2 a barrel. That’s seven cents a gallon—and it’s selling at the pump for 55, 60 cents a gallon. Who’s getting rich?’

“So the Arabs came out of their ha-

rems—and now, everyone’s talking about petro-dollars!

“Now, I’m not saying asbestos can pay as well as oil—but there’s an image I want you to remember. Oil burns—and asbestos prevents burning!”

And the audience laughed again. It was a classic Créditiste patter, put to work for the PQ—vivid, crude, not quite racist, funny, earthy, peppered with numbers and only a shade misleading.

But, still, questions from the audience made it clear they were waiting to see if the jobs would come. And in Thetford Mines, 60 miles away, the mood is similarly skeptical. People are torn between dislike of Asbestos Corp,—it has a reputation for

being the worst of the five in terms of working conditions—and fear that the company has too many problems for the government to handle. “It’s an old mill, with worn-out equipment,” worries union president Oliva Lemay. And he is concerned that the government may be causing itself problems by buying only one of the five companies. “If you don’t become a giant, you’ll be crushed.”

Bérubé argues vigorously for the purchase, pointing to the reserves, the profits, and the cash on hand. “You ask yourself a number of questions,” he says in an interview. “Is it a good mine? Is there a good team of engineers? Does it work well? You say yes, yes, yes. Is it profitable? Yes. We

are taking a company that is prosperous. Its team of engineers is very highly thought of. It has a very good marketing network.”

Asbestos Corp.’s president, Maurice Taschereau, refuses any comment (“You can understand my position. We’re the ham in the sandwich”), but sources say he is concerned about keeping his executives on board during the waiting period, hoping he can keep the network of agents around the world reassured, and trying to keep nervous clients from deciding that somehow their supply might get cut off.

But a greater problem is the government’s commitment to develop a secondary asbestos transformation industry in the province. The industry argues that the only company to try, Turner & Newall, has consistently lost money, and that its plant is operating at only 50-per-cent capacity. More serious: 85 per cent of Asbestos Corp.’s fiber is asbestos cement fiber. Asbestos cement has never been used in Quebec, and since asbestos is only 15 per cent of the cement, it is much cheaper to make it near the construction site rather than ship it long distances in finished form.

Experts disagree on how much of Quebec’s asbestos can be transformed in the province. One report commissioned by industry suggested it could only go from three per cent to seven per cent, but Bérubé has criticized that report and picked holes in some of its arguments, and it was with obvious pleasure that on May 19, the day after debate ended on the take-over bill, Bérubé unveiled two manufacturing projects that the government said would double the amount of asbestos transformed in Quebec by 1982.

More than any numbers, arguments or projections, what is driving Bérubé and the

Lévesque government with the take-over plan is their feeling of helpless exclusion from information and decision-making in what they see as a'club-like industry. It is that sense of being at the mercy of the companies that nags at Bérubé and his colleagues when they hear the industry argue that it is impossible to have a profitable secondary industry in Quebec. “Perhaps we’ll find we can only transform 10 per cent, maximum,” Bérubé says. “Fine, but if we don’t move, we’ll be standing there watching the train pull out—totally powerless.”

One key to understanding the emotional tensions wrapped up in the take-over decision can be found in comparing the careers of Bérubé and the current boss of Asbestos Corp., Maurice Taschereau. Both are French Canadians and mining engineers, but they have little else in common.

Taschereau was born in Noranda but, although a French Canadian, went to school in English because his father was determined he should not be taught by nuns. He graduated from McGill in engineering in 1953 and went to work for the Noranda Group: 17 years with Gaspé Copper Mines and seven years in Toronto as president of Gaspé Copper Mines and Brunswick Mining and Smelting.

The years of school and business have taken their toll. Taschereau is now more at ease in English than in French, and francophone journalists make snide remarks about his French. Two days after

the Parti Québécois victory, he was named president and chief executive officer of Asbestos Corp. Now he sits in his office on the 19th floor of the Sun Life building in Montreal, and waits.

For Bérubé, the idea that the government is buying into an exclusive club comes very naturally. The sense of having been excluded and slighted is at the root of 1 his decision to join the Parti Québécois. Many PQ cabinet members can point to a moment of humiliation and rejection that played a part in their decision to opt for Quebec’s independence. In Bérubé’s case, he had decided to go to MIT to study engineering specifically to overcome the charge that French Canadians did not have the training to succeed in private industry. He got his doctorate in metallurgical science and returned to Quebec, assuming that the mining industry would open to him. But it didn’t, and Bérubé reached the bitter conclusion that the world only opens when you know people— English-speaking people.

But when the emotion and myth and the sorry record of the past are cut away, is the government making a mistake buying Asbestos Corp.? The opposition parties obviously think so; they fought the bill vigorously in the National Assembly. Other people are less critical.

“The government has already backed a long way off the party program,” says University of Quebec political scientist Pierre Fournier, who recently completed a study of the state enterprises in Quebec. “The worst that can happen is the status quo— with cleaner working conditions.”

And others are enthusiastic. “It’s a pretty goddam good idea,” says A. Scott Fraser of the Montreal stockbrokers Jarislowsky, Fraser and Co. “It’s a very valuable property. The company is going to throw off between $30 and $40 million every year. The government can pay off the company in a few years. Don’t tell me that isn’t a good investment!”

The other asbestos companies, meanwhile, are keeping quiet. Part of the reason, of course, stems from their unease that they may be next. The asbestos deposits clearly are not going to move to Toronto, and the companies don’t want to antagonize the government. So they watch closely as the government makes its arrangements to “join the club,” both sides well aware that because of the enormous symbolic significance of the asbestos industry in Quebec, the stakes for Bérubé, Lévesque and the PQ are very, very high.t;^?