Residents, business owners divided over Asbestos, Que. name change

At the Moulin 7 microbrewery in Asbestos, Que., patrons are abuzz with talk of the town's new name.

This in addition to the hundreds of online comments after the town's mayor announced he plans to give up the name Asbestos in favour of something with less of a negative connotation.

"It's an emotional decision, but I do agree," brewery owner Yan St-Hillaire told CBC Quebec's Breakaway.

"We are proud of where we are from, but we have to look forward now, I think," he said.

At his bar, the news is front-of-mind for residents and business owners.

Most are in favour of the change, explaining they've encountered both awkward and difficult business exchanges because of the town's name.

Jean-François Dumas/Radio-Canada

A business roadblock

Mayor Hugues Grimard told CBC News the town's association with the toxic mineral has made interactions awkward abroad.

Martin Lafleur, the director of economic development for the town, said two people rejected his offer of a business card at a conference in Iowa.

He said it's often difficult to counteract the knee-jerk reactions of people in other provinces and countries.

"It's a good idea for the town, because we are moving in a new economy, and everything is a question of perception," Lafleur said.

"The perception will change as fast as we change our name."

Debate within the community

But many others in the community are against the change, saying it's an insult to the town's history.

Asbestos was discovered in the region in the late 1870s, and the town was once the site of the largest open-pit mine in the world, the Jeffrey Mine, which closed in 2012.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Pierrette Théroux, former president of the Asbestos Historical Society, said at 80 years old she is saddened to hear the name will disappear, because it is part of her roots.

Resident Isabelle Forcier wrote on Facebook that she is also upset by the news, because Asbestos is where she has chosen to live and raise her children. She doesn't think a simple name change will make as great an impact as economic, social and political efforts could.

She wrote that she thinks town council is making a "cavalier" decision with insufficient public consultation.

A rare chance to rebrand

Frederic Tremblay, an entrepreneur who owns several companies, agreed with Lafleur that the change is a good thing, and said he's had similar interactions with people when they learn the name of his town.

"Everybody who asks where I'm from and where the company is, they just laugh," he said. "They call it cancer city, they call it death city, they can't believe there is a town named Asbestos."

"Simply by changing the name, we can give another brand to the city," he also said.

Tremblay said this is an exciting opportunity to pave a new future, especially because the local economy is no longer reliant on mining the widely banned mineral.

"If the people of Asbestos take this a positive way, this is a superb way to change the brand of the city and make it a good, good thing," he said, adding that if people act out of good will, choosing a new name could be fun.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Tremblay said he was surprised to see how polarizing the proposal was, especially online, but that it is fair for everyone to have their own feelings about it, especially taking into considering peoples' personal connections to the town and its history.  

St-Hillaire said he has a lot of pride in his microbrewery, as much as in the town itself.

"Changing the name will not change the past and the history," he said.

"Honestly, it's really, really cool," he said. "We'll make history in Asbestos in the next year by changing the name."

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

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