White Gold by David Wayne Stewart

“Hello-o-o, Canada!” I cheered, grinning at my teenage son in the passenger seat. I glanced in the rear view mirror and watched the border checkpoint fade into the horizon behind us. We had officially left Maine and were entering the parish of Woburn, in southern Quebec. 

Magnifique,” Charlie responded, using his high school level French. He was slouched next to me with one foot up on the dash, wearing faded blue jeans and a burgundy sweatshirt with a Bates logo stitched across the front. As a long-time Canadian-American, I knew that Americans called their universities “colleges.” Yet although Charlie was in his first year at Bates “College,” I still told people he was away at “university” (and I still called the last letter of the alphabet “zed”). 

It was a chilly spring day in 2018. Charlie and I were kicking off a weeklong tour of Central Canada during this, his first spring break from university. As a California kid, Charlie was probably feeling far from home by then. I suppose the same could have been said for me, since I’d been based in the U.S. for more than two decades. Yet this first leg of our trip already felt like a homecoming.

Traffic thickened over the course of the next hour as vehicles with Quebec plates turned on the road to join us. We were passing through a hilly region known as les Cantons-de-l’Est—the Eastern Townships, to us Anglos. At some point, Charlie, noticing that our cell reception had been restored, began to tap away at his device. 

We crested a snowy ridge and my hometown came into view. I quietly admired the tableau of tree-lined neighbourhoods set amid woodlands and meadows in the valley below. But the sentimental landscape was marred by another feature that I’d blocked from memory: dusty, snow-dusted mounds that rose sharply from the ground, devoid of vegetation.

“What are those?” Charlie asked, pointing at what probably looked to him like dreary mountains.

“Mine waste,” I replied. “The locals used to call them les dumps.” 

Charlie chuckled and repeated the words in a French accent—“les dumps.” I smiled.

I snuck more glances of my birthplace as we descended the valley road. Soon we passed a sign marked Thetford Mines, population 25,709. In the old days, it would have included a tagline—La région de l’amiante. Asbestos country.

“Asbestos” comes from the Greek word for “inextinguishable.” Veins of this fibrous and fireproof mineral occur naturally here, stitched into outcrops like rows of white yarn across a blanket. As a kid, I heard sirens every afternoon, followed by tremors, as the miners did their blasting. Once, when our town hosted the youth sports competition les Jeux du Québec, our mascot was a walking stick of dynamite, ready to blast the competition away.

Although my GPS was still guiding me, I now knew the way. We passed my old high school that looked surprisingly unchanged, and my dad’s former office—the Asbestos Corporation building—which was boarded up now.

“Almost there,” I announced. Charlie gave me a thumbs-up. Soon I exited the thoroughfare and turned into my old neighbourhood. 

“The Lessards’ house!” I pointed out to Charlie, as if he remembered it too. I zigzagged past sturdy brick homes tucked behind rows of maples, then pulled over at a two-storey dwelling draped in ivy. We had arrived at my old friend Trevor’s place. 

I glanced at Charlie as he stepped outside to stretch. I was struck by how much more he resembled me than he had when he’d left home eight months earlier. We were both six feet tall now, walked with the same loping gait and shared the same thick crop of dark hair. We even had matching goatees, though his was wispier and more bohemian than mine. I felt as if I were watching a younger version of myself walk the streets of my childhood.

We edged up the snowy driveway to Trevor’s stone porch. Kids’ skis were piled to the left of the front door. I scraped my feet on the welcome mat, rang the doorbell and raised my eyebrows at Charlie as I heard footsteps approaching. It had been two years since I’d seen Trevor and I was looking forward to this reunion.

The door swung open to reveal Trevor’s lanky frame. He wore an L.L.Bean sweater and fashionable glasses. His face was as narrow as ever, but his hair had become wiry and grey, thinned back on his forehead. His face lit up as he greeted us.

“Come in!” Trevor gestured towards the foyer, using the raised vowels typical of English Canada—an accent I’d never noticed until I moved to the States. 

Trevor’s wife, Geneviève, emerged from the kitchen wearing a cashmere sweater. Her blue eyes stood out against her olive complexion and stylish dark hair.

Ça va?” she asked, as she offered each of us the French bisous greeting, with kisses on each cheek. Charlie waved at the six-year-old twins peeking out from behind her. 

Oui, merci,” I answered.

Although I’d moved away from this town years ago, Trevor and I both ended up marrying across cultures—I to an American and he to a French Canadian. I sometimes wondered if our shared childhood experience as linguistic minorities had sown the seeds for our cross-cultural family lives today.

“How was your trip?” Trevor asked. 

“Great, thanks. Beautiful scenery. We even saw some deer,” I replied, smiling, as Charlie played peekaboo with the twins. 

“I just love Maine,” Trevor gushed. Then he glanced at his wristwatch. “So we’ve got time before dinner. How about we take a spin out to see the open pit.”

“What do you think, Charlie?” I asked hopefully.

“Well, I’ve never seen an asbestos mine,” Charlie replied in a Californian upspeak. “Sounds cool.”

It was settled. Geneviève and the twins waved us off as Trevor drove us away in his black SUV. After a short drive, Trevor turned down a narrow lane flanked by ramshackle houses. Charlie craned his neck for a better view of les dumps towering behind the homes. A few blocks in, Trevor pulled over near a concrete staircase built into the hillside.

“Here we are,” he announced.

Trevor, Charlie and I began scaling the twenty or so steps to the landing above. I was tickled to show Charlie this landmark so I quickened my pace, but the icy steps kept slowing me down. After a climb that felt longer than it was, we stepped onto the landing.

“Whoa, it’s huge!” Charlie marvelled.

I gaped at the enormous Lake Asbestos Mine below. It was hundreds of metres deep, like a vast dried-up lake bed. Which is precisely what it was. In the 1950s, a lake here had been drained to access the fibres at the bottom. It reminded me of staring into the basin of Montreal’s Olympic stadium from the nosebleed seats, but without the roar of the crowd. After decades of gradual decline in the asbestos industry, this mine had closed for good seven years earlier. 

Trevor and Charlie stepped up to the guardrail for a closer look, but I stayed, transfixed by the scene below. And my mind flashed back to another day decades earlier when Trevor and I had visited this same spot.

                                                            ***

Wispy clouds dotted the cool autumn sky and the surrounding hills were a splendid palette of reds, yellows and greens. Dad and I were outside on our street, rue Trépanier. We were hosing mud off his brand-new ’78 Ford Bronco, preparing for our Cub scout field trip. Even though his Bronco was a light truck, Dad called it “the jeep.” I was proud that Dad was our Akela, the head of our pack. And that he had such a cool jeep. 

Although I wasn’t required to wear my uniform on field trips, I was sporting my grey knit scouting jersey all the same. It featured a green crest marked Québec. Je parle français (Quebec. I speak French) and colourful badges down each sleeve. I had navigated an obstacle course to earn my cycling badge, and I had recited Bible passages to earn my religion badge. Each badge told a story, and I had twenty-six stories to tell.

Before long, two of my neighbours ran out to join me. Trevor Lynn and Alain Giguère had been my best friends for as long as I could remember. My mom called us the Three Musketeers. We got on well despite our different backgrounds. My family was Scotch Presbyterian, having moved to Quebec from the Canadian Maritimes before I was born. Trevor’s was an established Anglo-Quebec family that attended our town’s Anglican church and drove British sports cars. And Alain’s was pur-soucheFrench Canadian and Catholic. But when we were together, we didn’t pay those differences any mind. We were just three pals having fun.

Alain went to the French school across town, but Trevor and I attended the English schoolhouse nearby. Outwardly both playgrounds looked ordinary, with teeter-totters and swing sets, but a closer inspection revealed something unique: flecks of asbestos strewn in with the gravel. During recesses, I used to sift rocks through my fingers so I could pluck out the asbestos fibres and flick them away. The white strands looked like fabric thread, but they felt cold and dull. And they smelled like rocks.

My school’s yearbook was titled White Gold, a nickname for asbestos and its lucrative appeal. Once, when I was in Grade 3, I filed into the gym for an assembly and a movie. As the lights dimmed, I hoped we’d see a cartoon or maybe a Western. To my disappointment, the screen lit up with … dump trucks. It was a documentary showcasing the marvels of asbestos. A shuddering voice filled the room. Did you know that this amazing mineral is used in home insulation and car brake pads?

“OK kids, it’s time to go!” Dad called. 

Autumn leaves whirled around as Trevor, Alain and I boarded the jeep. The dank smell of dried mud permeated the cabin. Dad shifted into gear.

“Boys,” Dad shouted over the engine, “we want to stay safe today, so I brought extra gear.” He motioned to the rear cargo hold, where green hard hats, plastic goggles and coils of rope were sliding around.

Merci, monsieur Stewart,” said Alain. “Ça v’être le fun!” (Thanks Mr. Stewart. This’ll be fun!) Quebecers often characterized pleasurable outings as “le fun,” an anglicism that remains in wide use today over the objections of language purists.

Dad drove along rue St.-Alphonse past the Chez Pop diner, which featured a wooden cut-out of a kid eating a corn dog out front. From there it was only two more kilometres to our destination: the Lake Asbestos Mine, one of Quebec’s largest asbestos pits. 

Our jeep rolled up to the precipice. I squinted out at the tiny backhoes, way down below, loading ore into what looked like teeny dump trucks, like the toys in Trevor’s sandbox.

“Ok, buckle up!” Dad ordered. We fumbled for our seatbelts and fastened them around our waists. The engine growled as Dad shifted to a lower gear, and we began spiraling down the service road into the crater, passing now-giant-sized dump trucks as we went. Soon we climbed out of the Bronco onto the floor of the pit, gaping at the dreamlike expanse of mud, rocks and dirt. Dump trucks were parked to our left and right. Their tires alone dwarfed us.

“This way,” Dad beckoned. I collected my headwear and goggles from the back of the jeep and tramped behind my dad. My hard hat was too large, drooping over my eyes as I walked. I kept poking the brim up with my finger, the way I’d seen gunslingers do it in the movies. 

By now, two other carloads of Cub scouts had arrived separately, so a dozen kids began to crowd around Dad. He held up a rock with a vein of asbestos running through it, high enough for everyone to see. Then he offered us a scouting lesson in this magical mineral.

“What happens is, these backhoes crack open the ore and break it into rocks, like this one. Then they load the rocks into these dump trucks, which haul them up to the mill. That’s where they crush the rocks and pull out the asbestos.” 

Dad went on to explain the properties of asbestos and how it was used. I already knew most of this, so after a while I started to fidget. 

“That’s probably enough for now,” Dad said with a wink. “But keep those hats on, OK?” 

We nodded.

“All right. Have fun!”

We scattered, hooting and hollering as we went.

Check ça!” shouted Alain. He hoisted a rock with asbestos dangling down and tossed it into a puddle. Mud and water splashed over us. I removed my goggles to wipe off flecks of crud.

Ouais!” I yelled, scurrying off to try it for myself. Trevor and I picked up chunks of mud and asbestos and threw them around like snowballs.

After an hour of le fun, the wind picked up and playtime wound down. Dad corralled us back into the jeep, and we began our slow ride out of the pit, staring out the window like dogs after a day at the beach.

                                                            ***

A few years after our Cub trip, I snuck down to our basement one night to watch TV. We mostly picked up French channels on the VHF spectrum, channels 2 to 13, with dubbed versions of U.S. dramas like Starsky & Hutch. A few French voice-over actors played all the roles, and the villains shared the same shifty voice. 

We also received three English-language channels, including the Canadian mainstay, CBC. The other two were U.S. channels, CBS and ABC out of Vermont. Because we didn’t have NBC, there were some American shows, like CHiPs, that I only ever saw dubbed into French. 

On that night in 1981, I tuned into Fantasy Island on ABC. At one point, an ad aired that had the feel of a public service announcement. It showed a man lying in a hospital bed next to a beeping machine, wheezing. The camera zoomed in on his wan face. Ominous music played, and our grainy black-and-white TV only enhanced the bleak mood. Then a voice-over announced: “This man works with asbestos.” The screen faded to black and the beeping flatlined. Finally the voice ominously warned, “Asbestos kills!”

The ad ended, but I kept staring blankly at the screen, thinking about all the asbestos I’d handled over the years.

After a restless night, I was up early for school the next morning. At breakfast, I surprised my father with a question.

 “Does asbestos really cause cancer?” I asked, popping the yolk on my poached egg. Dad’s brow furrowed. 

“What’s got you worried about that?”

“I saw an ad on TV last night. A miner couldn’t breathe and they said it was from asbestos. Like Mr. Carson.”

Dad’s face turned somber when I mentioned Mr. Carson, who’d been one of his colleagues at the mine until his recent death from an asbestos-related cancer. 

“Well, some people have gotten sick,” Dad conceded quietly. “But Mr. Carson used to work in South Africa where they mine blue asbestos, which they say is more dangerous than our chrysotile here. And he smoked cigars too. You never know what causes these things.” 

I was relieved that we weren’t in any imminent danger with our white gold variety of asbestos. South Africa felt far away from us—I mostly knew it from my stamp collection—and Dad definitely didn’t smoke. But I asked him one last question that had been weighing on me.

“Dad, could you get lung cancer?”

“Ah, don’t worry about that.”

“Do you get checked by a doctor?”

“Sure. It’s part of getting older,” he said with a chuckle. Then his tone grew serious. “Look, chrysotile asbestos is safe when it’s in the rock, but once it’s pulled out, the dust can get into your lungs. And yes, I get a checkup every year. They make me blow into a bag and stuff like that.”

“Well, why do you they make you, if it’s not dangerous?”

“Because it’s better to be safe than sorry. Now stop worrying. I’m fine!” And he placed his hand on his throat, made a goofy face and feigned asphyxiation.

A few weeks later, Dad invited me to join him on an errand. He was a fan of French Canadian folk art, and he was headed to a woodworker’s atelier to procure a folksy sculpture of his own. He chose a small wooden miner drilling into a rock with real asbestos poking out of it. Dad loved that statuette, and displayed it in his home office for years to come. 

Over time, the carving took on a special meaning for me too, since it reminded me of Dad and the mineral he knew so well. I enjoyed running my fingers across its fuzzy asbestos fibres. Dad must have noticed how attached I’d gotten to it, because forty years later he bequeathed it to me. I followed his example by displaying it above the workbench in my California garage.

After Charlie left home to attend Bates College in Maine, in 2017, I converted part of his empty California bedroom into a home office. My keepsakes became jumbled with his in an intergenerational collage. But even though I knew that asbestos is harmless in its organic state, I nonetheless took a precaution before placing the miner in Charlie’s room. I had it encased in glass. Because as Dad used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

                                                                        ***

Now I was back at the same pit that I remembered from my scouting days. As I surveyed the crater, a hodgepodge of emotions washed over me. I mostly felt dismayed at the degradation below me. But I also felt a return of the confusion I had experienced years earlier when I’d learned that the mining industry had, in fact, concealed asbestos’s risks from us townsfolk. 

As I processed these emotions, I wondered whether my nostalgia for my Canadian hometown had been misplaced. Was this really the home I had pined for all this time? Or had I been preserving and idealizing my birthplace, while suppressing its less than savoury features? 

A burst of laughter snapped me out of my reverie. It was Charlie and Trevor, joking around by the guardrail. As I watched their horseplay, I felt a warm nostalgia return. I recalled how Trevor and I, when we were kids, used to dig our own pits in snow mounds after blizzards. And how we tramped through hidden creeks on our town’s long summer nights. My bicultural and outdoorsy birthplace had instilled a keen sense of belonging in me—a gift that had kept me grounded later in my life. Like asbestos, my affection for this place was inextinguishable.

I took a last look at the pit that once sustained my family and community. I breathed in the cold air, and smiled. It was nice to be home.

David Wayne Stewart is a “professional Canadian” in California, helping Canadian tech clusters and universities bridge into the Bay Area ecosystem. He is currently the Advisory Board Chair of Canadian Studies at UC Berkeley. His essays have won prizes at the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and have appeared in Bewildering Stories.