The Cost of Clean Energy
Part 1: Quebec City's poorest residents breathe some of the worst air in Canada.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series about Quebec’s growing role in the production of electric vehicles. Nickel and other precious metals are mined along the province’s northern coast and shipped overseas to be refined and eventually used in the manufacture of car batteries. On the one hand, electric vehicles produce no greenhouse gas emissions our conversion away from internal combustion engines is seen as a necessary step towards fighting climate change. On the other, mining comes with an enormous environmental cost that seems to be borne by some of the province’s least fortunate people. For the next few months, we’ll be checking in on folks whose lives are impacted by the “electrification” of our transport network.
QUEBEC CITY, QC — The dust sweeps across Limoilou like some cosmic punishment.
It sails past smokestacks and steeples, over the walkup apartments and dépanneurs that line the avenues, covering everything in a metallic film.
Most of the time you can’t see the dust but it’s always there. It’s in the air children breathe as they play pickup basketball outside the cegep. Cars speeding along 3e Ave. brush it back into cafés and storefronts. It settles outside a pawn shop that sells used bicycles to families who can’t afford new ones.
The dust is made up of nickel particles so fine they seep into people’s lungs. It floats in from the nearby commercial ports, where ships unload nickel ore onto trains bound for Ontario.
When the wind blows hard off the St. Lawrence — which is often — there can be upwards of 100 nanograms of nickel per cubic meter (ng/m³) wafting into Limoilou. That’s 50 times higher than nickel levels in Montreal’s East End, where refineries burn crude oil 24 hours a day.
In fact, there is a higher concentration of nickel particles in Limoilou’s air than in just about any major Canadian city. With a daily average of 12 ng/m³, there’s six times more nickel in Limoilou’s air than in the port city of Halifax and almost seven times more than in the copper mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba.
The particles are carcinogenic and prolonged exposure to them increases the risk of respiratory illnesses ranging from asthma to lung cancer. This alone would be a huge problem for the people of Limoilou. But the particles are just one ingredient in what locals call the “toxic stew.”
Limoilou is cut off from the rest of Quebec City by a network of highways and railroads that coil around the neighbourhood. To the south, it’s hemmed in by the port, the White Birch paper mill and a concrete overpass that casts a shadow over entire blocks of townhouses. To the east, an incinerator that burns 312,000 tonnes of garbage, a scrap metal yard and a dusty underpass where teenagers do tricks on their motorized scooters.
Rain or shine, you can see the smokestacks blot out the sky over Limoilou.
It should hardly be surprising then that people in Limoilou are two times more likely to develop a chronic respiratory illness than those who live up the hill in Haute-Ville. Life expectancy in the neighbourhood is three years below the provincial average.
Limoilou also happens to be one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Quebec. The median household income ($31,000) is less than half the national average. What’s more, 21 per cent of households in Limoilou live on less than $23,000 a year.
People in the neighbourhood are hospitalized for conditions like diabetes, epilepsy or asthma at a rate of about 1.5 times more than the average Quebecer. Though potentially debilitating, those health issues can be managed without regular trips to the emergency room. But since there are so few clinics in the neighbourhood of 47,000, people have to wait until they’re so sick they call 911.
These problems surface in conversations with locals who’ll tell you about “seasonal allergies” that go on for 12 months a year. Some speak of headaches that linger for days or blowing their noses and seeing a grey film in the Kleenex. Three people I spoke to told me about leaving their laundry to dry on a clothesline only to find it covered in dust hours later.
“I don’t know of any other place where your clothes are dirtier after you’ve washed them,” said Véronique Lalande, an activist who recently moved out of Limoilou because the air was affecting her health. “You’ve got families where every kid has asthma, air so contaminated it eats away at the iron in people’s railings. I lived by the Décarie Expressway in Montreal, I lived in the Plateau when the neighbourhood had its own garbage incinerator and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Lalande has been fighting for air quality in the district for over 10 years, collecting her own dust samples and paying to have them analyzed, gathering testimony from her neighbours and knocking on hundreds of doors to rally support for the health of Limoilou’s most vulnerable citizens.
Think of her as a québécoise Erin Brokovich.
She’s had to do this because the Coalition Avenir Québec and its predecessors have rejected studies showing the air in Limoilou is dangerous, opting instead to lean on reports that cherry pick data to suit their needs.
Last year, Environment Minister Benoit Charette took things a step further. Under pressure from the Port of Quebec and Glencore mining corporation, Charette bent the knee and opted to dramatically deregulate air quality standards in the neighbourhood.
Charette’s office is recommending restrictions on nickel in Limoilou be increased from 14 ng/m³ to 70 ng/m³. He argues that more contaminants in the air will be good for the environment since nickel is used to manufacture electric vehicles.
“You can’t say you care about air quality, turn around and allow mining companies to put five times more nickel in the air,” said Sol Zanetti, the Québec solidaire MNA who represents Limoilou in the National Assembly. “That’s just not coherent. This government put the interests of a mining corporation ahead of the health of people in Limoilou. It’s that simple.”
Though Quebec’s government has chosen heavy industry over the people of Limoilou, residents aren’t giving up.
Last year, the Conseil de quartier du Vieux-Limoilou partnered with a local credit union to launch the most ambitious study on air quality the neighbourhood has ever seen. The Conseil — a group of locals elected to advocate for the district in matters of urban development — applied for a grant from Caisse Desjardins to buy 75 air quality metres.
The metres will be installed on balconies and roofs across Limoilou this summer and monitored daily by volunteers who live in Limoilou. Until now, most of what we know about the air quality comes from a single weather station at the western edge of the neighbourhood.
“This is democracy in action, these are people using every available tool they have to fight for their kids,” said Raymond Poirier, who sits on the Conseil. “We are fighters here, there’s a great sense of solidarity here. It’s why so many people chose to live in this neighbourhood even though it’s so polluted.
“We are the village that raises the child, we’re the people who go to bat for each other.”
“You have a piece of carrot on your face. I’m only telling you that because I like you.”
Véronique Lalande has a no bullshit demeanour that immediately endears her to you. It’s easy to see why so many of her neighbours trusted Lalande to lead the fight against the port.
We sat across from each other in Les Colocs, a greasy spoon on 3e Ave.
It's the kind of place that serves breakfast all day, where you might see a man in a three-piece suit sitting next to someone in steel-toed boots, eating a baloney and ham sandwich. I wiped the half-chewed carrot off my cheek and Lalande jumped back into her story.
“Living here was a trip,” she said. “We bought a ruin of a house but we renovated it ourselves. We loved our home, loved our neighbours, there was just one thing we couldn’t understand. Why is there always a film of dust covering everything? And it was an unusual sort of dust, metallic almost.”
Lalande, her husband Louis and their neighbours assumed it came from the nearby incinerator. That would have been the most logical culprit. The smokestack towers over Limoilou, puffing an endless cloud of carbon dioxide you can see from just about anywhere in the district. It stands to reason that some of that burnt garbage would make its way back to earth.
Louis, a scientist by trade, attended a meeting at the incinerator in the fall of 2012, convinced that his hypothesis would be confirmed after a few pointed questions. But it wasn’t.
“They showed him wind charts and a pile of numbers that proved it wasn’t possible for the dust to be coming from the incinerator,” Lalande said. “In one way it’s a relief but then you have to wonder if the dust is something even more dangerous than burnt garbage.”
Everything changed just a few days after the meeting.
It was an unseasonably warm October morning and Louis was putting the final touches on a coat of paint outside their home. Lalande stepped out for a walk with their boy Léo and noticed something strange.
“I was pushing Léo’s stroller and I saw his hand coming out the side and it was all red,” she said. “Then I looked at him and noticed his face and his mouth were all red. Then I looked down and saw the stroller’s wheels and my shoes were red too. When I looked up and saw it was everywhere, on cars, people’s homes, like something out of a horror movie.
“I don't swear often but I remember saying ‘Tabarnak, that’s enough! We’re getting to the bottom of this.’”
She got on the phone with the city and Environment Ministry and they gave her the same answer: it’s coming from the port and there isn’t much to be done about it.
“I said, ‘It can’t be! The port is just boats and cruises.’”
On the other end of the line, an environmental technician let Lalande in on a secret.
“The port is the biggest polluter in all of Quebec City but no one dares take it on,” they said.
That seemed only to harden Lalande’s resolve.
“I told myself, ‘No, I do not accept this.’”
The red cloud wasn’t just nickel. It was a cocktail of zinc, iron and other heavy metals carried in from the port on a nor’easter sweeping off the river. A stevedoring company called Arrimage Québec was unloading metal onto a pier when it happened. With few mitigation measures containing dust particles, the wind kicked up so much red dust that it could be seen across the river in Lévis.
And while the port authority called the events of that day a freak occurrence, Lalande seeing her son’s face covered in toxic dust was a radicalizing moment.
For the next 11 years, she would wage a fight that brought her up against the Port of Quebec, a multi-billion dollar mining conglomerate, longtime Quebec mayor Régis Labeaume, a small army of lobbyists, the federal and provincial government and a business community intent on keeping the nickel flowing through the capital’s docks.
They had money and access to the halls of power but Lalande had her community.
“I remember talking to an elderly woman who told me, ‘I didn’t know we were allowed to complain,’” Lalande said. “For so long, people in our community had been told they didn’t matter. If not explicitly then because every time the city needed to build something no one wanted in their backyard, it ended up in Limoilou.
“But the red dust incident was a turning point. A lot of people learned they were much more powerful than they could ever imagine.”
She took what I assumed was a dramatic pause. Outside a man sold magazines from a newsstand mounted to his bicycle and an old timer puffed on his cigar as traffic idled at the stop light.
“Hey, can you ask me a few questions?” she said. “Because I need to take a few bites of this sandwich and if you don’t I’ll just keep talking.”
Fighting the port isn’t Lalande’s fulltime job. She works for Quebec’s workplace safety board by day and has an 11-year-old kid to care for at the end of the day. But whatever spare time she has left is spent waging what some might consider a futile war against big business.
When she first gathered dust samples from people’s windowsills to have them analyzed by lab technicians, Mayor Labeaume dismissed her approach as unscientific and largely anecdotal.
For most people making a run at local politics, a rebuke from Labeaume is the kiss of death. During his four terms as mayor, Labeaume was untouchable in Quebec City and the surrounding Capitale Nationale region — a kingmaker courted by federal and provincial party leaders eager to gain his approval.
Labeaume’s time in office spanned four premiers, two prime ministers and God knows how many activists wanting to take a run at the throne. But Lalande isn’t most people.
While Labeaume retired last year, Lalande is still fighting. And far from having been brushed aside, her activism fuelled the rise of an insurgent candidate who came out of nowhere to challenge for the mayoralty last year (more on that next week).
The group Lalande co-founded — Initiative Citoyenne de Vigilance du Port de Québec — became such a force in the city that she won over new mayor Bruno Marchand to their cause. Though the CAQ government has the final say in this matter, it’s hard to think Lalande will make it easy for them.
They’ve won one class action lawsuit against Arrimage Québec, the company responsible for the red dust incident, and they’re fighting for a second one in Quebec’s court of appeals. They managed to get the company to use fire hoses while unloading metal so the dust turns into mud instead of floating towards Limoilou.
But with the possibility of even more pollution coming their way, the Initiative Citoyenne isn’t going anywhere.
“When I said, ‘I do not accept this’ I meant it,” Lalande said, finally taking a bite of her sandwich.
“When you take on the port, you’re taking on God. This isn’t David versus Goliath. It’s David versus God.”
It was the second time I heard someone compare Quebec’s port authority to the divine and I’d only been in the city for a few hours. Marcel Paré sat in his basement den, outlining the theory as laundry rattled in the dryer.
“The Port of Quebec is a Crown corporation, the Queen of England wears the crown, and the Queen is God’s representative on earth,” he said. “You don’t want to make enemies with the port, my friend!”
It’s a clever analogy though not without its flaws. Crown corporations are federally-owned and the Divine Right of Kings came to a head (literally) with the execution of Charles I in 1649. Even so, he does have a point.
The port only employs about 100 people but freighters and subcontractors pour billions into Quebec’s economy. Roughly 30 million tonnes of cargo move through the Port of Quebec each year, making it one of the busiest in North America. It is the last deep water port before the Great Lakes, the final waypoint towards a market of 103 million consumers in the American midwest and Canada.
The ships and the cargo they carry belong to some of the biggest corporations in the world, from energy sector giants to retailers like Walmart. It’s these companies that choose four of the seven seats on the port’s board of directors. So while the port’s president is appointed by Ottawa, it’s big business pulling the strings.
Just keeping the machine going is a lucrative trade. Ottawa and Quebec are set to invest $1 billion in renovations to the port over the next five years. That accounts for thousands more jobs in construction to expand the port’s capacity and keep those ships rolling in to pay for more expansion.
The port may not be God but it’s about as close as you’ll get in this life.
And yet, Paré teamed up with a confederacy of citizen groups and environmentalists last year to score a major victory against the divine. Their efforts to demonstrate how more unchecked development will hurt their neighbourhood was the hinge factor in Ottawa’s decision to withdraw its support for a $775 million project to expand the Port of Quebec.
The project, called Laurentia, would have seen Quebec sell off 80 football fields worth of public land at a massive discount. The private companies buying that land would then bulldoze it and convert the lots to a massive “innovation zone” for tech companies. It was a championed by the CAQ as part of a plan to drum up investment in the region and create high paying jobs in a growing sector of the economy.
Of course, it would have also entailed turning even more of Limoilou into a concrete wasteland.
“Look outside my window, do you see any trees?” Paré asked. “They’re rare in these parts. Only about 17 per cent of this neighbourhood is covered by trees. Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that number needs to be 40 per cent to maintain a good air quality. And in neighbourhoods where people have money, that’s the case. Their lungs aren’t more important than ours but that seems to be how the government sees things.”
Paré lives in the Maizerets sector of Limoilou — across from a massive construction site where Quebec’s new super hospital will stand. He jokes that when the nickel inevitably gives him cancer, he’ll just have to cross the street to be treated.
“At least there’s that. Convenience in our misery.”
Aside from his humour and gift following the paper trail, Paré is a uniter. Just like Lalande, he’s been successful in enlisting people from outside Limoilou to help keep the port in check. When we met last week, he sat next to Daniel Guay, a retired IT director who lives downriver in the suburb of Beauport.
Guay is the sort of person you might expect to get behind Laurentia. He lives in a CAQ stronghold, worked in tech and polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of people his age, in his riding, back this government. But Guay is also an avid windsurfer who recognizes how expanding the port could have destroyed some of what makes Quebec City such a beautiful place.
“I’m not a partisan, I just believe there’s a basic dignity in having a clean river and in making sure that everyone — even the poor — have access to it,” said Guay. “This level of development wouldn’t be acceptable in Cap Rouge or other suburbs so why is it always imposed on the people of Limoilou?”
Together, Guay and Paré knocked on doors, gathered experts on marine life and found allies ranging from fellow retirees to college-age kids who care deeply about climate change. In the midst of the six-year struggle, Guay happened upon then-Quebec mayor Régis Labeaume on the street and confronted him about his support of Laurentia.
“He ran away,” said Guay. “I guess he had something to hide. There’s been a political consensus in most of this region that we development and jobs at any cost. But it’s the most vulnerable people who pay for it.”
The image of Guay — an imposing, broad-shouldered man with a tuft of wild grey hair — demanding answers from the Labeaume is indicative of the group’s political style. They pound the pavement and don’t have to use public relations firms to get their messages.
In all, the pair estimates they spent about $1,500 producing a report that demonstrated how an expanded port would harm the river and the neighbouring Indigenous community of Wendake. The port, for its part, spent $13.8 million on expert testimony, lobbying fees and advertising in hopes of getting the green light from Ottawa.
The Port of Quebec refused to provide a comment for this article.
Ultimately, the federal government ruled against Laurentia last summer because the environmental cost would be too high. Now, that they’ve shifted their focus to the nickel problem, the pair is confident they can prevail.
“Yes it can feel like you’re taking on God sometimes but it’s easier when the truth is on your side,” said Paré.
It might actually be easier for the community to take on one giant. But the problem is that while the port is under federal jurisdiction, the air in which nickel particles travel is regulated by the province. And Quebec is a province with deep ties to the mining industry.
Here’s what’s most confounding about the CAQ’s plan to deregulate air quality standards in Limoilou.
A monitoring station installed by the port after the red dust incident found that, over a six-year period, they were able to keep nickel levels below 14 ng/m³ roughly 90 per cent of the time. So why would anyone need to increase that limit by a factor of five?
“Nickel is a growth industry right now, it’s a key component in the manufacturing of electric car batteries,” Lalande said. “But the crazy thing is, Quebec doesn’t need to kneel before the industry. This is one of the rare cases where we have the long end of the stick. The nickel is here, it’s within our borders. You can move a shoe factory but you can’t move a mine.
“So why are we so afraid of making Glencore and its subcontractors respect the environment?”
For the past nine years, the Anglo-Swiss conglomerate Glencore has partnered with Parti Québécois, Liberal and CAQ governments to expand its operations and limit oversight. The lobbying effort to deregulate air quality in Limoilou goes back to 2013 but that’s just one of 14 active files before the provincial government, according to Quebec’s lobbying registry.
Since 2013, the company has worked with 23 lobbyists to gain access to 11 ministers and about a dozen governmental agencies inside Quebec. They’ve been before Revenu Québec to prevent increases in the royalties they pay the province. Lobbyists have asked the labour and education ministries to fund job training and they’ve met with the Environment Ministry to loosen regulations on arsenic in the air near its operations in Rouyn-Noranda.
Glencore did not respond to The Rover’s email request for an interview.
One month after the CAQ came to power, in 2018, the office of the Minister of the Economy and Innovation presented the economic argument for its partnership with the mining giant. Namely, that Glencore employs 1,600 people in Quebec, adds about $70 million in annual tax revenue to provincial coffers and its eight-year expansion plan means it will inject $1.2 billion to local businesses. What’s more, about 17 per cent of its labour force in Quebec is Indigenous.
The document also predicts a sharp rise in the demand for nickel in the production of batteries. Whereas in 2015 batteries only accounted for 39 per cent, the report predicts that number will grow to 58 per cent by 2025.
There’s another, far more political, argument to be made.
The vast majority of nickel unloaded at the Port of Quebec, comes from Glencore’s Raglan mine just south of the Hudson Strait some 2,000 kilometres north of the capital. From the mine on Inuit territory, the nickel ore is broken down, loaded onto cargo ships and sent on a long journey southeast around the jagged, icy strait that makes up Quebec’s northern border. From there, it sails between Labrador and Newfoudland before turning upriver at the Gulf of St-Lawrence and towards Quebec City.
Once at the port, the ore gets loaded onto train cars, shipped to a smelter in Sudbury, Ont., broken down again and shipped back to Quebec City one last time. The ore is then loaded onto a cargo ship bound for refineries in Norway. If you count the smelter Glencore owns in Rouyn-Noranda, the journey that this precious metal takes is kept alive by a series of financial transactions in a dozen or so key ridings for the CAQ government.
Perhaps the only riding they don’t need in this equation, is Jean Lesage — the district that contains Limoilou and has never elected a CAQ candidate. With the government poised to win a cakewalk of a re election, there’s no real motivation for them to side with the neighbourhood.
“The CAQ has turned its back on the people of Limoilou,” said Jackie Smith, a city councillor in the district who nearly beat Marchand in last year’s municipal elections. “It’s easy to pollute the people who don’t vote for me and, as a politician, it’s hard to look at what the CAQ is doing and not see a political calculation.
“But the nickel particles aren’t partisan. There’s a good chance they’re making their way to CAQ fortresses like Beauport but we’re not hearing about it. And that’s where we need to make our next move. We need to hit them where it hurts, we need to get people mobilized over there as well.”
The need to keep the wheels of this operation turning might explain why, beyond the financial argument, the Quebec government has little to no scientific justification to raise nickel levels in the air over Quebec City’s poorest neighbourhood.
Their scientific argument is limited to a 2018 environmental study by Université de Montréal toxicologist Michèle Bouchard. The report found that, even if nickel levels over the neighbourhood increased to 40 ng/m³ daily, the risk of people developing cancer because of it would be negligible.
But activists like Paré, Guay, Poirier and Lalande say the environmental study is incomplete.
They aren’t alone. Quebec’s Order of Chemists criticized the absence of a chemist from Bouchard’s study. Ahead of public consultation over the CAQ’s deregulation plan in February, the Order wrote that the government hasn’t provided satisfactory answers in any of the studies it published. It added that there’s an air of “uncertainty and legitimate doubt” surrounding the proposed measure.
The activists argue that Bouchard’s study only takes nickel contamination into account, neglecting to consider the “toxic stew” Limoilou residents are exposed to every day.
“We’re saturated by pollution,” Paré said. “It’s iron, zinc, carbon dioxide, arsenic from the highways and incinerators, you can’t isolate nickel in your study because our bodies aren’t just being exposed to nickel. If I wrote the whole list of chemicals down I’d need a ream of paper.”
After years of ringing the alarm, the activists got all of Quebec’s 18 regional public health directors to sign a letter condemning the deregulation of air quality over Limoilou. The health directors decry the lack of any studies considering the cumulative affect of nickel contamination with other toxins that attack the respiratory system.
The directors cite Rouyn-Noranda — where the incidence of lung cancer is “significantly higher” than the provincial average — as an example of the toxic stew people in Limoilou fear. Rouyn has one of the largest copper smelters in the world, exposing nearby residents to high levels of nickel but also cadmium and arsenic.
One of the only medical institutions to sign off on the CAQ’s deregulation plan is the National Director of Public Health — who is appointed by the office of Premier François Legault. Further complicating matters, National Director Luc Boileau has family ties to this CAQ government. His daughter is a press attaché to Health Minister Christian Dubé.
Lalande finished her sandwich and walked with me back onto 3e Ave.
She passed a cigar-puffing man who tipped his hat to Lalande. She smiled back at him.
“You don’t get characters like this anywhere else,” she said. “God I miss this place.”
A few years back, after struggling with the weight of constant allergies and headaches, Lalande’s family packed up their things, sold their dream house and moved north to the country. She says her breathing has gotten much better now.
But just because she doesn’t live in the city, doesn’t mean her fighting days are over.
“They picked the wrong person to mess with,” said City Councillor Smith, an admirer of Lalande’s. “She has a law degree and her husband is a scientist. And neither of them are pushovers. I wouldn’t bet against them.”
Lalande wishes me well and says our next meeting will have to be over a few beers.
“There’s plenty of good places here, it’s the best neighbourhood in the world. Haven’t you heard?”