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Quebec’s ski helmet debate slips

After Natasha Richardson's fatal ski accident in Mont-Tremblant last March, it looked like a mandatory helmet law might happen.

According to Boyer, no jurisdictions in North America have made helmets mandatory for all. But at the beginning of 2009, Austria passed a law forcing all those under 14 to wear helmets.

“We don’t want to tell tourists from outside Quebec how they should ski,” Boyer said, though he insisted economic concerns do not guide the QSAA’s thinking.

As Tremblant is owned by Intrawest, a company that is not publicly traded, no annual reports are available. However, the slope bills itself as the top destination for winter sports fans in the east of North America. This year, along with all North American resorts owned by Intrawest, helmets are newly mandatory for children and teenagers taking lessons. “We’ve made more efforts this year — mentions on track maps, ads showing helmet-wearing skiers, more training with our employees — that we hope will convince skiers and boarders to wear helmets,” said spokesperson Lyne Lortie.

And on its first weekend of the season, operations sailed smoothly. Two Tremblant shops, one of which is owned by the resort, offer helmet rentals. Rows of helmets on a wall almost immediately greet visitors.

Though the open letter sent by the non-profit groups mentioned that the province had 13,000 ski-related injuries in 2007-2008, Boyer pointed out the majority of those are unrelated to the brain or head, but rather limbs and torso. When pressed, he also said, however, that head injuries are the ones that more often lead to death.

Bernard Mathieu, a Montreal doctor, has spent years tending to wounded skiers or snowboarders at the emergency ward of the Laurentian Hospital of Ste. Agathe des Monts, near Tremblant. “You see a lot of such injuries there,” said Mathieu, who is now vice-president of the Association for Emergency Doctors in Quebec.

He praised Tremblant’s new regulations geared toward children, as well as the industry’s safety campaign. “I think we’re slowly headed toward legislation,” Mathieu added.

Some Ontarians at Tremblant said they wouldn’t mind being made to wear a helmet.

“I’d just cope with it,” said Peter Cooney, 23, from Ottawa.

Others, though, said they would take offense. “I think the government intervenes enough into peoples’ lives as it is,” said Bertrand Leduc, 49, a lifelong skier, as he headed back down from the tracks in a gondola after a Saturday afternoon spent at Tremblant. “You can’t always trust the state to make your decisions for you.”

Leduc fell on his head and lost consciousness for several minutes while skiing some years ago, but he still does not wear a helmet. “I haven’t found my helmet yet,” he said.