Quebec’s ski helmet debate slips

MONT-TREMBLANT, Canada — It was here, on the crowded, tree-lined slopes of one of North America’s most popular ski resorts, where actress Natasha Richardson suffered a fatal accident last March. The fact that she was not wearing a helmet poured fuel over the fires of a mandatory helmet law debate in Quebec.

The topic pops up here as often as snowstorms in the winter, but received special attention this year even before Richardson’s death. Just a few days prior to the accident, the Association for Emergency Doctors in Quebec, citing increased deaths due to head injuries, called on Quebec’s Education, Leisure and Sports Minister Michelle Courchesne to make a law. At the time, Courchesne publicly spoke of readying it for the next ski season. That has not happened.

“I think the government should have the courage to go forward and make it law,” said Michel Touchette, 49, a resident of Lac des Seize Iles, a village near Tremblant. Touchette has skied since he was a little boy, but he and his wife only started wearing helmets after she suffered a nearly fatal injury four years ago.

Though many individual skiers support the idea of a helmet law, pressure on the government is weak. The official opposition party, Parti Quebecois, is hardly making a big deal out of it. “We won’t take a position until there is a law project,” explained spokeswoman Marie-Eve Imonti. A few weeks ago, three non-profit organizations, Think First Canada, the Brain Injury Association of Canada and the Joint Association for Groups of Cerebral Trauma Victims in Quebec, questioned the government’s apparent amnesia in an open letter asking for a law. “We were astonished to recently read in the media that you have decided to step back from your intention on making wearing helmets mandatory for skiers and snowboarders,” it read.

However, Courchesne denied an about-face by government. “I never said [I would make it law], I said I had not ruled out the possibility,” she said. Consultations with ski industry and health professionals have steered the ministry elsewhere, she added. “We decided that this year, we would introduce a safety promotion campaign,” she said.

Government and industry surveys show 90 percent of children under 12 years of age in Quebec wear helmets, and 65 percent of teens and adults do the same. “We’ll see if after this campaign, that [adult] rate is higher,” Courchesne added.

The Quebec Ski Areas Association (QSAA) is a lobbying group encompassing 70 resorts, including Tremblant. According to Communications Director Alexis Boyer, local resorts are at the forefront of promoting safety compared to counterparts worldwide.

This coming year, the QSAA will budget about $200,000 for its own safety campaign.

“The debate on legislation isn’t closed,” he conceded, but resorts are opposed to a law. “We don’t want to be policing the use of helmets,” he added, which could deter out-of-province or foreign guests.

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.