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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.

In Quebec, 65 percent of teens and adults wear ski helmets, according to the provincial government. (Raffy Boudjikanian/GlobalPost)

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.