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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Playing a dirty game: exporting asbestos Add to ...

Somewhere between a national shame and a national scandal lies Canada's export of asbestos.

The federal government promotes asbestos exports - they have risen sharply in the past year - despite the fact that the use of asbestos has all but disappeared in this country. Why? Because scientists, governments, industries and unions have concluded that the product can lead to a variety of health-related problems and, in some cases, to death.

Indeed, while the federal government promotes exports, a multiyear construction project is refitting the Parliament Buildings, among other reasons to remove asbestos. What our parliamentarians won't have in their buildings apparently will be in buildings in the developing world.

The reason the federal government will not stop defending asbestos is politics - Quebec politics, in fact. The asbestos produced in Canada comes from Quebec, from the Jeffrey and LAB Chrysotile mines that employ about 700 people. A large town in Quebec is even called Asbestos.

No federal government has had the courage to say: Enough is enough! We're not exporting to developing countries any product we won't use at home for health reasons. Fear of offending Quebec has put a sock in the mouth of federal governments, and fear of losing a few votes has forced Quebec governments into acrobatic flights of hypocrisy to defend the indefensible.

This week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been making headlines outside Quebec, attacking Ottawa for questioning his government's intention to impose strict vehicle-emission standards. It's all a lot of blah-blah because Quebec's rules are going to be superseded by new national regulations in the U.S. and Canada.

Beating up on Ottawa is good politics, regrettably, in Quebec, but it so happened that these attacks came from far away - from India, in fact, where Mr. Charest was leading a Quebec trade delegation promoting his province's exports, including asbestos.

It was reported in the Quebec media that asbestos represents 11 per cent of Quebec's exports to India, a tidy sum of $427-million. Half of India's asbestos comes from Quebec, of the chrysotile variety with fibres so fine they can penetrate some filtration masks and so enter lungs, where they can create a variety of health problems, including lethal ones.

On the eve of Mr. Charest's visit, scientists from 28 countries urged him to stop exporting all forms of asbestos. A hundred scientists said the province won't use asbestos at home because it can cause death, while promoting it "where protections are few and awareness of the hazards of asbestos almost non-existent." Even some brave scientists in Quebec, where criticism of asbestos exports has been often regarded as "anti-Quebec," urged the Premier to act.

But Mr. Charest said it was up to India to act if it felt asbestos led to health problems. He was accompanied by a representative of an asbestos lobby group that receives money from both the federal and provincial governments; his group, he said, gives information to asbestos users about its possible risks. In other words, caveat emptor! Meantime, it's business as usual for Quebec's asbestos exports.

Happily, some elements of the Quebec media have been all over this story, slamming the Premier's evident hypocrisy and noting how it tarnishes Quebec's precious international image. But, by extension, the export also tarnishes Canada's image because, Quebec pretensions notwithstanding, most people abroad don't even know where Quebec is, whereas they do know about Canada.

Ottawa is intimately involved in this dirty game, too. It even sends diplomats to international meetings to frustrate any worldwide action against asbestos. And Canadian taxpayers are soiled by this export of a dangerous product that is scarcely, if ever, used in this country.

Face up to it: Canadians, in their moral superiority, might think our country has an unsullied international image, especially in environmental matters. The reality is that those in the fisheries business know how poorly we have managed some of our stocks. Europe and the rest of the world are utterly repelled by the slaughter of seals, and no amount of public-relations campaigning and political posturing will alter that reality.

The tar sands are a growing PR nightmare, as is Canada's weak greenhouse-gas emissions record. To these are added the ongoing export of asbestos from Quebec, exposing the province's hypocrisy and tarnishing Canada's reputation abroad.

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