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Prime Minister Stephen Harper Christian Paradis, then the Natural Resources Minister, speak to factory workers in Thetford Mines, Que, on Dec. 13, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper Christian Paradis, then the Natural Resources Minister, speak to factory workers in Thetford Mines, Que, on Dec. 13, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/Reuters)

'Dumbstruck'

Harper parties in mining town as Canada keeps asbestos off hazardous list Add to ...

The Prime Minister celebrated St. Jean Baptiste Day in the heart of the asbestos industry as Canada's delegation to an international summit drew ire by keeping the carcinogen off a hazardous-chemicals list.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government steadfastly refused to let asbestos be added to a United Nations treaty called the Rotterdam Convention.

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On Friday, Canada joined Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in blocking the move. Countries must now wait two years for another crack at getting asbestos on the list.

“The conference did not reach consensus on listing chrysotile,” UN Environment Program spokesman Michael Stanley-Jones said in an email. “It annexed the draft decision to the meeting report for consideration at COP6 in 2013.”

A pesticide called Endosulfan, which is banned in many countries but still used in others, was added to the list, he added.

Listing asbestos on Annex III of the convention would force exporters such as Canada to warn recipient countries of any health hazards. Those countries could then refuse asbestos imports if they didn't think they could handle the product safely.

Canada has twice before played a lead role in blocking the inclusion of asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention, which operates by consensus, and the country did so again at this week's summit.

When other asbestos-exporting countries changed their minds and dropped their opposition to the listing, Canada alone came out against the move.

The earth negotiations bulletin published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development reports other countries were “dumbstruck” by Canada's reasons for blocking the listing.

“Frustrations were addressed openly in the afternoon session of plenary, during which Canada was asked to explain its objection to listing chrysotile asbestos,” the observers wrote.

They noted the African delegation stressed to their Canadian counterparts that it costs a lot of money to attend these summits, and so they deserved to hear Canada's rationale for blocking the listing.

Canadian delegates at the Geneva meetings parroted Conservative talking points, telling participants they have “actively promoted safe and controlled use of the substance domestically and internationally.”

That's the same line Industry Minister Christian Paradis has repeated in the House of Commons for days now. It's also the boilerplate response from government departments to any and all questions about asbestos.

Earlier this week, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said Mr. Paradis should know asbestos cannot be used safely in developing countries, despite the minister's insistence it can.

“This minister knows full well that it's very difficult to use chrysotile in the proper working conditions. The procedures, the training, the complex equipment to use it in a safe way so that fibres aren't accidentally breathed in,” Mr. Garneau said.

“He cannot assure us that this is not being used improperly in countries that import it, Third World countries. ... This is willful blindness.”

The observers reported the European Union “expressed severe disappointment at the outcome, underscored the need to move forward, as opposed to backward.”

The summit ended Friday without a consensus to list asbestos on the convention.

Back home, Mr. Harper and Mr. Paradis attended St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in the Industry Minister's hometown of Thetford Mines, Que., the site of one of the province's two asbestos mines.

It was Mr. Harper's second trip to the area in two months. He talked up the asbestos industry during a late-April campaign stop.

“Canada is one of a number of exporters of chrysotile, and there are a number of countries in which it is legal who are buyers,” Mr. Harper said at the time, referring to the white asbestos mined in Quebec.

“This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where it is permitted.”

This time Mr. Harper did not mention asbestos.

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