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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney share a laugh at a G7 Summit in Toronto on June 21, 1988. (Erik Christensen/Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney share a laugh at a G7 Summit in Toronto on June 21, 1988. (Erik Christensen/Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)

History

Documents detail Mulroney-era efforts to block U.S. asbestos ban Add to ...

Anti-asbestos lobbyists say former Canadian politicians, ambassadors and bureaucrats abandoned their morals when they successfully lobbied two decades ago to prevent the carcinogenic material from being banned in the United States.

Laurie Kazan-Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, a group based in Britain, told a news conference Tuesday that, “as a consequence of the legal and political actions mounted by Canadian interest, a further 300,000 tons of Canadian asbestos was used in the United States and vast amounts of asbestos-containing products were incorporated into the United States infrastructure.”

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Ms. Kazan-Allen obtained documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to show that former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney lobbied his friend, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan, in the mid-1980s about the EPA’s plan to ban asbestos.

The documents also say former Quebec’s premier Robert Bourassa raised Quebec’s concerns about the proposed ban with U.S. trade officials at a meeting in Washington in 1986.

And former Canadian ambassadors to the United States, Allan Gotlieb and Derek Burney, met with the U.S. environmental protection administrator in September 1986 and April 1989 respectively to talk about asbestos, say the documents.

Ms. Kazan-Allen said a number of federal and provincial minister ministers were also pushing the asbestos file in the United States. They included Robert Layton, the father of former NDP leader Jack Layton who was a former Conservative mines minister in Mr. Mulroney’s government.

“While the industry fronted the attack, financial support and political assistance from Quebec and Ottawa underpinned the incursion of Canada’s asbestos foot soldiers into U.S. territory,” Ms. Kazan-Allen said.

The bureaucrats and the ambassadors were doing the government’s bidding. But the opponents of asbestos say that does not excuse their actions.

Michaela Keyserlingk of Canada’s Voices of Asbestos Victims said the lobbying of the Canadians was morally indefensible because people knew at the time that asbestos was a deadly material. “This isn’t how our human affairs should be governed,” she said.

Winnipeg MP Pat Martin, who also attended the news conference, agreed that it was morally wrong to promote and export asbestos.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy that we’re removing all of the asbestos from the Parliament buildings because no MP should be exposed to a single fibre,” the New Democrat said, “but we are dumping as much as 200,000 tons per year into developing and underdeveloped countries where health and safety protocols are minimal or non-existent.”

Jack Layton, he said, was entirely comfortable with the NDP’s official opposition to asbestos despite his father’s promotion of the material.

Both Ottawa and the provincial government in Quebec continue to promote asbestos.

During a campaign stop in April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government would not allow discrimination against a Canadian industry when there are countries around the world where the material is still legal.

And Baljit Chadha, the entrepreneur behind Quebec’s controversial asbestos exports, has received a $58-million loan guarantee from the Quebec government of Jean Charest to help him reopen the largely unused Mine Jeffrey in the town of Asbestos.

He also earned a rare public rebuke from an official with the World Health Organization for distorting its position on the safety of the carcinogenic product.

“There is no safe threshold of exposure to all forms of asbestos,” the WHO’s Ivan Ivanov said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the quantity of asbestos exported to the United States, This version has been corrected.

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