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An anti-asbestos protester shouts outside the Canadian Consul-General's office in Sydney on Sept. 9, 2005. (WILL BURGESS/REUTERS)
An anti-asbestos protester shouts outside the Canadian Consul-General's office in Sydney on Sept. 9, 2005. (WILL BURGESS/REUTERS)

Exporting death: Another popular Harper foreign policy Add to ...

What do you call a country that deliberately sells products abroad that will kill many people? You call it Canada. What do you call it when a state action kills a large numbers of defenseless people? You call it a crime against humanity. So how can exporting death by Canadian asbestos not be a crime against humanity and how can a state that does so not be guilty of committing such a crime?

Why does the International Criminal Court not issue warrants for those Canadian and Quebec government officials who are promoting the sale of deadly asbestos to poor countries where the death of many people is guaranteed? The reputation of the young court has been sorely undermined by its focus solely on Africans accused of terrible crimes. Canada's promotion of asbestos offers an opportunity to redress the balance.

It's also nothing less than criminal that we need yet another column on this issue. Every lethal aspect of the asbestos trade has been comprehensively exposed. It's received prominent coverage by the mainstream media throughout the country, including Quebec, where the only asbestos mine is now located. In this newspaper, devastating articles setting out the unanswerable case against asbestos have appeared by Jeffrey Simpson and André Picard. Kathleen Ruff, an expert on the issue, has been mobilizing indefatigably to stop all asbestos exports to countries like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The case needs no further documentation. Except for some corporate interests and the paid hacks who shamelessly support them, no one doubts that asbestos, of whatever variety, is a cancer-causing killer. Here's the bottom line: Asbestos can never again be used in Canada and 52 countries have banned it outright.

Every health organization you've ever heard of has condemned both the Canadian and the Quebec governments for actively promoting asbestos exports. According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 people worldwide die of occupational exposure to asbestos each year. As one of the top five asbestos exporters in the world, Canada is a major contributor to the carnage. Yet it continues, with the active support of Stephen Harper and Jean Charest.

And that's really the only question still outstanding: Why in the world do both governments continue to promote the sale of asbestos in the face of all the evidence? Both know perfectly well the consequences of their actions. It makes no sense at all.

Can it really be about wining or losing a seat or possibly two in Quebec? Must countless poor Indians die for this unworthy end? Even I don't attribute such immoral cynicism to Mr. Harper or Mr. Charest. But then, why their utter intransigence?

Nationally, Mr. Harper was not always alone in his perverse and lethal stubbornness. But in the past couple of years, thank heavens, the NDP and the federal Liberals and Canadian unions outside Quebec have all come to their senses and now demand that mining and exporting Quebec asbestos must end. This year NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair became the first Quebec MP ever to speak out against asbestos mining. The Bloc's Gilles Duceppe finally acknowledges that Quebec's asbestos is hazardous and should only be used for very restricted purposes.

Yet even now the Quebec government is actively considering a subsidy of $58-million to re-open and massively expand the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, with the explicit purpose of significantly increasing asbestos exports to Asia, South America and Africa. When will we ever stop exploiting poor Africa for our own enrichment?

As for Ottawa, asbestos remains yet another case where science and evidence mean nothing to Stephen Harper. Despite everything, the Prime Minister remains a fan of asbestos and his Minister of Health refuses to meet with the leading health experts, deferring instead to the junk science and discredited propaganda of the asbestos lobby.

In fact despite his vaunted hostility to lobbyists, the Prime Minister - like Mr. Charest - actually funds the industry's registered lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute, to the tune of $250,000 a year. Indeed, he quietly boasts to them that his government will continue at the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous substances to refuse to have asbestos placed on an international list of such substances.

Once again the Harper government embraces truthiness and repudiates truth. It allows the Chrysotile Institute to set our country's health policy on asbestos. According to the well-connected Bernard Coulombe, a director of the CI and owner of the bankrupt Jeffrey Mine, chrysotile asbestos does not cause mesothelioma, which is much like asserting filter-tipped cigarettes are harmless. When over a hundred prestigious scientists from 28 countries wrote to Mr. Charest detailing why Quebec's export of asbestos is indefensible, the CI issued a press release calling these scientists "loufoque," a slang insult meaning wacko or nutty. Recall that this "institute" uses public funds to issue such statements.

Cynically yet shrewdly, the asbestos lobby has gotten away with painting any criticism of asbestos as being anti-Quebec. Let me note with profound personal disappointment that the fight to ban asbestos exports is complicated by the support given by Quebec trade unions to the discredited asbestos lobby and its denialist "science." Inexcusably too, apparently not a single international development or human rights group in Quebec has taken a stand on the issue. I have to admit that I can't begin to fathom what political calculations might account for this betrayal of poor workers abroad.

Many Quebeckers react with anger when other Canadians condemn the province's support for asbestos. Canadian unions, who have been outspoken recently against asbestos, are curtly told by their brothers and sisters in Quebec to butt out.

Many Quebeckers were deeply offended recently when Maclean's magazine described the province as the most corrupt in Canada. I fear - no, I fervently hope - that they will have cause to become even angrier. The asbestos business deeply dishonors Quebec, Canada and all who either support it or remain silent bystanders.

I hope countless thousands of Canadians write their MPs about this scandal and that unions and civil society groups outside Quebec continue to make their voices heard loud and clear on this issue.

The Harper government ( not Canada) was humiliated this week when its bid for a Security Council seat was rebuffed. A legion of retrograde foreign policies were responsible for this powerful rebuke, but for those who knew, the government's support for asbestos exports was reason enough to vote against it. Has Stephen Harper learned a single lesson from this major disgrace? Have not enough of its foreign policy chickens now come home to roost? Only a tiny handful of self-interested people would object if he did the right thing about exporting deadly asbestos. Tens of thousands would applaud. What an opportunity for this government.

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