Comment

Seems even Harper and Charest can't save Canada's deadly asbestos exports

Special to The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and local MP Christian Paradis speak to workers at a plant in Thetford Mines, Que. on Dec. 13, 2010. (SHAUN BEST/Shaun Best/Reuters)

Despite Stephen Harper and Jean Charest, it appears increasingly likely Canada will export no more Quebec-mined asbestos to countries like India and Indonesia, where it could bring misery and death to those who come in contact with it. Almost all those affected would be very poor workers and their families. But to the bitter end, the two leaders have been determined to preserve Canada’s shameful record of knowingly exporting a carcinogen.

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In the face of denunciations of asbestos exports by virtually all health authorities, the Prime Minister made it a point during last year’s election campaign to visit the riding held by Christian Paradis, home to one of Canada’s two last remaining asbestos mines. Both mines are now closed, but Mr. Paradis wants them re-opened. He has long been a proponent of asbestos exports, dismissing out of hand all the proven health risks as well as all the Canadians who have died hideous, prolonged deaths from exposure to the substance.

Mr. Harper has since promoted Mr. Paradis to be Industry Minister. And last June, a month after forming his majority government, he chose to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day in his young minister’s riding – and in the town of Thetford Mines itself, the actual home of the asbestos mine Mr. Paradis wants to see re-opened.

As for the Charest government, despite the condemnation of asbestos use by every public health authority in Quebec, it has approved a $58-million loan guarantee to the mines if private investors can come up with another $25-million. The good news is the asbestos peddlers have been claiming for the past 18 months they’re on the verge of getting their share finalized, but so far they have failed to do so. It appears the protests against asbestos have scared off the usual money men. If this private money isn’t anted-up, the two mines will remain closed and the industry will cease operating entirely. But the fact remains the key move is in the hands of the Quebec government. If the Premier withdraws his loan guarantee, asbestos exports will be kaput. And there is substantial pressure on him to do so.

It’s time to make that pressure irresistible.

Sadly, the Parti Québécois has been timid at best on the issue, and most disgraceful of all, the Quebec Federation of Labour, actually continues to support the re-opening of one of the mines and the export of asbestos, even though the Canadian Labour Congress, the Confederation of National Trade Unions and many of the QFL’s own affiliated unions disagree. Another fine case of solidarity forever, and tant pis for the doomed workers in Asia.

Yet the Charest government is under renewed attack on asbestos from other sources. Since this entire effort has been conducted in Quebec, barely a word has penetrated the vast space leading to the Rest Of Canada. But have no doubt the ROC is very much involved here. We may function, tragically, as two separate nations on most practical and cultural matters. But Indians and Indonesians know they’re dying from Canadian asbestos. It’s just another way the Harper government is eroding Canada's reputation abroad.

But “amazing things” on the asbestos file are going on, reports the Rideau Institute’s indomitable Kathleen Ruff, who has done more than any other Canadian to terminate our asbestos exports. “La Presse has taken on the asbestos industry,” she told me. “They have run a superb series of hard-hitting, investigative articles and commentaries, the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I’m sure the journalist, Charles Cote, will win an award. He surely deserves one.”

La Presse called on victims to come forward and family members have done so, mostly on behalf of women who had never worked with asbestos yet died from exposure to it, perhaps in a school, and were denied any support or compensation. “The day after the first La Presse article appeared, the Quebec government agreed that a list of asbestos in Quebec buildings which it has kept secret for years will now be made public.” Ms. Ruff, who has been naming and shaming an unaccountably intransigent Charest government for years, adds: “It is so great to have a positive achievement for once.”

To help add pressure on the government, the Montreal Gazette also chimed in this week, running a tough op-ed by the head of the provincial division of the Canadian Cancer Society directly attacking the Charest government: “It is time for Quebec to stop investing in asbestos”.

There is a growing feeling that now is the opportunity to force the Premier to withdraw his loan guarantee, which should close the door to asbestos mining forever. Beyond both French- and English-language media, there are the voices of virtually the entire medical establishment of Quebec, of Canada and indeed of the world. At the same time, in the House of Commons, the new force of Quebec NDP MPs have been outspoken in demanding the mines remain closed.

Now is the time for an even greater effort, hopefully the final push. As federal Industry Minister, Mr. Paradis continues to put strong counter-pressure on the Charest government to get the mines re-opened. That noxious role should be exposed and Mr. Paradis and the Prime Minister publicly shamed. Quebec’s NDP MPs should also be raising the issue in their own ridings so that citizens can add to the pressure on the Premier. What a sweet triumph it would be for this new crop of MPs from Quebec, mocked and ridiculed by smart-aleck commentators after their unexpected victories less than a year ago, if they could help end forever Canada's long-standing export of poison to poor countries.

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