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Politics Asbestos is a matter of life and death. Why aren’t the Liberals taking action?

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

"My experience with the current government is worse than what I experienced with the former Harper government."

Now this isn't the kind of statement the honeymooning Trudeau government is used to, especially not from a universally respected progressive activist like Katherine Ruff. Ms. Ruff is Canada's most prominent and knowledgeable advocate for a ban on all asbestos, a known potential killer of those exposed to it.

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Under the Harper government, Canada was among the world's greatest promoters of something called chrysotile asbestos, and Ms. Ruff spent many frustrating years pressuring them to change their dishonourable stance. But, as she wrote me, "At least the Harper government responded to letters, even if their responses were appalling."

In spite of her numerous letters and phone calls to Liberal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Ms. Ruff's requests to speak to someone – anyone – in their offices "have met a total wall of refusal."

"I will be referring your request to our Public Inquiries team," e-mailed Marissa Harfouche, media relations spokesperson for the Environment Ministry. "You will be hearing back from them as soon as possible." And again: "Thank you for contacting Environment and Climate Change Canada. As mentioned over the phone, we will …follow up with you when possible." These were dated June 27.

Ms. Ruff's experiences, as she has made clear in her correspondence with these ministries, shared with me, add up to a "lack of transparency, lack of democracy and lack of respect…in trying to communicate with the government over the past eight months, which is the opposite to what Prime Minister Trudeau promised."

Ms. Ruff's campaign began last November, with a letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott on behalf of 140 civil society organizations and health experts from Canada and around the world, "calling on your government to ban asbestos. As you know, for the past decade, the former [Conservative] government has played the most important role in the world to promote the use of asbestos in developing countries and to deny the scientific evidence that asbestos is harmful to health and should not be used. Canada's role has been shameful.

"Around the world, health experts, civil society organizations and asbestos victims are hoping that you, as Minister of Health, will send a new message that supports scientific evidence and supports protecting health. We believe, from your background, that you share our values of supporting scientific evidence and not causing harm to the health of populations."

Dr. Philpott's background includes many years doctoring in West Africa, so she's expected to be particularly sensitive to the fact that it's especially "populations in the global South…who are still having massive amounts of asbestos shipped to their countries as a 'safe product' to be put in their homes, schools and public buildings."

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Let me add a personal note here. I write as the self-appointed head of the Jane Philpott Fan Club. I consider Dr. Philpott a friend and have repeatedly spoken admiringly of her. Even though she's a Liberal – nobody's perfect – I cheered her election victory and then her appointment as Minister of Health. And I made clear I had high expectations of her. Now I simply can't fathom the failure of Dr. Philpott or anyone in her office to do more than brush Kathleen Ruff off as a pest while the Trudeau government maintains the status quo on the asbestos file.

While Ms. Ruff is snubbed and the government stalls, asbestos interests, she reports, are busy lobbying to ensure that chrysotile asbestos is not put on the UN's hazardous substance list. Ms. Ruff believes that Canada can live up to Trudeau 's promises and play a key leadership role at the UN in getting chrysotile asbestos listed, a move that would be extremely influential around the world.

Typical of Ms. Ruff, she is surprisingly understanding of possible constraints on the Trudeau government. Here's what she told me: "I have been enormously patient and respectful and cut Jane Philpott and the Trudeau government a huge amount of slack and have held off criticizing them on their failure to handle the asbestos issue ethically or rationally and their disrespectful treatment of us. When people who signed the letter [above] ask me why we haven't had a response and feel insulted, I have tried to explain that Philpott has many important, challenging issues on her plate."

But Ms. Ruff now considers Canada's position – that it does not know whether warning labels and protective measures should be required on asbestos exported around the world – to be "such an extreme level of unethical conduct" that she finally decided to go public recently with an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen.

As Ms. Ruff urgently insists, while the government temporizes, people in Canada and around the world are dying from exposure to asbestos fibres. How does the government rationalize that?

Instead of refusing even to respond to Ms. Ruff's eight months of calls and messages, or putting her off until some future time, shouldn't my friend Jane Philpott and her colleague Catherine McKenna be embracing her offer to work co-operatively on a strategy to eliminate asbestos? It is after all a matter of life and death.

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