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(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)
(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)

Canada's chronic asbestos problem Add to ...

Canada’s isolation was thrown into sharp contrast this year during debate at the United Nations over a proposal to include asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention watch list that warns trading countries of products’ potential toxicity. Importing countries have the option to refuse potentially hazardous materials. Canada, standing alone, blocked the measure.

Strahl’s appeal is simple and polite but unmistakably defiant. As he put it in The Globe and Mail earlier this year, “By listing chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention as a product that deserves to be handled carefully and with proper warnings, safe use is more likely to occur. Workers from all countries will be grateful for that notification—if not today, then a generation from now.”

Having travelled alongside Harper from the early days of the Reform Party all the way to cabinet, Strahl must have had his doubts that the headstrong leader would change his mind. On the other hand, it cannot have been comfortable for Harper to be at odds with a respected veteran of his caucus. Strahl has not changed his mind about Canada approving the Rotterdam Convention: “I think it will. It’s just a matter of when.”

The former MP (whose cancer is in remission) discreetly says nothing about his dialogue with Harper about asbestos except that “people know my views....And obviously my views didn’t prevail.”

For root causes, Strahl points directly at the Quebec government and Ottawa’s reluctance to interfere in areas of provincial jurisdiction. But Harper’s calculus on the issue surely includes not just his reluctance to tread on Quebec’s turf but also his regional base in the province. One of his few stops in Quebec during this year’s election campaign was Asbestos, where he declared, “This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted.”

In the end, of the five Conservatives elected in Quebec, four were in a belt of ridings beginning with that of Christian Paradis, whose home town is Thetford Mines. He is now the senior minister for Quebec in the Harper cabinet.

But Harper’s devotion to the asbestos industry is nothing new. A succession of Canadian governments have been nothing if not loyal to the industry. While other jurisdictions sounded warnings about asbestos, the Canadian and Quebec governments did their best to persuade the world that asbestos was just fine—not all kinds of asbestos, of course, but the asbestos that came from Canada.

The issue came to a head in the late ’90s, when France decided to ban asbestos. An unhappy Canada took the case to the World Trade Organization. It was embarrassing enough to be brawling with a G7 ally; more painful, it was a losing cause. The WTO rejected Canada’s appeal because, simply, “there is in fact a serious carcinogenic risk associated with the inhalation of chrysotile fibres.”

There is, however, a basis to Canada’s contention that chrysotile is less harmful than the blue and brown asbestos that came from other countries. But less harmful does not mean harmless. The World Health Organization says unequivocally that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Yet a Natural Resources Canada fact sheet that appeared on the departmental website as recently as 2008 insisted that asbestos is not as dangerous as originally believed—“current knowledge and modern technology can successfully control the potential for health and environmental harm posed by chrysotile.” In another tack, the fact sheet pointed to alternatives that might compete against chrysotile, and warned that “there is no scientific proof that new alternatives are any safer.”

For both levels of government and the industry, the chosen instrument of pro-asbestos lobbying is the Chrysotile Institute, formerly the Asbestos Institute. Ottawa has contributed $250,000 every year to the institute since its foundation in 1984, with a similar amount coming from Quebec City. There was speculation last spring that Ottawa was backing away from its commitment to the institute. But its president, Clement Godbout, says he has heard nothing beyond an assurance that funding will continue until at least next spring—which is much the same kind of reassurance he has had every year. Godbout says there are no plans to give up on the institute’s intense lobbying activities at home and abroad.

What all the asbestos stakeholders—the towns, the industry, the provincial and federal governments, the Chrysotile Institute—share is a denial, reminiscent of the history of the tobacco industry, of some facts that have been around for almost a century. It was reported in a 1918 U.S. government study that “in the practice of American and Canadian life insurance companies, asbestos workers are generally declined on account of the assumed health-injurious conditions of the industry.” In the late 1970s, documents made public in American courts proved that asbestos industry officials had known of the dangers of asbestos since the 1930s but had concealed that knowledge.

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