Asian Solidarity Mission to Canada One Year On
In December 2010, history was made when a seven-member delegation of asbestos victims, trade unionists and health activists from Asia came to Quebec to make a direct, personal appeal to the Quebec government and the people of Quebec not to approve a plan to open up the Jeffrey asbestos mine that would export millions of tonnes of asbestos to Asia over the next 25 years. This was the first time that Quebec had ever heard the voices of people from the countries where Quebec has shipped its asbestos. The AsiaQuebec Solidarity delegation, made up of activists from Japan, Korea, Indonesia and India, was able to present the reality of how Quebec's export of asbestos harms people overseas. Instead of an abstract issue, it became a powerful human story.
The delegation members showed great courage in going to Quebec to make their direct appeal to stop the asbestos mine. Not only was it the dead of winter, but the taboo on the asbestos issue had only very recently been broken in Quebec. No civil society group in Quebec had yet taken up the asbestos fight and the delegation would be largely on their own in challenging the Quebec government, the Quebec trade union confederations and the Quebec asbestos industry on their own turf. Almost all of the organizing of the events had to be done from thousands of kilometers away and everything had to be done in French as well as English. It was a hugely challenging undertaking.
A small but wonderful group of Quebec health professionals and activists provided assistance, support and hospitality to the members of the delegation. It was an inspiring example of solidarity at its best and at its most practical as volunteers met the delegation at the Montreal airport with warm clothing and boots, took them to their hotel, met us at the bus station late in the evening in Quebec City, prepared press kits until midnight, helped us get to events on time, fed us and provided friendship that crossed any language barrier. We send our heartfelt thanks to Flory, Micheline, Rae, Fernand, Louise, Yv, Pierre, John, André, éric.
The delegation carried out an amazing array of events: press conferences in Montreal, in the National Assembly in Quebec and in the House of Commons in Ottawa; public meetings in Montreal and Quebec City; meetings with the Quebec Minister of Economic Development; with the Health critic and the Natural Resources critic of the Parti Québécois, which is the official opposition party in the Quebec National Assembly; with the trade union confederation that represents the asbestos workers (the Conféderation des syndicats démocratiques). The delegation met with the leader of Québec Solidaire, Amir Khadir, and was present in the public gallery of the National Assembly, when Khadir tabled a bill to ban asbestos, an historic event. The delegation completed its round of activities with a demonstration outside the Montreal office of Quebec Premier Jean Charest. They were joined by distinguished university professors, members of GreenPeace Quebec and human rights activists.
The asbestos industry and its allies acted in a typical ugly manner. Baljit Chadha, the Montreal asbestos trader who wishes to open the Jeffrey underground mine, refused the delegation's request for a meeting and instead, in a CBC interview, made insinuations that the delegation was being paid by unnamed vested interests. The mayor of Asbestos, Hughes Grimard, also refused the delegation's request for a meeting to be held in Asbestos where the people of Asbestos could have a discussion with the delegation. Instead, like Mr Chadha, he made ugly remarks implying that the delegation was motivated by financial interests. Jacques Dunnigan, who has worked for the Chrysotile Institute for many years, showed the depths of depravity and inhumanity to which the asbestos lobby can sink, when he not only cast ugly slurs about the delegation members, but even alleged that a member of the delegation who has mesothelioma was not really ill.
The delegation members did many media interviews. There was enormous media coverage in newspapers and on TV and radio, that greatly helped get their message out to the Quebec public. In Quebec, there is greater support for international solidarity than almost anywhere else in Canada. The visit of the delegation tapped into that sense of solidarity and helped break down barriers. Instead of an abstract, distant issue, the asbestos question became an issue with a human face. It was a milestone in the asbestos struggle. The asbestos lobby still today maintains its political power over the Quebec government. But the visit of the Asian delegation was significant in building increased awareness in Quebec of the real harm its asbestos causes to real people overseas and in building increased support amongst the Quebec public for an end to the asbestos industry.
The members of the solidarity delegation deserve to feel great pride for the courageous and powerful initiative they carried out in Quebec. Especially inspiring was the courage and selflessness of the two asbestos victims, who put aside their personal pain and suffering in order that people might understand the human tragedy that asbestos causes and to prevent there being further victims.