Asbestos Industry Suffers Major Blows in Canada 

by Kathleen Ruff1



On August 19, 2009 at its annual conference, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) voted 95% to call on the Canadian government to stop mining and exporting asbestos.

The CMA is known to be a conservative organization, not prone to speaking out on issues of social justice.

The CMA decision turned out to be only the first in a series of unpredicted, dramatic events that have changed the political landscape for the Canadian asbestos industry and shaken it to its core.

Dramatic change in Liberal Party's asbestos position

Canada's two major national political parties – the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party – have for ever staunchly supported the asbestos industry. The industry was completely confident that it could always count on their support.

During all the years that the Liberal Party was in power, for example, it was at the beck and call of the asbestos lobby, taking every action it could to please the industry, even filing a case at the World Trade Organization, arguing that countries should not be allowed to ban asbestos as this would supposedly violate the industry's trade rights.

For the past two decades, both the Liberal and Conservative parties have funded the Asbestos Institute (now re-baptized the Chrysotile Institute to avoid the “asbestos” word), which lobbies for the industry, to the tune of over $20 million.

The reason for this political subservience has nothing to do with science or reason and certainly nothing to do with ethics. Both the Liberal and Conservative parties understand full well that chrysotile asbestos (the only form of asbestos sold in the world) is hazardous, causes several forms of cancer, as well as asbestosis, and is impossible to manage safely. They are not ignorant of this reality and for this reason chrysotile asbestos is classified as a hazardous substance under Canadian law and is not used, even in Quebec where the asbestos industry is located.

The location of the asbestos industry is key to the politics of asbestos in Canada. To hold power in Canada, political parties need to win seats in Quebec. This political imperative is especially crucial and sensitive right now when we have a minority government in Canada and both the Conservative government and the Liberal official opposition party are desperate to win seats in Quebec.

The asbestos lobby plays this card to the full. Any politician who dares oppose the asbestos industry is tarred as being anti-Quebec and disrespectful of Quebec's history.

Imagine, therefore, the horror and disbelief of the asbestos industry, when Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party, answering a question at a public meeting at Bishop's University in Quebec, said, “I know how important asbestos is to the region around Thetford Mines and I'm aware of the hardship involved, but the science is telling us that its is dangerous and we have to follow the science. I don't think we should be exporting dangerous substances.”

The asbestos industry and its allies exploded in a storm of fury. The Liberal Party has always supported the asbestos industry, they said in disbelief. They exerted every possible form of political pressure to get Ignatieff to recant. In particular, pressure was put on Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant, Denis Coderre, to get Ignatieff to go to the town of Asbestos and visit the Jeffrey mine there and change his position.

Asbestos industry hoped for new life with help of Chinese investors

It seemed surprising that the asbestos lobby was trying so hard to get Ignatieff to visit the Jeffrey asbestos mine, which has just about closed down, rather than the active asbestos mine, operated by Lab Chrysotile Inc. in Thetford Mines.

It was then reported that potential investors from China were about to visit the Jeffrey mine and were on the point of signing an agreement under which they would invest $40 million to open up an underground mine at the site. The present open-pit Jeffrey mine has little asbestos left and is scheduled to shut down next year. If the Jeffrey mine is to survive, it has to open up an underground operation.

Over $130 million has already been invested since the 1990s for the underground mine and the project is 90% completed. The investment from the Chinese investors would have allowed completion of the project.

The timing of Ignatieff's comments could not have been worse from the industry's point of view.

Just a day or two later, it was learned that the Chinese investors had cancelled the meeting and had decided against investing in the underground asbestos mine.

Jeffrey mine owner, Bernard Coulombe, expressed great surprise at this sudden about-face by the Chinese investors. He had visited the company in China, they had visited the Jeffrey mine twice, negotiations had been going on for a year and all the legal and sale of shares documents had been prepared. Everything was ready for signing.

While the Chinese company explained their reversal as being caused by a sudden decision to only invest in China for the coming year, Coulombe noted that the Chinese embassy in Canada reads the Canadian newspapers and the negative publicity around asbestos in the media coverage of Ignatieff's comments may have hurt the planned business deal.

The asbestos issue creates turmoil in both leading political parties

The next dramatic development was the resignation of Marc Giroux, the Liberal candidate for the Thetford Mines area for the next federal election, who resigned to show his opposition to Ignatieff's stand that Canada should stop mining and exporting asbestos.

Ignatieff still did not however back down. The Liberal Party, Ignatieff told the media, wants to emphasize the need for regional economic development to replace asbestos.“We've got to not let these folks down,” he said. “They work in good faith. It's not their fault that the scientific judgment is that this product is dangerous.”

Meanwhile, the unthinkable happened and two Conservative MPs publicly stated their opposition to mining and export of asbestos. Prime Minister Harper has a reputation for extreme, authoritarian control over everything. He does not tolerate dissent in his party and MPs typically are not allowed to do media interviews without first getting the permission of his office.

The media and P.M. Harper were therefore astonished when Sarnia Conservative MP, Pat Davidson, told her local newspaper “I'm definitely not supporting the mining or exporting of asbestos. I don't think anyone in Sarnia-Lambton does. Hopefully there can be a lot more people that will not support it.”

Because of its industrial history, Sarnia is the centre of a tragic epidemic of asbestos-related cancers and deaths. It's difficult to be an MP for Sarnia and, at the same time, support asbestos.

 “We are very glad that finally a Conservative MP is putting people's lives ahead of politics,” commented well-known national health policy analyst, Larry Stoffman. “Ms Davidson says that she has written a strong letter to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, that Raitt is sympathetic and will be bringing the issue up in cabinet.”

A second Conservative MP, Dona Cadman, whose husband died of skin cancer, told the media that she wanted to see Canada's asbestos trade ended. “I'm really concerned about it,” Cadman said. “I mean, here we are, we're ripping it out of our walls in Ottawa and yet we're still manufacturing it. Now we're sending something that is unsafe to Third World countries that don't have the ability or the resources to put the safety practices in.”

“I could get myself in a lot of trouble for this,” Cadman noted presciently.

“We welcome the fact that BC Conservative MP Dona Cadman also opposes use and export of asbestos,” said Wayne Peppard, Executive Director of the B.C. & Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council and a member of Ban Asbestos Canada, which represents a number of leading health, labour and environmental organizations. “Both these MPs understand the terrible human cost of asbestos, as do the members of our unions. We hope that these two Conservative MPs will succeed in ending their Party's shameful policy on asbestos.”

For P.M. Harper the timing could not have been worse. He had just completed a tour in the Quebec asbestos-mining region. The Quebec media were reporting his promise that he would continue to support asbestos export and would do everything to help the industry, including blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under the U.N. Rotterdam Convention. It's a hazardous substance under Canadian law, but not, according to Harper, a hazardous substance for people in developing countries. There is, apparently, an amazing scientific transformation that takes place in transit, whereby the hazardousness vanishes into thin air.

In English Canada Prime Minister Harper and all his ministers refuse to be interviewed on asbestos. Months of requests from journalists are met with an absolute veto.

In the asbestos-mining region of Quebec, however, the Prime Minister shows no such reticence and happily tells journalists of his utter support for asbestos.

The Conservative Party, boasted Harper to a Quebec journalist, is the only national political party that the asbestos industry can count on to defend its interests. He defined asbestos as being a rural issue and attacked the other political parties as being urban-focussed and not understanding rural issues.

In addition to being an extremely autocratic Prime Minister, Harper is also seen as playing the politics of division, pitting one region, or one group of Canadians, against another.

Then his two backbench MPs broke rank.

Sarnia MP Pat Davidson has since been called to heel. She will no longer talk about asbestos or say what has happened subsequent to the letter about asbestos that she sent to the Minister of Natural Resources. Davidson simply refuses to answer repeated questions from journalists. She has been silenced by the Prime Minister.

Dona Cadman has not succumbed. To her great credit, she is maintaining what is for her clearly a human and ethical commitment to try to end Canada's asbestos export. She is likely the most unpopular MP in the Conservative Party.

Seismic shift in the Canadian asbestos landscape

All in all, it has been a very bad couple of weeks for the Canadian asbestos lobby. Their monopoly over the Canadian major political parties has finally been broken. And, for now at least, their hopes for revitalization of the industry from Chinese investors have been dashed.

Stay tuned!

September 4, 2009


1Kathleen Ruff is a board member and senior advisor on human rights to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs. She is author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World.



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