Canada's Asbestos Endgame? 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Once upon a time, the powerful asbestos lobby all but controlled the Canadian media; this control translated into a virtual media blackout on controversies such as the export of carcinogenic chrysotile asbestos to developing countries, Ottawa's pimping for the asbestos industry and the federal government's manipulation of global protocols to prevent regulation of the chrysotile trade. But that was then and this is now.

One issue more than all others has coalesced opposition to the industry at home and abroad and attracted the media to a story ripe for the telling. For British readers, this can be best explained as the Canadian asbestos industry's “poll tax” moment. Just as the imposition of the poll tax in Britain eventually brought down Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the attempt to steamroll a $58 million loan guarantee by the Quebec Government for a new asbestos mine has exposed the industry to the full glare of public scrutiny. Standing centre stage with begging bowl extended, the owners and potential investors of the Jeffrey Mine have attracted the attention they long sought to avoid.

It seems that every day another wrinkle in this sorry tale provides fodder for newspaper coverage. Last week was no exception. On January 27 a fundraising cocktail party was hosted by Baljit Chadha, the entrepreneur heading the Jeffrey Mine consortium, for Federal Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff.1 The politician, whose opposition to asbestos is a matter of record, told reporters: “I think that Canada cannot export a product that is dangerous and cannot be handled safely… I've said that for a long time.”2 Chadha, whose company Balcorp Ltd. has been exporting Canadian asbestos for 15 years, clearly does not agree. A spokesperson from the Rideau Institute said that in the context of his commercial interests, Chadha's high-profile political activities are “disturbing.”

The presence of a Balcorp representative in a Quebec government trade mission to India (January 30 - February 4) worries Amir Khadir, a Member of the Quebec National Assembly: “This inclusion in an economic mission of this nature, in a file that is so controversial, causes a serious problem of perception of conflict of interest...” It is likely that a good deal of the mission “will be spent promoting the use of asbestos in India.” According to a report in La Presse, mission leader Clement Gignac, Quebec Economic Development Minister, will take part in discussions with Indian government representatives regarding “a collaboration agreement on the safe use of this carcinogenic fibre.”3

Spurred by interest in the mine issue, journalists have delved deeper into the background and history of Quebec's asbestos industry. Traditionally, this economic sector has enjoyed the blessing of the province's separatist movement, as represented by the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and Bloc Quebecois (Bloc), the rhetoric of which are littered with references to social solidarity, justice and concern for the underdog.4 In an article published on January 28 entitled The Treason of the Separatists, the asbestos policy of the PQ and Bloc is described as a:

“retrograde… (position) based on flagrant opportunism… the PQ and the Bloc, despite knowing full well the lethal consequences, support the continued export of asbestos. International solidarity with poor working people around the world, non! Solidarity with Stephan Harper, oui!”

Surely the loss of “integrity and honour” which these previously well-respected and progressive parties have incurred over their support for asbestos is too high a price to pay for short-term political gain. Combined with the rejection by the Quebec public of the asbestos industry in general and the mine loan in particular, the PQ and Bloc have every reason for a rethink of their asbestos policies.5

January 31, 2011


1 Mennie J. Liberal fundraiser cries foul. January 29, 2011.

2 Ignatieff fundraiser to be hosted by man aiming to revive asbestos industry. January 27, 2011.

3 Brousseau-Pouliot V. Le ministre Gignac discutera d'amiante en Inde. (Minister Gignac will discuss asbestos while in India.) January 27, 2011.
See also: Mission québécoise en Inde - L'amiante donnera le ton aux négociations. January 31, 2011.

4 Caplan. G. La trahison des separatistes. (Treason of the separatists). January 28, 2011.

5 Kazan-Allen L. Quebec Public Opposes Asbestos Subsidy. January 16, 2011.



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