Asbestos Uproar in Canada
Industry's domination of the Canadian asbestos debate is crumbling day by day as new groups and voices rise to challenge the inviolable sanctity of the country's asbestos mining sector. In the last week, several landmark developments have taken place amongst various sectors of civil society which indicate that the political and financial support the industry has enjoyed from federal and regional governments may soon be a thing of the past. Last week, the Executive of the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) took a controversial decision when it resolved to support global action to ban asbestos; at an upcoming CLC meeting, delegates will endorse the resolution banning asbestos mining in Canada and introducing a just transition program for affected workers. This decision puts the CLC on a collision course with the Québec Federation of Labor (QFL), the largest union organization in Québec. The QFL has 500,000 members, some of whom work in the asbestos sector; for more than 20 years, asbestos interests have threatened the CLC with dire consequences, including secession, should the organization adopt a position which might impact negatively on the chrysotile asbestos industry. This year's meeting of the CLC will take place in Toronto from May 26-30; asbestos is expected to feature prominently on its agenda.
On May 25, the President of the QFL who is a member of the CLC executive, issued a press release denouncing the CLC's vote as premature. Some months ago the CLC had deferred adopting a position on asbestos until a government report on the Health Risks of Chrysotile Asbestos had been published. Due to an inexplicable delay by Health Canada to make this report public and the atmosphere of secrecy which continues to surround it, the CLC Executive decided to press ahead; the ban asbestos resolution will be presented at the CLC Convention on Friday, May 30, 2008. QFL President Michael Arsenault, incensed by the CLC's decision, said: Québec being the only chrysotile asbestos producer in Canada, we take the position that this debate should take place amongst Québec unions only.
The union movement in the rest of Canada overwhelmingly supports the asbestos ban and people across the country have refused to work wherever asbestos is present until it is properly removed. Union activists rejuvenated the ban asbestos campaign last year under the BAC banner and have worked hard to successfully move both the CLC and federal NDP policies towards supporting international and national campaigns.2
The mystery surrounding the Health Canada (HC) report continues. Dissent by members of the expert panel convened in 2007 have been made public in the last few days. On May 24, reports by journalist Frank Koller on the situation were the lead stories on morning and evening news bulletins on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Koller interviewed Dr. Leslie Stayner who expressed his deep concern that the report has not been made public. In a letter Stayner wrote to Tony Clement, Minister of Health, he urged that:
our report and the individual comments made by the expert panel be publicly released as soon as possible. Our group met in mid-November of last year, and our reports were finalized in March of this year. It is simply unacceptable for this report to continue to be withheld from the public while individuals who have seen the report and our comments make erroneous allegations about what it contains to suit their political objectives.
One such individual was Andre Bellavante who in a speech to the House of Commons in Ottawa on May 12, 2008 said:
Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois is joining the Chrysotile Institute, the United Steelworkers and Québec's Mouvement PROChrysotile to denounce the NDP position on banning chrysotile.
This position does not take into account recent studies on the safe use of chrysotile. The NDP does not have the necessary expertise to take the place of the expert committee set up by Health Canada. Union representatives believe that the NDP did not take into account the work of the Chrysotile Institute and the worker's movement to respect the Geneva Convention and promote the safe use of chrysotile. The NDP has simply dismissed the jobs related to this industry. The Bloc Québécois is asking the government to implement the unanimous report of the international trade subcommittee recommending that it adopt a chrysotile policy based on information, promotion and safe use.
That is another example of how only the Bloc Québécois understands and is defending the interests of hundreds of workers in the Asbestos and Thetford Mines regions.3
In the wake of Dr. Stayner's letter, the Chair of the expert panel, Dr. Trevor Ogden, went public with his criticism:
Health Canda is breaking faith with the scientists who took part in the panel. You will know that Canada has a pretty bleak reputation in most of the health science world, and those who took part in the Panel were risking reputations with their colleagues. I believe that we all took part because this did seem an honest attempt by Health Canada to understand what degree of consensus and range of opinions existed, as a basis for policy. We are now all constrained not to reveal what is in the report, but cannot give any reasonable explanation for the delay.
I do urge you both as Minister of Health and Chair of the Cabinet's Social Affairs Committee to see that the reports are made public forthwith. I believe that the authoritative scientific opinions which they contain will strengthen Canada in this field, and ensure that its policies are on a sound scientific base.
The fate of the Health Canada report was mentioned in a debate in the House of Commons on May 27, 2008 when MP Pat Martin, having asked why the Minister is sitting on the report, postulated that it might be because the Government does not want Canada to be further embarrassed. MP M. Thomas Mulcair, the first MP from Québec to speak up in Parliament against asbestos, said:
Translation by Kathleen Ruff: Mr Speaker, the British chair and a U.S. member of the distinguished international scientific panel on chrysotile asbestos have just written to the Minister of Health to protest the fact that their scientific work is being mocked by the government and travestied by the Bloc québécois. These international experts are categoric. There is no safe use of asbestos possible and it is carcinogenic.
Instead of blocking the truth, why does not the minister release this important study in the interests of all the people who work in the asbestos industry? 4
Minister Tony Clement resorted to bureaucratic-speak in his reply to MP Martin, saying: We have received a report and we will be studying it. The government will be making its decision in due course. His waspish retort to MP Mulcair suggested a loss of patience with this issue. Clement attacked the paroxysm of self-righteousness of the member (Mulcair) who had not even read the report. Let us read the report. Let us get all the scientific data and then we can make a reasonable conclusion. Indeed, the MPs would be only too glad to read the report, if only the government would release it! Faced by mounting pressure from scientific experts, intensive scrutiny by politicians and the media and increasing ban asbestos support from Canadian labor federations, the Ottawa government could finally be forced to confront its asbestos demons and join other industrialized countries which have taken action on killer asbestos.
May 28, 2008
1 Dr. Larry Stoffman is Chair of the National Committee on Environmental and Occupational Exposures and the Chair to the National Occupational and Environmental Exposures Committee, Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control.
2 BAC: Ban Asbestos Canada; NDP: New Democratic Party
4 The statement made by Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, NPD) was in French: Monsieur le Président, le président britannique et un membre américain d'un panel international émérite scientifique sur l'amiante chrysotile vient d'écrire au ministre de la Santé pour s'insurger contre le fait que leur travail scientifique est en train d'tre bafoué par son gouvernement et travesti par le Bloc québécois. Ces experts internationaux sont catégoriques: il n'y a pas d'utilisation sécuritaire possible de l'amiante chrysotile et c'est cancérigène.
Au lieu de bloquer la vérité, pourquoi le ministre ne publie-t-il pas cette importante recherche dans l'intért de l'ensemble des personnes qui travaillent dans l'amiante.