Canada's Ugly Secret
On June 10, 2009, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) prime-time national news featured a documentary on the use of Canadian asbestos in India which included footage of workers picking up piles of asbestos fiber with their bare hands to feed into processing equipment; with absolutely no health and safety precautions, fiber and dust were pervasive throughout the textile plant.1 It looked like the TV researchers had gotten into a time machine and gone back decades to film these scenes; such conditions, which have been forbidden in Europe since the 1930s, could result in respiratory disease within a few years. Canadian government and taxpayer-supported Chrysotile Institute spokesmen declined to respond to requests from the CBC team for an interview. In just 15 minutes, this stunning piece of investigative journalism exposed the fallacy underpinning the asbestos industry's commercial propaganda; showing there is no such thing as the safe use of asbestos.2
Less than a fortnight before this footage was aired, a Private Member's Bill to end Canada's mining and export of asbestos was presented to Parliament by MP Nathan Cullen who represents Skeena-Bulkley Valley. Alas, this was not a serious attempt by an elected representative to right the wrong which his government has promulgated for decades. The bill was written by high school students from British Columbia who had won a competition called Create Your Canada. The teenagers Chloe Staiger, Hayley McDermid and Claire Hinchliffe were brought to Ottawa to watch their bill be presented on June 1 and to take part in a press conference. An advertisement supporting the bill, which appeared in the June 1 issue of the Ottawa Citizen, was signed by 18 non-governmental organizations, trade unions and associations including Ban Asbestos Canada, Prevent Cancer NOW, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy.3
It remains to be seen how long Canada will cling to its pariah status in promoting its asbestos exports to the developing world. There is only one asbestos mine left operating in Canada employing a few hundred workers.4 The dominant position which Quebec asbestos stakeholders have used to silence their opponents is eroding. Medical authorities and public health scientists in Quebec have protested Canada's opposition to including chrysotile asbestos under an international convention that requires prior informed consent from the intended importing country before the product can be shipped. The Canadian Cancer Society has called for an asbestos ban, as have other groups representing civil society throughout Canada.5 And, at long last, the media is starting to raise the issue with some insight and persistence.6
The day after the CBC footage was shown, Canadian MP Pat Martin reinforced his long-standing criticism of the federal government's support for the asbestos industry at a morning press conference and in questions he asked in the House of Commons.7 His condemnation of the federal government's position lead to pandemonium in the Commons chamber. Martins called on Canada's Minister of Natural Resources to respond but she deferred to Christian Paradis, the Public Works Minister and MP for a Quebec asbestos constituency. Speaking in French, this long-time ally of the asbestos industry regurgitated the commercial propaganda saying: We are trying to promote the safe use of this product here and abroad. As they say in French, plus ca change, or, to translate this sentiment into English, nothing changes.
In a letter he sent on June 11 to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, MP Martin wrote:
Asbestos is the greatest industrial killer the world has ever known if there was ever any doubt about the legacy of the industrial disease that Canadian asbestos is creating in under developed nations, last night's expose on the CBC National news should convince you that this is fundamentally wrong and has to stop.
I urge you to take concrete steps to ban asbestos in all its forms in this country, stop exporting asbestos to other countries, and stop using taxpayers money to promote asbestos and block other countries in their efforts to curb its use.8
June 18, 2009
1CBC footage: http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/TV_Shows/The_National/Health/ID=1304445584
Photo gallery: http://www.cbc.ca/photogallery/news/2318/
4 The mine, owned by LAB Chrysotile Inc. which has filed for bankruptcy protection, employs 400 workers.
5 Ruff K. Canadian Political Leaders Face Increased Heat on Asbestos Issue
7 http://www.cbc.ca/national/blog/video/healtheducation/c\hich\af0\dbch\af11\loch\f0 anadas_ugly_secret.html
Underneath the link to the documentary, there is a 2.14 minute clip which shows the ugly scenes in Parliament on June 11.
8 Letter from Pat Martin to Stephen Harper, June 11, 2009.