Canadian Cities Divided on Asbestos 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The actions taken by two Canadian cities illustrate the nation’s schizophrenia over asbestos. While federal and provincial governments actively support the domestic chrysotile (white asbestos) industry, trade unions, consumer groups and ordinary Canadians deplore the sale of this class 1 carcinogen to foreign markets. During September, 2001, City Councillors of Sarnia, Ontario endorsed a statement of protest which called upon the Government of Canada "to ban the use and export of all asbestos." The petition also requested "that the government take action to make the Canadian people aware of the many sources of exposure to asbestos that exist across the country. We also request that the government put in place a program to ensure that there is a just economic transition for communities that will be negatively impacted by the ban."

The community of Sarnia knows the full horrors of asbestos. According to Therese Hutchison, a research co-ordinator for the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), the community of Sarnia-Lambton has: five times the regional incidence of mesothelioma, up to 7,000 potential sufferers amongst men exposed to asbestos whilst working at the Holmes Foundry and many asbestos victims who experienced domestic exposure.

Initially, only Mike Bradley, Sarnia’s Mayor, backed the efforts of local people and trade unions lobbying for this motion. Other councillors dismissed the issue claiming it was out of their jurisdiction, pointless and interfering. The OHCOW countered these negative responses saying: "This request is about Sarnia raising its voice in honour of those who have become ill and died and it’s about sharing what we have learned." Expressing solidarity with foreign asbestos victims, the OHCOW spokesperson commented: "Third World workers handling Canadian asbestos would suffer the same diseases as this community. Site workers and bystanders are likely to be at least as poorly informed and protected as were those in our community." The motion passed on September 10, 2001 by a vote of 5 to 3. Steps are being taken by the Council to inform the Canadian Prime Minister, Quebec’s Premier, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the provincial governments in Ontario and Quebec and others of the city’s stance on banning the export of Canadian asbestos.

On September 10, 2001, Jacques Brassard, Quebec’s Natural Resources Minister, reiterated his government’s belief that asbestos used in the construction of roads is safe. Confiding that: "some specialists in the Health Department have expressed concerns about using asbestos asphalt," he told federal, provincial and territorial Ministers gathered in Quebec City that he "would like for us to conduct further tests to alleviate this uncertainty." Pro-asbestos proponents say that the use of asbestos on the roads will double or triple the lifespan of the surfaces. The economic argument also featured prominently in the reasoning given in the document entitled: Policy for Use and Development of Chrysotile Fibre (City of Asbestos). By-law number 2001-37, issued on April 23, 2001, stated: "the municipal council of the City of Asbestos has the intention to establish a policy to promote the use of chrysotile fibre in asphalt." Article 2 of the directive stipulated that "for any new street or for complete resurfacing of an existing street, the City of Asbestos will use chrysotile asphalt procedures according to government standards." Many of the fifteen hundred or so Canadians who work in the asbestos industry live in the City of Asbestos; it is not surprising that city officials are taking steps to promote the local product.


September 25, 2001



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