Carry on Polluting
The boorish behavior of Canada's representatives at the United Nations meeting in Geneva in October 2006,1 made Canada's imperialistic stance on asbestos clear: Canada will continue to profit from global sales of killer asbestos whilst pursuing a de facto ban at home. On November 7, 2006 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources (Canada) signaled the Government's continued support for this industry of death by a 14:1 vote to maintain current levels of government funding for the Chrysotile Institute (CI), a Quebec-based body which acts as the mouthpiece for Canada's asbestos industry.2 A motion by a Member of the New Democratic Party to reduce the Minister's budget by $249,999 in protest at the funding to foster the international implementation of the safe and responsible use of chrysotile asbestos was defeated during the televised hearings.
Appearing before the Committee was Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources. Three weeks earlier, Lunn had defended Canada's stonewalling of the UN environmental agreement, the Rotterdam Convention, on The Current, a radio program broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.3 In the interview, Lunn cited industry's mantra that asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions and claimed that Canada's position was based on the science. When it was pointed out to him that the pro-chrysotile science was bought and paid for by industry, Lunn said that Canada has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to conduct more studies. When the interviewer Anna Maria Tremonti informed him that the WHO has now adopted a ban asbestos position, Lunn retorted that 11 other countries at the Rotterdam Convention supported Canada's position. This was untrue as the only other Parties to the Rotterdam Convention to support Canada were: Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Iran and Peru.
A 2006 memorandum obtained under the Access to Information Act by Canadian researcher Ken Rubin provides useful background information about the sensitive nature of the Quebec asbestos hot potato. The author of the memo entitled: Chrysotile Institute Funding, was Gary Nash, Assistant Deputy Minister, Minerals and Metals Sector, Natural Resources Canada, and formerly the Founding President / Chief Executive Officer of the Asbestos Institute, the CI's predecessor. Nash explained that although Canada's asbestos industry is no longer a heavyweight in the Canadian economy, support by the federal and provincial governments has traditionally been generous:
Canada contributes $250,000 per year, through funding agreements with both Canada and Quebec (which) terminate in about 14 months (March 31, 2007). The CI has requested a one year extension of its agreement or it will now have to start winding up operations the Institute has become a rallying point and a forum of exchange, an information and reference centre for an international network of producers and users which is called on by governmental and non-governmental organizations and associations of some 85 countries the leadership shown by Canada and Quebec in favour of safe use of chrysotile has earned them significant good will, and it would not be understood if they withdrew now chrysotile production, with its 800 direct and approximately 1000 indirect jobs, is a central force in the economy of an entire region of Quebec, where the Institute embodies the commitment of the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec to the chrysotile mining communities
Canadian MP Pat Martin is dismayed at the result of Tuesday's vote of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources saying:
Corporate welfare for corporate serial killers is both morally reprehensible and economically unsound. Canada's asbestos industry is under attack from all sides. Consumers no longer want to buy a product that contains an acknowledged killer and markets are drying up. At the same time, chrysotile producers in Russia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere can undercut Canadian suppliers. In light of the eventual demise of the industry, would it not be a better policy to work with those affected in Québec to achieve a just transition for investors, workers and affected communities. The continued support for the Chrysotile Institute is throwing good money after bad.
The annual payment of $250,000 is just the beginning of federal government financial support as this sum does not, as one observer explained, include all the soft support in terms of using Canadian embassies to host asbestos promotion events or the cost of sending teams of lawyers around the world to block and oppose any international efforts that might curb and restrict the use of asbestos.
November 13, 2006
2 When it was founded in the mid-1980s, the CI was called The Asbestos Institute. In an attempt to camouflage its connections with the killer fiber, the name was changed to the Chrysotile Institute (CI).