Stop the Mine!
Civil society around the world has been galvanized by the Québec Government's plans to underwrite a new chrysotile mine in the Canadian town of Asbestos. Outrage has been expressed by asbestos victims' groups, trade unionists, politicans, academics and concerned citizens. Opposition to the new mine has been aired in newspaper articles, the academic and trade press, Parliament, street demonstrations as well as in venues not used to political discourse. One thing upon which all the objectors agreed was that the establishment of a new asbestos mine in Québec would be a morally repugnant act unworthy of a civilized country.
A public service advertisement was published on November 15, 2010 by RightOnCanada castigating the Canadian Government for its hypocritical stance on asbestos. The timing of the ad was significant; it appeared just as an anonymous consortium of investors was finalizing plans for a mine which would export vast quantities of asbestos fiber to Asian countries. Headlined Stephen Harper's killer legacy, the full page ad, which appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and the Edmonton Journal, featured a striking image depicting Canada's culpability for global asbestos deaths. The tag line urges the Canadian Prime Minister to stop exporting asbestos disease to the developing world. More than a hundred unions, organizations and health defenders from 23 countries endorsed the ad.1
At around the same time, an article was published in the Métro Montréal newspaper discussing a letter by public health specialists to the Regional Council of Elected Officials (CRE). The CRE had been asked by the Québec Government to consider the plans for Government support for the new mine.2 Drs. Fernand Turcotte, Yv Bonnier Viger and Pierre Gosselin, and human rights advocate Kathleen Ruff called this request a poisoned mandate, and urged the CRE, as a matter of honor, not to participate in this discredited process. The next day, another article appeared entitled British Columbia unions want Québec asbestos mine shut down, in the business periodical Journal of Commerce. Reporter Richard Gilbert highlighted critical statements by Wayne Peppard, executive director of the B.C./Yukon Territory Building Trades Council (BCYT-BCTC). Mr. Peppared urged the Québec Government to reconsider its backing for the asbestos industry, withdraw support for the Chrysotile Institute, ban the mining and export of asbestos and implement a policy of just transition for workers affecting by the termination of the industry.3 At the most recent convention of the Trades Council a motion was unanimously adopted which called for the mine to be closed.4
The plans to develop the Québec mine were the subject of discussions on November 10 at a meeting of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group in Westminster. Even as student protesters thronged the capital's streets, inside the House of Commons objections were raised by MPs and representatives of civil society to the expansion of Canadian asbestos production. On November 17, 2010 questions were posed in Parliament by MP Jim Sheridan, the Chair of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group, to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, about the implications of Québec plans to develop the new mine. Sheridan informed the House that a multimillion dollar loan guarantee being considered by the Québec Government could result in "millions of tonnes of asbestos being dumped on unsuspecting populations in the years to come." The Minister agreed to raise this issue with the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.5 Plans for the new Quebec mine have also been the subject of questions asked by Members of the European Parliament.6 The European Commission was asked if it was aware that most if not all of the asbestos produced will be exported to developing world nations? The response given by Mr. De Gucht on behalf of the European Commission side-stepped this thorny subject:
Whereas the EU has banned all production, Canadian production and export of asbestos is not prohibited and together with Russia, Canada is the world's leading exporter of asbestos. When it became evident that asbestos may also present serious health risks, the Federal Government issued several policies restricting the use of asbestos and now encourages the Provinces, who have jurisdiction in this matter, to adopt stricter rules when it comes to asbestos exposure.
As with most politicans, the answer when it came was no answer.
In late November, a devastating editorial was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health (CJPH). The fact that the cover of this issue of the CJPH featured a picture of children and their parents combing through asbestos waste on a dump site in Indonesia, reinforced the powerful sentiments expressed by Gilles Paradis, the journal's Scientific Editor:
The image from Indonesia illustrates why the assertion from the industry that chrysotile can be used safely is a sophism. While governments in Canada spend millions to remove asbestos from public buildings, the export of Canadian chrysotile is directly responsible for the deaths and disability of thousands workers and citizens worldwide
This is a challenge for the Canadian public health community. Will we stand up and fight for populations thousands of kilometres away? Will we expend political capital on a fight that has no direct impact on Canadians? We must.7
On November 25, 2010, trade unionists belonging to the Associated Labor Unions, the Building and Woodworkers International and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines condemned the proposals for the new mine during a public demonstration in Manila. The protestors, dressed in yellow tee shirts with the slogans: Canada Close Jeffrey Asbestos Mine and Ban Asbestos, repudiated repeated refusals by the Canadian Embassy to engage with Philippine trade unionists in a dialogue about Canadian asbestos exports to Asia.
The next day (November 26) Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA), who has recently been awarded the prestigious title of WA (West Australian) Senior Australian of the Year 2011,"8 highlighted the threat to Asian populations of the new mine in Québec during his address at the annual ADSA ecumenical remembrance service in Perth. Mr. Vojakovic called on government authorities and Australian politicians to heed international advice about the proven risks of asbestos and withdraw support for this project. He said:
From this sacred place and for the sake of humanity, I put out a call on behalf of the Asbestos Diseases Society to the Governments of Canada and Quebec to decline the application for building a new asbestos mine in Quebec.
The ADSA has communicated its objections to the mine in letters sent to Tom MacDonald, Canada's Consul General in Australia and Michael Leir, High Commissioner of Canada, in Canberra.
A delegation of representatives from Asian countries is planning a trip to Canada in December 2010 to appeal directly to the people of Québec for their help to stop the mine.9 As a display of solidarity with the delegation's efforts, demonstrations will be held in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Paris.10 Commenting on the repercussions in Asia of the new Canadian mine, delegation leader, Sugio Furuya said:
This asbestos won't be used in Québec or anywhere in Canada Canadian citizens do not want to risk hazardous exposures to asbestos and they are right not to do so. No human being should be subjected to such dangers. The likely destination for these asbestos shipments is Asian countries, a fact which we view as morally indefensible as well as racist. Is the life of a worker in Mumbai worth less than that of a worker in Québec?
Even as arrangements for this trip were being finalized, the pro-asbestos lobby started releasing what are best described as press-teasers in the Brazilian media. On November 25, a press conference was held in Brasilia at which news of a publication by Brazilian researchers, whose links to the asbestos industry are public knowledge,11 was given.12 The conclusion of the paper written by Drs Ericson Bagatin, Mário Terra Filho and Luiz Eduardo Nery: Ambient Exposition to the Asbestos: Evaluation of the Risk and Effect in the Health13 is unsurprising; their research supports industry's contention that the manufacture and use of chrysotile asbestos products are safe.14 A commentary15 on this research project by Brazil's biggest asbestos producer claims the research proves that Eternit's chrysotile products do not pose a risk to users.16 With this new evidence, the company plans to appeal the Supreme Court decision handed down in 2008 which supported the right of Brazilian states to ban asbestos.17
It is highly ironic that as the members of the Asian delegation arrive in Canada, an international academic conference on asbestos problems in Asia is due to take place in Kyoto. The meeting will provide the opportunity for speakers and delegates from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong to address a range of subjects including the scale of national asbestos epidemics, public policies for dealing with asbestos contamination and strategies for future interdisciplinary study of the evolving situation. Whilst there are bound to be differences of opinion about how best to tackle the region's asbestos legacy, it is inconceivable that there will be any support for the continued export of Canadian asbestos to Asia.
Ms. Kazumi Yoshizaki, whose father died of asbestos cancer, is keenly interested in the progress of the Asian delegation's visit to Canada as well as the results of the Kyoto conference. Her whole family is scandalized that Quebec is poised to begin a new era of asbestos deaths in Asia:
In the years before Japan banned asbestos (2004), Canadian asbestos imports accounted for the majority of asbestos we consumed; in 2000 and 2001, 59% and 55% of all our asbestos came from Canada. In previous years, Canada was also Japan's biggest supplier. Our country is now in the midst of a terrible epidemic of asbestos-related disease. The deadly epidemic which took my father's life will continue for years to come. With other asbestos producers, Canada is responsible for these deaths. There is no justification for building a new asbestos mine in Quebec. Haven't Asian populations suffered enough?
December 2, 2010
2 Mine Jeffrey : les médecins s'y opposent. La Presse Canadienne. November 16,2010.
4 The 41st annual convention of the BCYT-BCTC took place on November 2, 2010.
Press Release. Building Trades Opposes Re-opening of Jeffrey Mine. November 9, 2010.
9 Simon B. Quebec asbestos project prompts safety protests. November 25, 2010.
10 An online petition has been uploaded calling for work on the new mine to be stopped:
11 Lemes C. Manoel De Souza, Another Victim Of Asbestos, Dies. August 28, 2008.
13 The paper was written in Portuguese and the title was Exposição Ambiental ao Asbesto: Avaliação do Risco e Efeitos na Saúde.
14 Pesquisa inédita não revela danos à saúde por uso de telhas de amianto November 25, 2010.
15 This commentary was written in Portuguese and has been translated by Babel and this author.
16 An article which appeared in the popular newspaper of Goinia on November 25, 2010 was headlined: Study shows asbestos poses no risk. It said (author's translation): To live in houses with roofing tiles of asbestos-cement, as well as working in safe conditions in the mining of asbestos ore, does not cause harm to human health.