Kathleen Ruff op-ed: “Last stand for asbestos?”
The Harper government is negotiating a free-trade agreement (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) with India, which would advantage our asbestos industry by removing the 10 per cent tariff on exports to its biggest customer, India.
This issue might seem academic, since asbestos mining has ceased in Canada. The Jeffrey mine at Asbestos, Que., (the biggest open pit asbestos mine in the world) closed two years ago and Canada’s last operating asbestos mine — LAB Chrysotile’s mine at Thetford Mines, Que. — closed in November this year.
These last two asbestos mines were facing financial and environmental disasters. Both were forced to seek bankruptcy protection several years ago, slashing wages and pensions. From being the world’s biggest exporter of asbestos, the asbestos industry represented only 0.1 per cent of Quebec exports in 2010. By 2011, after 130 years, Quebec asbestos mining finally stopped altogether. Other asbestos mines in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Ontario closed years ago.
One would think this was the end of a sorry chapter of Canadian history. But one would be wrong.
Undeterred, both Jeffrey Mine Inc. and LAB Chrysotile Ltd. are aggressively seeking financial and political assistance from the Quebec and Canadian governments to restart the asbestos disaster all over again.
When it comes to promoting the interests of the asbestos industry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is no sluggard. In the weeks prior to the May 2 general election, the 14,000 citizens of Asbestos were treated to not just one, but two visits by the Prime Minister, who proclaimed his commitment to fight “discrimination” against the asbestos industry.
Harper’s courting of the citizens of Asbestos did not produce the desired result. The Bloc held the seat by a hair’s breadth over the NDP, with the Conservative candidate coming a humiliating third.
Harper’s dedication to the asbestos trade continued unabated, however, as evidenced by his sabotage of the UN Rotterdam Convention Conference in Geneva earlier this year to prevent chrysotile asbestos (100 per cent of the global asbestos trade) from being put on the convention’s list of hazardous substances, thus ensuring continued uncontrolled sale of asbestos.
Asbestos can only be sold if there are no safety controls. Safety measures are complex and costly, as Canadians well know, and are required for the whole life cycle of asbestos, thus pricing it out of the market. Even its biggest fan, Industry Minister Christian Paradis, admits this.
Chrysotile asbestos is listed under Canada’s Hazardous Substances Act but, according to our government, is not hazardous for people overseas. Around the world, Canada’s conduct was bitterly condemned as a despicable double standard.
When it comes to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India, Harper is likewise employing a double standard. He will not tolerate “discrimination” against the asbestos industry, but is undisturbed by discrimination favouring the asbestos industry.
While working to eliminate tariffs on asbestos, Harper is conspicuously silent over the $58 million subsidy that the Quebec government has offered to the consortium of “free enterprise” investors to cover 70 per cent of the cost of the underground Jeffrey asbestos mine they want to open in Asbestos.
Under free trade rules, such subsidies are prohibited and the Canadian government has responsibility for ensuring their elimination.
LAB Chrysotile will also receive a $58 million subsidy from the Quebec government, according to Thetford Mines Mayor Luc Berthold, who states that Quebec Minister of Municipal Affairs Laurent Lessard has agreed to offer LAB the same subsidy as offered to the Jeffrey mine investors.
Paradis, Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, is the MP for Thetford Mines and a powerful political ally of LAB Chrysotile. He has pledged the Harper government’s full support for the plan to restart mining asbestos. Since taking power, the Harper government has given $1.5 million to the asbestos industry’s lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute. Conservative MPs say the Harper government has cut the funding, but the institute’s president, Clément Godbout, says that federal government funding continues.
The Canadian Cancer Society has criticized this financing as promoting deceptive industry propaganda that will cause loss of life. The financing also clashes with CEPA.
In Quebec, Minister of Economic Development Sam Hamad is in charge of the $58 million loan guarantee to the asbestos investors. In 2003, Hamad gave the global asbestos industry a priceless PR gift. He recommended replacing “asbestos” with the word “chrysotile” in order “to give the industry nobility and growth.”
Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest refuse appeals to respect science and protect health. Perhaps, ironically, the free trade deal with India will succeed where scientific evidence and human compassion have failed: an end to taxpayer subsidies to the deadly asbestos industry.
Kathleen Ruff is senior human rights adviser for the Rideau Institute and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada markets asbestos to the developing world.