I still remember the shock and dismay I felt walking through the ByWard Market in 2005, when I noticed newspaper headlines announcing that Chuck Strahl had been diagnosed with a deadly form of asbestos-related cancer.
Not only was Strahl fit and strong (fortunately, he still is), he was a well-liked Reform, then Conservative, MP and, subsequently, a successful cabinet minister in a number of posts. He decided not to run in the last election – his son Mark took over his B.C. seat on May 2 – and has returned to Chilliwack, his cancer apparently in remission.
This memory makes Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s adamant support for Quebec’s asbestos industry in recent weeks seem even more confounding and cold. After all, within his own cabinet he had sobering evidence of the cost of unprotected exposure to asbestos.
Strahl was exposed to the carcinogen as a young man operating huge logging vehicles with asbestos-clad brakes in the B.C. interior. In those days, he recounts, wearing protective gear was considered insufficiently macho and the dangers of breathing in asbestos fibre not as well known.
Decades later he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer that usually kills its victims within a few years – a shocking prognosis for a regular jogger and non-smoker. With the help of his family and strong Christian faith, however, Strahl beat the odds and played an active role in cabinet until his retirement.
Throughout his ordeal, he never wanted to be a poster boy for asbestos-related cancer or mount, as he wrote this week, “a personal crusade.” Nor does he favour an outright ban, even today.
However, he issued a cautious advisory to his old government this week, calling it “logical and right” to add chrysotile asbestos to a UN list of substances that need to be handled with care.
But at an international meeting of the so-called Rotterdam Convention in Switzerland, Canada publicly – even defiantly – refused to add asbestos to the list. Because the convention relies on consensus, there will be no warning to the mostly developing countries who still import our asbestos (primarily to make concrete.)
The Canadian delegation was undoubtedly acting on instructions from the prime minister – and over growing objections both inside and outside government. With India (which imports a lot of Quebec asbestos) and Ukraine withdrawing objections, Canada is left in the embarrassing company of Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in defending a product so dangerous it is being carefully removed from 24 Sussex and the Parliament buildings.
And all to defend fewer than 400 jobs in Quebec.
Harper made it clear on a campaign stop in Asbestos, site of Canada’s last active mine, that he wasn’t going to interfere in the sale of a legal product. As he put it: “This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted.”
This is both libertarian gospel and political calculation. Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who comes from Thetford Mines, has long insisted chrysotile asbestos can be safely used “in controlled circumstances.”
This claim has been roundly rejected by medical and scientific experts, including Peter Goodhand of the Canadian Cancer Society, who insists “all forms of asbestos, including the chrysotile asbestos mined in Quebec, cause cancer.”
As for “controlled” environments, there is ample evidence developing countries, like India, pay no heed to safety, and that Indian workers, like the young Chuck Strahl, are being directly compromised. But Harper seems to imply it isn’t our concern.
His indifference is strangely at odds with his moral, even moralistic, approach to foreign policy generally. He famously refused to remain silent on China’s human rights abuses despite potential trade repercussions, yet is prepared to isolate Canada internationally to prop up a dying industry.
This may have something to do with Premier Jean Charest’s promise of a $58 million loan guarantee to the industry to restart the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos – an offer dependent on the mine’s backers rounding up $25 million by July 1. Further international restrictions on exports – even in the form of safety warnings – could make raising the money more challenging.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Ottawa Citizen website: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/Asbestos+last+lonely+champion/4997782/story.html