With asbestos, we are the Ugly Canadians – by Jeffrey Simpson (Globe and Mail – June 25, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous impact and influence on Canada’s political and business elite as well as the rest of the country’s print, radio and television media.

Billions of dollars will be spent over the next two decades to repair the Parliament Buildings. One reason for the repair: The buildings are full of asbestos, a cancer-causing substance that Canadians no longer use.

But we mine asbestos, we ship it, we make money from it, and we’ll use every diplomatic trick in the book to defend this odious practice. We are the Ugly Canadians.

The Harper government could care less. It vigorously defends mining asbestos because of one little corner of Quebec, near Thetford Mines, where the asbestos is mined and shipped to developing countries, mostly in Asia. Stephen Harper’s top Quebec minister, Christian Paradis, used to head the Thetford Mines chamber of commerce. Mr. Harper campaigned in the area and supported the mining. He spent part of Friday, St. Jean Baptiste Day, in Thetford Mines, thereby reinforcing his government’s political marriage to asbestos.

This week, the Ugly Canadians stood alone against the world in blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical under the Rotterdam Convention. At the meeting in Geneva, Canada had at first clustered itself among a small group of opponents that included such democratic stalwarts as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. Even these countries relented, however, and agreed to the listing. But not Canada. Not the Harper government. Not when there are jobs at an asbestos mine in Quebec.

Doctors from many countries have implored Canada for years to change its ways. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, has underscored the dangers of asbestos. The World Health Organization has warned that “at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures.” Doctors from Canada (including Quebec) and abroad have signed petitions, sent letters, organized delegations – all to no avail.

The Quebec government, to its enduring shame, supports the mining (as does the Bloc Québécois) – it even gave money to the mine owners for expansion.

The Harper government is so locked into defending the indefensible that it wouldn’t even allow listing asbestos as a health hazard. That mild measure would only have required exporters to warn recipient countries of health hazards; it wouldn’t have required Canada to stop exports.

The government argues that chrysotile asbestos is legal in some countries and that its use under tight regulations poses only slight, if any, health risks. It even funds a lobby group for asbestos in Montreal that peddles this line. But the scientific and health worlds categorically reject this line. And member states of the United Nations have just agreed with the critics about the dangers of chrysotile asbestos – except Canada.

It’s estimated that the asbestos industry might be worth $90-million in this country. That sounds like a lot, but in the context of the Quebec economy, let alone the Canadian one, is a pittance. Even if that estimate were correct, it pales against the misery and cost of using this substance in other countries.

For the rest of this column and to view commentary on it, please go to the Globe and Mail website: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/with-asbestos-we-are-the-ugly-canadians/article2074858/