Has the phrase “better late than never” ever stood on a weaker truss than the Government of Canada’s decades-late decision to ban the manufacture, use, import and export of asbestos?
Successive federal governments — Liberal and Conservative — provided political shelter to companies mining chrysotile asbestos in Quebec, going so far as to fund the Chrysotile Institute whose purpose was to defend aggressively this particular type of asbestos as distinctly less hazardous than other forms of the magic mineral.
(A paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2008 called this argument “redolent of the tobacco industry’s playbook on light cigarettes.”) Occasionally, a politician would step out of line, only to be yanked back into asbestos-supporting formation.
Recall Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the spring of 2009. When queried on his position, Ignatieff said this: “I’m probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I’m unaware, but if asbestos is bad for parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else,” he said. “Our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop.”
He later backtracked to this: “We have had 60 years of experience with this product. What I said in answer to a question is that we have an obligation to international agreements to the countries that we export to, to make them aware of the risks. That is all I said.”
That same year, the Star travelled to India, tracing the transformation of the raw mineral into the type of corrugated asbestos roofing you see everywhere on the subcontinent. At the time, more than 90 per cent of Canada’s asbestos production was packaged up for export, and India had emerged as its number one customer.
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