By Kathleen Ruff
When Canadians are asked for examples of Canada playing a pivotal role on the world stage, we talk about how our country helped bring about a ban on land mines and create UN peacekeepers.
It’s unlikely anyone would mention the key global role played by Canada to market a deadly product: asbestos. With no public debate, successive Canadian governments have enthusiastically taken on the role of global defender of the asbestos industry.
Asbestos is the leading occupational killer in Canada and around the world. Like land mines, it can go on killing for decades as asbestos-containing materials deteriorate, releasing their deadly fibres. It costs billions and requires sophisticated technology to remove asbestos, as is presently being done in the Parliament Buildings and schools and homes across Canada.
This is why we and other industrialized countries no longer use asbestos and why over 50 countries have outright banned it.
The industry therefore targets developing countries, using its paid “experts” and Canadian embassies to provide assurance that asbestos is a safe, desirable product. Canada has more credibility than other asbestos-exporting countries like Kazakhstan, Russia, and Zimbabwe. It has exploited that credibility to promote asbestos in countries where safety protections are virtually non-existent.
Motivated by political ambition to win votes in Quebec, the government has repeatedly sabotaged international measures to protect people from asbestos. The Chrétien government forced Thailand and South Korea to withdraw regulations requiring warning labels on bags of Canadian asbestos.
In one of the rare cases where public health was put ahead of trade rights, the World Trade Organization dismissed Canada’s case which argued that countries should not have the right to ban asbestos.
In 2006, the Harper government sabotaged the Rotterdam Convention by blocking the right of countries to be even informed that chrysotile asbestos is hazardous. And in 2007 it killed a UN emergency plan to clean up asbestos debris in areas devastated by the Asian tsunami, arguing that “more study” is needed on whether asbestos debris is deadly.
Canada’s role has not gone unnoticed. At a conference last month of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, which represents 25 million metalworkers in 100 countries, national secretary Dave Oliver called for a global campaign “to highlight Canada’s role in this insidious trade”.
“If there is a ”˜holy grail’ in the global campaign to ban asbestos,” said Oliver, “then surely that has to be the cessation of mining and export of asbestos from Canada. To succeed in Canada would be to deliver a fatal blow to an industry that seeks to profit regardless of the unnecessary death and devastation its products wreak on the global community.”
Can Canadians render Oliver’s campaign unnecessary by making our government end Canada’s asbestos trade?
We may be at a tipping point. Within the past year, both the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress have called for Canada to ban asbestos, assist the remaining 400 asbestos workers in Quebec, and address Canada’s own tragic epidemic of asbestos disease.
A major breakthrough occurred when Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, after wavering under pressure from the asbestos lobby, stated to the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir that Canada’s asbestos trade must end.
Ten Liberal MPs, including Bob Rae, the entire Liberal health committee, and a Quebec MP have publicly supported Ignatieff’s statement.
All five BC Liberal MPs (Ujjal Dosanjh, Sukh Dhaliwal, Joyce Murray, Hedy Fry, Keith Martin) have expressed complete support and called on Prime Minister Harper to take action.
“The export of chrysotile asbestos by Canada to international markets must stop,” Dhaliwal has said. “Workers who lose their jobs as a result should be offered transitional support by the government. There is simply no good reason to allow the continued sale of this deadly product.”
A bill to ban asbestos was tabled this month in the House of Commons by NDP MP Nathan Cullen, thanks to three students from northwest B.C. who won a competition he sponsored to “Create Your Canada”.
Prime Minister Harper should find the integrity to support this bill and end a shameful chapter of Canadian history. Yet he continues to fight for asbestos, claiming that it is being safely used. Perhaps he should take the time to meet some of the growing number of Canadians dying from asbestos-caused disease.
We are at a tipping point. Our government must ban asbestos now.
Kathleen Ruff is senior human rights advisor to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World. She is a former director of the B.C. Human Rights Commission.