Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Asbestos Free India campaign of BANI is inspired by trade union movement and right to health campaign. BANI has been working since 2000. It works with peoples movements, doctors, researchers and activists besides trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Will Canada’s asbestos industry succeed in relaunching itself?

Will Canada’s asbestos industry succeed in relaunching itself? The answer still hangs in the balance

By Kathleen Ruff

In the federal election in May, the Conservative Party targeted a handful of ridings across Canada where it thought it could win a seat away from other political parties and thus increase its chances of winning a majority government.

One of the selected ridings was the riding where the town of Asbestos is located. Prime Minister Harper himself went not once, but twice, to campaign in Asbestos whose population of around six thousand people is 0.02% of the Canadian population.

Harper’s strategy to win the riding was clear. Standing alongside Bernard Coulombe, president of Jeffrey Mine Inc., Harper promoted himself as the political leader most dedicated to the asbestos industry. Harper does not use the word “asbestos”, however. Instead, he always says “chrysotile”. He chooses not to disclose the fact that chrysotile asbestos represents 100% of the world asbestos trade and that 95% of all asbestos ever sold historically has been chrysotile asbestos.

“The only party that defends the chrysotile industry is our party, the Conservative party,” Harper told the voters of the inconveniently named town of Asbestos. “We believe the industry has a right to continue operating.”

“Chrysotile, specifically, is permitted internationally under conditions of safe and controlled use,” Harper stated.

The level of deception in this statement is extraordinary. Asbestos use is permitted in developing countries with no safety controls whatsoever, which is why we export our asbestos to developing countries.

Harper’s campaigning in Asbestos did not go as successfully as he hoped. He was confronted with a challenge from over twenty health, union and environmental organizations, which, on the day he was campaigning in Asbestos, released an open letter to the media, calling on Harper to stop supporting the deadly asbestos trade and to put people’s lives ahead of politics.

Harper failed to win the Asbestos riding and the Conservative candidate came in a distant third. The popular sitting Bloc Québécois MP, André Bellevance, won the riding again, but only just. The NDP candidate was just 700 votes behind, winning 32% of the vote as opposed to 33% by Bellevance.

In Québec as a whole, the NDP went from one MP to winning 58 of the 75 Québec seats.

The NDP was the first political party in the House of Commons to adopt a policy calling for an end to the mining and export of asbestos. And NDP MP, Nathan Cullen, in June 2009, introduced a private member’s Bill in the House of Commons to ban asbestos. This required courage on the part of the NDP and the pundits all said that they would, as a consequence, lose their one seat in Québec.

It is an encouraging and historic turn of events that Québec voters have massively voted for the one federal party that has taken a clear, strong position to end the asbestos trade.

On the provincial level, in Québec itself, the political landscape has undergone a dramatic change. The political party Québec Solidaire has only one elected member, Amir Khadir, but polls show that he is by far the most highly respected of any political leader in Quebec. Québec Solidaire have taken a clear position calling for the end of mining, use and export of asbestos and have presented a private member’s bill to that effect in the Quebec National Assembly.

Historically, the Parti Québécois (PQ) has always been a dedicated, unquestioning supporter of the asbestos industry. No more. The leader of the PQ, Pauline Marois, says that her party is extremely worried about the asbestos issue and the fact that all of Québec’s medical and public health authorities, including the government’s own health experts, have expressed their opposition to the Charest government’s policy of “increased safe use of chrysotile asbestos” and the plan to open a new asbestos mine.

The PQ are presently the Official Opposition in Québec, but are expected to become the next government. Marois has said it is time to re-examine Québec’s historic pro-asbestos policy. She has publicly opposed the decision by the Charest government to give a $58 million loan guarantee to the consortium of investors who want to purchase and open the Jeffrey underground mine and export asbestos to developing countries for the next quarter century.

Before any support is given to the Jeffrey mine project, Marois says that a parliamentary committee must first hold hearings and allow Québec’s public health experts to put forward the information as to why they oppose the mining, use and export of asbestos.

More than a year after the Québec government said it was considering financing the opening of the Jeffrey Mine, the project still hangs in the balance. In the face of the overwhelming opposition by Québec’s health leaders and in the face of questioning by the political party that will likely be the next government of Québec, the consortium of investors who saw a profit to be made in exporting asbestos from the Jeffrey underground mine has not yet succeeded in raising the $25 million required on its part.

The recent segment of The Daily Show, watched by over two million viewers, exposing the insanity and inhumanity of Coulombe’s Jeffrey mine project did nothing to help the consortium’s financial hopes. Coulombe says he’s going to have trouble raising the needed $25 million in private-sector financing and is shortly heading out to India to meet with possible investors.

If the project to open the Jeffrey underground mine does not succeed, then Québec’s asbestos industry will finally be dead. The last and only operating asbestos mine is in Thetford Mines and is about to run out of asbestos in the coming year. It has already started to lay off employees.

Thanks in large part to the courage and integrity of Québec’s public health leaders, the plan to revive Québec’s asbestos industry has been stalled for more than a year. It is encouraging that, in spite of the political support of Canada’s Prime Minister and the political support of Québec’s Premier, the asbestos lobby has still not succeeded in reviving the asbestos trade.

The final outcome is still unknown however.

Kathleen Ruff is the senior human rights adviser of the Rideau Institute and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada markets asbestos to the developing world.

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