Globe and Mail column, June 25, 2011

With asbestos, we are the Ugly Canadians

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. T

he 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.

It’s true that some countries haven’t banned the substance, claiming they monitor how and where it’s used. If anyone believes the myth that developing countries with poor bureaucracies and widespread corruption oversee the substance’s use, then that person is engaging in willful self-deception.

Canada is a curious place when it comes to lecturing others about their bad practices while protecting our own. On climate change, Canada has the worst record for greenhouse-gas emissions in the developed world but does little at international conferences to deal with the problem. That this attitude regularly earns us the world’s scorn and “fossil of the year” awards from environmental groups apparently matters little.

Canada will lecture countries that harvest whales, while we harvest baby seals. We would get angry at any country that tried to export dangerous substances to us, but, if there are Canadian jobs at stake, we have no scruples about exporting a dangerous substance such as chrysotile asbestos to them.