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Canada reverses course on asbestos

21 September, 2012In an important development, Canada's Industry Minister, Christian Paradis, announced 14 September that Canada would drop its efforts to prevent the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a dangerous substance under the Rotterdam Convention. This may be a turning point in international efforts to ban asbestos.

For many years, Canada provided the "scientific" and political leadership to other asbestos-exporting countries. Through the now-defunct Asbestos Institute (later the Chrysotile Institute) Canada was the leading producer of faux-scientific "studies" that claimed to prove the safety of asbestos. Canada frequently led efforts to prevent the banning, or even the effective regulation, of asbestos at the international level.
Canada's decision was driven by changing political realities. Quebec's incoming government has indicated that it would prefer to spend money on industrial diversification plans for the communities the formerly depended on asbestos, with a just transition program for the former miners, rather than attempt to prop up a dying industry with loans and subsidies. Given that reality, the federal government has little choice but to drop its support for the industry as well.
Non-Canadians may wonder why this deadly industry had so much clout; but within Canada asbestos is not just another industry, it is an icon. It is a part of the cultural history and mythology of the labour movement, the province of Quebec, and Canada. Few labour leaders have dared to criticize the industry in which the modern Quebec labour movement was born. The violent 1949 strike in Asbestos, Quebec, is still remembered as a symbol of the struggles of francophone workers against absentee anglophone bosses, and as such, one of critical early moments in Quebec's "Quiet Revolution". It was one of the first strikes in Canada in which health and safety concerns played a key role. During that strike, many future Canadian leaders forged their social ideas and attitudes - including a young reporter covering the strike named Pierre Elliott Trudeau, later one of Canada's most famous Prime Ministers.
But all things change with time. Canada's task is to honour the history of those heroic asbestos miners without defending the deadly asbestos industry. Most Canadians, including most Quebecois, understand that asbestos kills. Last week, politicians finally did what their voters already knew must be done.