Canadian Political Leaders Face Increased Heat on Asbestos Issue  

by Kathleen Ruff1



For the past quarter of a century, the Canadian government, as well as the Quebec provincial government, has been funding the Asbestos Institute (recently re-baptized the Chrysotile Institute). As well as giving financial support, the Canadian and Quebec governments each appoint a member of the Institute's board of directors.

In past years, when the funding for the Chrysotile Institute came up for review before a parliamentary committee as part of the budget for the Department of Natural Resources, members of Parliament (MPs) on the committee from the two main political parties (the Conservative and the Liberal parties), as well, of course, as the MPs from the Bloc Québécois party, tried to outdo one another in expressing their vociferous, exuberant allegiance to the Chrysotile Institute and to the asbestos industry.

The MPs accused Pat Martin, a New Democratic Party MP on the committee who had previously worked in an asbestos mine, of being a demagogue for saying that asbestos should be banned and funding for the Chrysotile Institute should be stopped.

“Should we ban Bavarian sausage?” crowed one MP, claiming that it might also be dangerous. “Should we ban Scotch whisky?” asked another MP, trotting out the old, discredited propaganda of the asbestos lobby that so-called “controlled use” of chrysotile asbestos is not a threat to health.

Up until early 2008, Pat Martin was, in fact. the only MP in the Canadian House of Commons to support banning of asbestos. Not a single political party was willing to challenge the asbestos industry. The Chrysotile Institute was riding high.

The Industry's Stranglehold Starts to be Challenged

The stranglehold that the Quebec asbestos lobby has held for decades on Canadian politicians and Quebec public opinion is finally starting to be challenged. Over the past year, we have witnessed several significant breakthroughs:

  • In April 2008, for the first time, one of the four political parties in the House of Commons, the New Democratic Party, called for asbestos to be banned.
  • In May 2008, the Canadian Labour Congress, which represents unions across Canada, adopted a policy supporting a ban of asbestos.
  • In October 2008, more than two dozen health experts from Quebec, as well as Quebec's leading human rights organization, La Ligue des Droits et Libertés, signed a World Call of Conscience to the Prime Minister of Canada, calling on him to support the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical at the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention.
    This was the first time that any leading figures in Quebec had publicly challenged the asbestos industry, which was lobbying hard to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being listed as a hazardous chemical.
  • In January 2009, a number of health academics from Quebec joined with colleagues from across Canada to sign a letter to Prime Minister Harper and the other political leaders to stop funding the Chrysotile Institute. The funding was due to come, once again, before a parliamentary committee and, once again, Pat Martin planned to present a motion to cut the funding.
    In their letter, the health experts said:

“We are profoundly disturbed that your government plans to continue to fund the Chrysotile Institute in the new federal budget. It is our view as Canadian experts in epidemiology and occupational medicine and as public health advocates that the Chrysotile Institute is endangering public health by disseminating misleading and untruthful information about chrysotile asbestos, especially in the world's emerging economies.”

“The Chrysotile Institute,” the health advocates noted, “censors reports from respected scientific bodies around the world, including Canada and Quebec itself, which state that chrysotile asbestos is a deadly carcinogen and that there is no safe use possible in the construction environment in developing countries. The Institute's misleading propaganda is financed, in large part, by the Canadian federal government. It is a slur on the reputation of the scientific community and people of Canada for the government to be funding such censorship and perversion of scientific information. But, this is a far more serious matter than a slur on our country's scientific integrity. People's lives continue to be put at risk if they put their trust in the Chrysotile Institute's information.”

The Raging Grannies versus the Leader of the Liberal Party

Repeated phone calls were made, asking the political leaders for their response to the letter – in vain. The political leaders had no wish to be publicly accountable for their indefensible support for the discredited, politicized science and censorship of the Chrysotile Institute.

The new leader of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, was however holding public meetings across Canada to make himself better known to the Canadian public and to answer questions about his party's policies so as to increase its chances of winning the next election. Mr Ignatieff has a prestigious academic background in human rights.

The Raging Grannies are a group of political activists who use song and costume to raise social issues. They decided to take advantage of this public opportunity to try to get Mr Ignatieff to say where he stood on the asbestos issue. Outside his town-hall meeting in Victoria on March 28, 2009 they sang a specially created song for Mr Ignatieff on Canada's sordid asbestos trade, while holding up a big banner saying “Asbestos Kills. Stop All Exportation Now.”

Inside the packed meeting, one of them went to the mike during the question and answer session and challenged him on his position regarding asbestos: "You spoke eloquently a few minutes ago, Mr. Ignatieff, of our responsibilities as citizens of the world. My question is about asbestos. Although millions of taxpayers' dollars are being spent removing asbestos from the parliament buildings, millions more have been spent over 25 years funding the Chrysotile Institute of Canada to export chrysotile asbestos to developing countries. Do you, Sir, support an end to Canada's exporting asbestos, as is demanded by the World Health Organization and the Canadian Cancer Society, and many other organizations?"

In front of hundreds of people, Ignatieff replied: "I may be stepping off a cliff with this one but if asbestos is so bad that we are removing it from parliament, it must be bad for other countries. This has to end. Thank you for your question."

This was a stunning breakthrough, as the Liberal Party has for decades fought shamelessly to protect the interests of the asbestos industry, even filing a case with the World Trade Organization in an endeavour to remove the right of countries to ban chrysotile asbestos.

The asbestos lobby was not pleased. “The Liberal Party has always supported the industry,” Clément Godbout, president of the Chrysotile Institute, told the Quebec media. When Mr Ignatieff returned to Ottawa, he was subjected to such heavy pressure from the asbestos lobby that within a couple of days he denied having said what he had said in Victoria and claimed to have said something completely different.

"What I said was that we have an obligation in international agreements to the countries that we export to, to make them aware of the risks. That is all I said," Ignatieff told reporters in Ottawa.

What he had said was on tape, however, and some journalists wrote articles noting that he had reneged on his previous clear position. This brought additional attention to the asbestos issue and, in particular, the power the Quebec asbestos lobby wields over Canadian political parties.

Health academics from Quebec and across Canada wrote to Ignatieff, encouraging him to stay true to his word. “Leadership means making difficult decisions,” they wrote. “We understand that you are under great pressure to maintain the disreputable past policy of the Liberal Party to support asbestos export. Over 95% of Canada's asbestos is exported since we do not wish to use it in Canada. We trust that you will have the courage and integrity to move your Party forward to an honourable policy that puts public health ahead of industry lobbyists. Last month's clear confirmation by the IARC of the threat to health posed by chrysotile asbestos provides you with an excellent opportunity to do this. We urge you to take that opportunity and do the right thing.”

Conservative, Liberal and Bloc Québecois MPs Renew Funding for the Chrysotile Institute

The drama continued when renewed funding for the Chrysotile Institute came before a parliamentary committee on April 28. Pat Martin, the lone NDP MP on the committee, once again, presented a motion to cut these funds.

In spite of each member of the committee having received a letter from the Canadian Cancer Society, appealing to them to cut the funding for the Chrysotile Institute and instead use the funds to implement a comprehensive strategy to end asbestos use and export, not a single MP from the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc parties, supported Pat Martin's motion.

Gone, however, were the raucous, jubilant comments of previous years in support of the asbestos industry. Instead, in shamefaced total silence, the MPs voted to give the funds to the Chrysotile Institute.

Outcry from Canadian Media

Across the country, newspapers published editorials and articles criticizing this funding. The Edmonton Journal, for example, wrote:

“The government deserves failing marks for its shameful, dogged support for Quebec's asbestos industry. It's not just that the Tories – and let it be recalled, the Liberals before them – have refused to shut down a truly toxic export and international embarrassment. In fact, they actually continue funnelling $250,000 in research funding to the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute that tries to make its dubious case reminiscent of the discredited tobacco institutes of yesteryear."

An opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen by health advocates Kathleen Ruff and Prof. Colin Soskolne, lambasted Liberal and Conservative governments for having given the Chrysotile Institute more than $19 million over the years as part of what the Canadian Medical Association Journal has called "shameful, political manipulation of science."

“Taxpayers might be surprised to know,” wrote Ruff and Soskolne, that “they are funding a political campaign to overthrow the WHO's policy banning asbestos. In its February 2008 newsletter, the (Chrysotile) Institute promoted a plan to use 'all means available ... including repeated and consistent pressure from governments to the Director General (Dr. Margaret Chan) of the WHO,' in order to overturn the WHO's policy to ban chrysotile asbestos.”

“Do we want our tax dollars used to sabotage the World Health Organization?” asked Ruff and Soskolne.

Special Appeal to MPs who are Medical Doctors

On April 7, health academics had sent a special letter of appeal to three Liberal MPs who are also medical doctors, saying: “We are sure that you agree with the World Health Organisation and the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as the 168 million members of the International Trade Union Confederation around the world, who have urgently called for trade in this hazardous product to end.”

On April 28, two of the three medical doctors responded by publicly splitting from their party's asbestos policy. They explicitly called for asbestos to be banned.

The following day, Mr Ignatieff returned to Victoria for an event to promote his recently published autobiography. The Raging Grannies were waiting to greet him, holding a huge placard of a check made out for $20 million taxpayers' dollars to the Asbestos Lobby and signed by Mr Ignatieff and Prime Minister Harper.

Liberal Leader Reiterates Call for Asbestos Export to End

Just two days later, the Liberal Party held a huge national convention in Vancouver to confirm Mr Ignatieff as their leader. At the end of the convention, Mr Ignatieff was questioned about his position on asbestos by Hélène Buzzetti, a journalist from the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir. In spite of the strongest efforts of the asbestos lobby, Ignatieff apparently realized that he could no longer publicly defend the use of asbestos and that it was by now impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

On May 4 Buzzetti wrote (English translation):

“Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, attacked a controversial subject yesterday in reiterating that Canada should cease exporting chrysotile asbestos because this product represents a risk for public health. He proposes to put in place a transition strategy for affected Quebec workers.

Last March, when he was in BC, Mr Ignatieff let it be understood that if asbestos is so bad that it is being withdrawn from the walls of Parliament, it was certainly not good to export it… Questioned afterwards, Mr Ignatieff gave the impression of retracting. Yesterday, he confirmed his initial thoughts.

The Liberal leader said he was aware that this is a very delicate subject in Quebec, but 'it is science that must dictate our conduct', he affirmed. 'First, we must clearly commit to not exporting products that cause health problems anywhere in the world. Next, we must work with the unions, the industries, the producers to find a way to move on to something else, just as we did with other substances, such as tobacco. When we discovered that this product harmed public health, we elaborated a transition to find solutions so that the affected communities would not be devastated. That is where I am at.'”

Environmental groups and unions, in particular the Building & Construction Trade Councils, congratulated Ignatieff for finally showing leadership to break with the Liberal Party's historic support of the asbestos industry and for putting public health and human rights first.

The challenge now is to get Mr Ignatieff's position adopted as the policy of the Liberal party. One thing that is certain is that it will no longer be possible to hide the asbestos issue from public attention. This, in itself, is a defeat for the asbestos lobby. Their misinformation and censorship do not stand up to the test of daylight. For this reason, the government and the Chrysotile Institute typically refuse media requests for interviews.

All eyes are on the Liberal party to see what policy they will adopt. At present, they are split. There is certainly an internal struggle taking place to try to end the Liberal's longstanding, traditional support for the asbestos industry, a policy that many believed it was impossible to change.

After a tumultuous series of events over the past couple of months, it looks very hopeful that, for the first time, a major Canadian political party will support the banning of asbestos.

It will then be possible to focus full attention on Canada's minority Conservative government.

May 12, 2009


1 Kathleen Ruff is senior advisor on human rights to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs



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