Canada, A Pariah State 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The outrageous behaviour of the Canadian delegation at the June 20-24, 2011 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention1 has attracted a groundswell of condemnation not only from delegates who witnessed Canada's undiplomatic and bloody-minded attack on the Convention but also from journalists and civil society groups in Canada and abroad. The controversy arose from the consideration of including chrysotile (white) asbestos on the prior informed consent list (Annex III) of the Convention. Efforts to achieve the listing of chrysotile had been defeated on two prior occasions by asbestos refusniks led by Canada.

Since the listing of chrysotile was defeated in 2008, however, Canadian civil society has been mobilized and the hypocrisy of the Canadian Government's pro-asbestos position has been exposed. Canadian citizens are asking why is asbestos being taken out of the Canadian Parliament and the Prime Minister's residence, if it is safe enough to be exported to developing countries? Canadian doctors, public health experts, human rights activists and trade unionists have declared their support for the campaign to shut down asbestos mining and officially ban asbestos; although a de facto ban already exists whereby virtually no asbestos is used in Canada, there is no legislation prohibiting its use.

In light of the outrage expressed at home, the 2011 Canadian delegation to the Rotterdam Convention decided to let others do its dirty work. During the course of the plenary session debate on June 21, objections to listing chrysotile were expressed by 5 out of the 143 Parties to the Convention (3%); Canada stayed silent. The announcement on June 22 that India, one of the objectors, had reversed its position paved the way for productive negotiations with other dissenters. When it became clear that the asbestos veto was about to melt away, Canada – “the very silent elephant in the room” – emerged from the shadows.

When the statement: “Canada is not in a position to support the listing of chrysotile in Annex 3. Canada is unable to join the consensus," was made by Canadian delegate David Sproule “all hell broke loose.” The intensive efforts made by the Chair, delegates and negotiators to find a way through this impasse were fruitless. Canada continued to stonewall attempts to ascertain its sticking point and repeatedly said “for over 30 years Canada has actively promoted the safe and controlled use of chrysotile.”

Asbestophiles, ever anxious to create doubt in order to forestall the introduction of trade restrictions, state publicly that scientific data is lacking which definitively proves that asbestos exposure can damage human health. And yet documents obtained by Canadian researcher Ken Rubin under the Freedom of Infromation Act show that Health Canada, which is the Canadian government's health department, has no doubt as to the harm caused by asbestos. A 2006 memo from civil servant Paul Glover at Health Canada (HC) noted:

We can not say that chrysotile is safe… HC's preferred position would be to list… [HC acknowledges that] the final decision [regarding Canada's position at the Rotterdam Convention] will not be made on the basis of health alone, and other key factors will need to be considered.”

Two years later, a HC draft memo was more explicit about the asbestos hazard:

“Health Canada's Expert Panel presented a report to Health Canada that confirmed chrysotile asbestos poses a risk to human health. Health Canada's current position is that asbestos is a carcinogen which can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma.”

Clearly the “other key factors” prevented the Canadian delegation from taking the advice of its own advisors for by the end of last week (June 24), Canada's position had not wavered; it refused to elucidate or explain its rock solid stance on not listing chrysotile. The frustration amongst delegates was palpable with the African Group of countries going as far as to “register its extreme disappointment in the manner in which Canada has acted…” Pointing out the financial and human costs incurred by the African delegations to attend the Geneva conference, the Group held Canada directly responsible for the failure to progress the chrysotile discussion.

In a virtually unprecedented move on June 24, a Declaration on Chrysotile was adopted by scores of delegations which expressed their disappointment at the chrysotile stalemate, highlighted the veto exerted by a “a small number of Parties for three consecutive Conferences of the Parties,” and resolved “to move forward to list chrysotile asbestos in Annex III...” Unfortunately, the next Convention meeting is at least 2 years away – 2 more years for global asbestos pushers to dump chrysotile on unsuspecting populations.

Before the dust from Geneva could even begin to settle, Prime Minister Harper reaffirmed his support for Canada's asbestos industry by joining in celebrations to mark Saint Jean Baptiste Day, Quebec's national holiday (June 24), at Thetford Mines, the heart of Canada's asbestos mining region. The timing of his trip to asbestos central was not lost on Canadian journalists, one of whom said it reinforced the Harper Government's “political marriage to asbestos.” Thetford Mines resident Real Couture, who called the Prime Minister's visit “historic,” was proud of the asbestos industry which has, he said, “brought a lot of wealth to the region.” As far as he and the retired asbestos miners gathered in the local restaurant were concerned the risks are exaggerated and asbestos “can be used safely if handled properly.” Where have we heard that before?

If Canada was occupying the role of head bully boy in Geneva, it had ample support from the asbestos industry's enforcers; lobbyists at COP5 included at least 15 representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Kazakhstan, India, Brazil, Mexico and Vietnam. The names of their paymasters constitutes a veritable who's who of global industry lobbying groups2:

Asbestos Lobbying Groups Present at COP5

International Chrysotile Alliance of Trade Union Organizations 
Ukrainian Chrysotile Association
Trade Union of Building and Building Material Workers
CanadaChrysotile Institute3
KazakhstanConfederation of Employers1
Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, India
Asbestos Information Centre
Sao Paulo Federation of Construction Workers
International Federation of Chrysotile Workers
Brazilian Chrysotile Institute
MexicoMexican Institute of Fiber Industries1
VietnamVietnam National Roof Sheet Association1

Global asbestos lobbyists are well known for their disreputable behaviour; the means they have used to control national asbestos agendas and prevent the introduction of legislation restricting asbestos use include political dirty tricks, industrial thuggery, corporate malfeasance, judicial manipulation, the misuse of science, the abuse of the legal process, physical and professional intimidation. What transpired last week in Geneva, transcended this – it was pure evil. Canada has finally achieved the status of a rogue state and should be dealt with in the same way as other administrations which have breached the acceptable level of behaviour expected of civilized societies. A headline in a Canadian newspaper on June 24 said it all “Building Canadian industry on the bodies of the poor.”3

June 27, 2011


1 The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral United Nations protocol under which vulnerable populations are provided a modicum of protection from dangerous substances. When a consensus has been achieved regarding the hazardous nature of a designated chemical or pesticide, that substance is included on the prior informed consent list of the Convention. This listing is not a ban; it is however a requirement that exporting nations provide documentation on the nature of the substance so that importers can make informed decision as to whether or not they are capable of using it safely.

2 COP5 participants list.




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