The Rise and Fall of the Chrysotile Institute
The Chrysotile Institute (CI), formerly known as the Asbestos Institute, surrendered its charter to the Ministry of Industry on April 5, 2012.1 This took place 5 days after its suite of offices at 1200 McGill College in downtown Montreal had been vacated. According to the Assistant Building Manager, the CI had occupied suite 1640 for at least 15 years. When the lease ran out, the office was shut and three people were put out of work. They left no forwarding address or phone number; calls made to the phone number on their website and emails sent to the CI website go unanswered. The CI's President Clement Godbout has stated that the Institute could re-open if Canadian asbestos mines, none of which is currently operational, resume production.2 Though this seems highly unlikely it is not impossible given the strong political and public support for asbestos mining expressed by the governments in Ottawa and Quebec.
For nearly 30 years, the Chrysotile Institute and its predecessor coordinated global efforts to promote and sell chrysotile asbestos, a substance known to cause cancer and other fatal diseases. The propaganda initiatives mounted by the CI, which was endowed with millions of taxpayers' dollars, were pivotal in creating commercial markets for asbestos throughout the developing world. Long after industrialized countries had banned asbestos, consumption was increased in many Asian countries, largely as a result of the CI's efforts. Institute personnel curried favour with politicians and decision makers through their dispensation of huge sums of money. CI largesse enabled twelve national asbestos associations to be set up to broadcast the pro-asbestos message more effectively. It is not coincidental that asbestos use continues in India, Thailand, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, countries where these organizations exist. The CI's mothballed website boasts that the Institute has participated in activities intended to promote the controlled use of chrysotile (asbestos) in more than 60 countries on five continents.3
Where critics dared to attack the industry line, CI personnel used a variety of methods to silence them. In April, 2001, Denis Hamel, the Director of the Asbestos Institute, complained to the Brazilian Minister of Labor Francisco Dornelles about Senior Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi:
who is Coordinator of the Citizens' Virtual Network for an Asbestos Ban in Latin America, [and is] using her position in your ministry to promote her views, which are contrary to the stated policy of your country We wonder if this person is officially mandated by your Ministry as a spokesperson on asbestos related matters, taking a position contrary to the official Brazilian policy we respectfully request that your ministry take the necessary measures so that Mrs. Giannasi no longer abuses her professional responsibilities to promote her personal activities. 4
There is little doubt about Hamel's motivation in writing this letter. Fortunately for Brazil's workers, the effort to get this much respected Labor Inspector dismissed did not succeed.
The AI/CI was, it seemed, very fond of letter writing. Also in 2001, AI Director Clement Godbout, reacting to proposals by the Government of Chile to ban asbestos, sent a letter to Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's International Trade Minister, in which he launched a general attack against the Chilean government and a personal attack on Chilean Health Minister Michelle Bachelet. The letter accused Chile of having a 'cavalier' attitude toward Canadian officials and urged Pettigrew not to tolerate it. It is highly ironic to note that while Michelle Bachelet was a Minister at the time the letter was written, she later became President (See: Canada How Could You?).
The AI's failures to oust Giannasi and/or reverse the asbestos ban in Chile did not deter its successor organization from attempting to interfere with asbestos debates at home and abroad. In 2005, the CI complained to the Canadian television ombudsman about a broadcast report on asbestos. The complaint was rejected, with the ombudsman finding that the facts mentioned in the report were not disputed. In 2007, the CI, through its European lawyer Pascal Devaud, wrote to the French Asbestos Victims Group (ANDEVA), threatening legal action over statements on the ANDEVA website which constituted, so the CI alleged: public criminal libel of a private individual. ANDEVA refused to comply with the CI's demands, categorizing this legal action as an attempt at intimidation. As a result ANDEVA's President Francois Desriaux and Marc Hindry, the author of the offending article, faced charges of defamation in a criminal court in Paris. CI President Clement Godbout told a Canadian journalist that he was not trying to intimidate the ban asbestos activists: They have a right to disagree with our positions. But they do not have the right to use defamatory words. In March 2009, the case finally collapsed when the President of the 17th Criminal Court in Paris received a letter from the Institute's lawyer notifying the authorities of his client's withdrawal from the case. Commenting on the asbestos lobbyists' U-turn, Laurent Vogel from the European Trade Union Institute said: The Chrysotile Institute finally realised that the trial could prove that it (the CI) is just a tool of disinformation funded by the Canadian government which exists solely for one purpose: to promote the asbestos trade.
In political and public forums, CI spokesmen aided and abetted by the Canadian authorities have shouted their support for the controlled use of asbestos. They have flooded international agencies such as the ILO and WHO with correspondence and supposed evidence substantiating claims that asbestos is safe. The fact that they were fighting a losing battle did not deter them; in the face of the overwhelming support for an asbestos ban, they shouted even louder. CI representatives went mob-handed to meetings of the Rotterdam Convention, IARC and other international conventions to forestall developments that could impact on asbestos markets. Canadian MP Pat Martin, a long-time critic of the asbestos industry, believes that the CI's closure marks the death knell of asbestos mining in Canada.5 Human rights activist and ban asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff says: Around the world there will be a cheer from all those working to protect people from asbestos harm, when the Chrysotile Institute finally closes its doors. The doors at suite 1640 are now closed. Whether other doors open up for the CI is anybody's guess. I don't believe they will but in the meantime there is no doubt that Russian, Brazilian and other asbestos lobbyists are waiting to pick up where the Canadians left off.
May 1, 2012
2 L'instut du chrysotile ferme ses portes. April 30, 2012.
4 Hamel D. Letter to Francisco Dornelles, April 23, 2001.
5 Hiltz R. Pro-asbestos advocacy group shuts its doors. April 29, 2012.