Ignatieff and Asbestos

Liberals need to make anti-asbestos stand official policy
June 1, 2009

With the federal Liberals now semi- officially supporting the banning of Canadian asbestos exports, a political debate that had been suppressed for over 20 years is truly beginning. So long as the Bloc, the Conservatives and the Liberals supported this lethal industry, it was if there was no issue. The Liberals have broken the silence. Good on them and on Michael Ignatieff.

It has been a remarkable month for the activists and medical experts fighting asbestos. Just over three weeks ago, Ignatieff declared, in an off-the-cuff response to a question at a Victoria public meeting, that asbestos exports should be halted. Then he learned the hard way about the powerful Quebec asbestos lobby. He reversed himself, denied his declaration, and hoped it would go away.

It didn’t. His statement galvanized the asbestos opposition, and the fight was on. Coincidentally two key reports came out – one by Health Canada (suppressed for eight months until a CanWest FOI ferreted it out) and an even more prestigious study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) -- the most respected cancer organization in the world. Both confirmed chrysotile asbestos (the only kind still mined) as a Class 1 carcinogen. As a human rights advocate facing irrefutable science, Ignatieff had nowhere to hide.

But opponents of asbestos aren’t counting their chickens just yet. Just two days before Ignatieff told Le Devoir that he supported banning asbestos, all three Liberal members of the Commons Natural Resources Committee voted against an NDP motion to deny $250,000 in funding to the asbestos lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute. Which means that at this point all we have is a statement by Ignatieff: "First, we must clearly commit to not exporting products that cause health problems anywhere in the world. That is where I am at."

But is that where the Liberal Party “is at”? Certainly some Liberal MPs – including two B.C. medical doctors, Hedy Fry and Keith Martin, are publicly calling for a ban, and Liberal MP Joyce Murray, chair of the Liberal members of the Commons Health Committee, says: “I do see [Ignatieff’s statement] as a clear commitment.” But, despite all the talk and position-taking, it is still not clear that the Liberal Party has taken a formal position on asbestos by making an export ban part of official party policy.

Whatever is decided, the anti-asbestos movement will not go away, and in fact is more determined than ever. As more Canadians find out about what the federal government has been doing, and with chrysotile asbestos confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogen, the writing is on the wall for this lethal industry. For the asbestos lobbyists – almost silent during the recent month of stories and editorials across the country -- the jig is up.

The asbestos issue has been allowed to fester for so long that cleaning up its effects on the country will take some serious, multi-faceted efforts. The perverse promotion of this deadly substance abroad, when it is effectively banned at home, has infected a myriad of policies -- from how Workers’ Compensation treats affected workers, to our fighting a WTO case against France for banning it and intervening in numerous international agencies trying to control asbestos.

The Liberals could show they are serious by simply adopting the Canadian Cancer Society’s five-point plan, presented recently to both the Harper government and the Natural Resources Committee of the House of Commons:

1. “a timetable for phasing out the use and export of asbestos;

2. a national surveillance system to track health outcomes of people who have been exposed to asbestos;

3. the creation of a public registry of buildings that contain asbestos;

4. the provision of transition support for affected communities; and

5. the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention’s Prior Informed Consent list.”

In addition, the Liberal Party should announce that it will end government funding for the Chrysotile Institute – an organization ridiculed around the world for its pseudo-science and shameless promotion of this killer substance.

Lastly, the Liberals should commit to addressing Canada’s international pariah status on the asbestos issue – a status achieved by aggressive intervention in every forum involving asbestos to block progress on its control. The Liberals need to make this their issue and pledge to make Canada a world leader in banning asbestos and dealing with its global health effects.

(Murray Dobbin is the author of several best-selling books, a freelance writer, and a member of the CCPA’s Board of Directors.)