Kathleen Ruff, RightOnCanada.ca
The decision by the Canadian government’s Public Services & Procurement department to ban the use of asbestos in building projects as of April 1, 2016 is a significant milestone in ending Canada’s century long policy of supporting the mining, sale and use of asbestos. It is the first step towards a full ban on asbestos. Less than a decade ago, all the political parties in Canada’s House of Commons supported the asbestos industry.
How did this political reversal come about?
The battle to defeat the asbestos industry in Canada had to be won in Quebec, which was the centre of the asbestos industry’s power.
As recently as 2012, Canada’s last two asbestos mines planned to continue operating at the towns of Asbestos and Thetford Mines in Quebec and the new Jeffrey underground asbestos mine was about to be opened. Export of asbestos from Quebec was to be vastly increased. The asbestos lobby organisation (Chrysotile Institute) was located in Quebec, receiving federal and Quebec government funding until 2013. All the political parties in Quebec as well as powerful municipal leaders, supported the asbestos industry, as did business and union organisations.
To challenge the asbestos industry was taboo.
Only if the battle against the asbestos industry could be won in Quebec would there be any possibility that the Canadian government could contemplate banning asbestos
Mining comes under provincial jurisdiction in Canada. But more profoundly than that, if this overwhelming political and social support in Quebec for the asbestos industry had continued and the Quebec government was today supporting and financing the Quebec asbestos industry, there would be virtually no possibility that the Canadian government would intervene, over-rule the Quebec government and ban Quebec from mining and exporting asbestos or would take action to ban asbestos in Canada.
Canada consists of two solitudes – Quebec and the Rest of Canada. What happens in Quebec is often omitted from the record, even when the issue is a Quebec issue and people in Quebec played the critical role.
The story of how people in Quebec defeated the asbestos industry is a story that has not been told outside Quebec. It is to be hoped that one day this incredible, inspiring story will be fully and properly published. The following identifies some of the key events that turned around the political and public climate in Quebec and led to the victory of public health advocates over the vested interests of the asbestos industry.
In 2012 the Quebec government financed expansion of the Quebec asbestos industry
All the political parties in Quebec historically strongly supported the Quebec asbestos industry. In June 2012 the Quebec government gave asbestos industrialists a $58 million loan to complete the Jeffrey underground mine (which had already been 90% constructed many years earlier) to enable them to export 225,000 tons of tons of asbestos a year – all to be sent to Asia – for decades to come. This would have made Quebec the 2nd biggest asbestos exporter in the world and added a mask of legitimacy to the global asbestos trade.
The asbestos industry was ecstatic at this great victory it had achieved, as shown in the photo below.François Vaudreuil, President of the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques trade union, Hugues Grimard, Mayor of the town of Asbestos, Yvon Vallières, Member of the Quebec National Assembly, and Bernard Coulombe, President of Jeffrey Mine Inc., celebrate the $58 million loan that the Quebec government has given to open the Jeffrey underground asbestos mine. June 29, 2012
In early summer 2012 work had already begun on the new Jeffrey mine. But a few months later, in September 2012, the newly elected Parti Québécois government of Quebec – historically one of the asbestos industry’s strongest supporters – retracted the loan and closed the mine.
This extraordinary act killed the asbestos industry in Canada.
How did it come about that Quebec, the strongest supporter of the asbestos industry, killed the asbestos industry?
Here are some of the key people and ten of the key actions that brought about the defeat of the asbestos industry in Quebec. All faced pressure, threats, insults and intimidation, but they refused to stay silent and over a period of several years they repeatedly and courageously took concrete actions to publicly challenge and defeat the political and social power that the asbestos industry had always enjoyed in Quebec.
Article after article and then editorial after editorial was published in the French Quebec and English Quebec media reporting these actions and, as a result, the deception and misinformation of the asbestos industry was exposed and the climate of public opinion in Quebec changed to support public health instead of the asbestos industry.
Despite all its money, public relations consultants, lawyers and lobbying efforts, the asbestos industry was defeated by a campaign that had no money and no public relations consultants but was based on scientific evidence and international solidarity. The campaign succeeded in getting the Quebec government to reverse its historic pro-asbestos position and close down the century-old asbestos industry in Quebec.
1) Initiative to create an asbestos victims’ organisation in Quebec
Micheline Marier created an organisation to assist asbestos victims in Quebec. On behalf of the organisation, she and William Charney investigated asbestos contamination in houses in the town of Thetford Mines. In 2007, they published an article in the International Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health, Exploratory Sampling of Asbestos in Residences Near Thetford Mines: The Public Health Threat.
In 2008, in the face of hostility and threatening statements by political, business and union leaders and the asbestos lobby in Thetford Mines, the organisation ceased further public activities.
2) Two Quebec health professionals challenge government financing of the asbestos lobby
In January 2009, two health professionals – Dr. Fernand Turcotte and Dr. Pierre Auger – together with five health advocates in English Canada, publicly asked the Prime Minister of Canada to retract the $750,000 funding it had announced it would give to the asbestos lobby organisation in Quebec (the Chrysotile Institute). They stated: “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.” They urged that “instead funds be provided for sustainable economic development and transition assistance, such as funds for early retirement and retraining for workers in the dying asbestos mining industry.”
3) Fifteen Quebec health professionals launch a manifesto to end the asbestos industry
On September 16, 2009, La Presse, the biggest circulation newspaper in Quebec, published a history-changing Statement, signed by 15 Quebec health professionals entitled Cessez les mensonges (Stop the lies). The Statement exposed the deception of the asbestos industry’s claims that Quebec’s asbestos was being “safely” used under strict controls overseas and pointed to a recent CBC documentary, Canada’s Ugly Secret that had filmed the appalling conditions of exposure for workers in India handling asbestos exported from Quebec. “The workers were covered in asbestos dust and were breathing in high levels of it, which will destroy their lives and the lives of their families,” said the Statement. “This infamy is no longer defensible.” It is time to align ourselves with the truth and for the Quebec government to stop mining and exporting asbestos, said the health professionals. “Let us invest these millions in funds that will permit the older workers to take an honourable retirement and the younger workers to recycle themselves into better paying jobs and support an economic diversification which the area has already initiated with a great deal of ingenuity and success.” (English translations)
The signatories, noted the newspaper, “are doctors, toxicologists, occupational hygienists and epidemiologists in the public health network of Quebec. Several are professors at the universities of Montreal, Laval and Sherbrooke.”
The signers were: Pierre Gosselin, Fernand Turcotte, Pierre L. Auger, Benoît Gingras, Évelyne Cambron Goulet, Ray Bustinza, Denis Bégin, Benoît Gingras, Norman King, Louis Drouin, Pierre Deshaies, Yv Bonnier-Viger, André Dufresne, Michel Gérin et Lyn Pinsonneault.43) Numerous Quebec medical and health organisations come out in support
In the following years, numerous other Quebec medical and health organisations, including the Quebec Medical Association, followed the lead of this courageous group and called for an end to asbestos mining and export.
4) For first time, a Quebec political leader opposes the asbestos industry
On February 2, 2010 the political control of the asbestos industry over every political party in Quebec was broken when the leader of Québec Solidaire, Amir Khadir, took a stand stating that the export of asbestos by Quebec was indefensible. The premier of the province, Jean Charest, was at the time on a trade mission in India. Asbestos victims and health activists in India asked to meet with Charest. He refused but the Quebec journalists accompanying Charest did meet with them and published powerful articles and images in the Quebec media of workers affected by asbestos-related disease struggling to breathe. In response, Amir Khadir spoke up in solidarity with the workers, activists and asbestos victims in India and made history by being the first political leader in Quebec to take a stand against the Quebec asbestos industry.
5) Quebec health experts challenge Quebec’s Director of Occupational Safety for violating his Code of professional ethics
On February 11, 2010, five Quebec health professionals and a health advocate sent an Open Letter to Normand Paulin, the Director of Occupational Safety of the Occupational Health & Safety Commission of Quebec, on the Export of Asbestos from Canada. Paulin was accompanying Premier Jean Charest on his trade promotion tour to India. Activists, trade unionists and asbestos victims in India held a meeting with Paulin asking him not to be complicit with the Quebec government’s plan to increase export of asbestos to India. Paulin defended the plan, claiming that chrysotile asbestos can be safely used.
In their letter to Paulin, the health experts stated : “it is a violation of your Code of Ethics, in our opinion, to participate in a project claiming that ‘safe use’ of asbestos is possible, when Quebec’s specialized medical experts, as well as national and international experts and the World Health Organization, have all warned that ‘safe use’ of any form of asbestos is not possible and will cause loss of life.”
The Open Letter was published in French and in English in the International Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health.
6) Sixteen Quebec medical doctors launch direct challenge of Quebec’s Minister of Health
In August 2010, sixteen Quebec medical doctors sent a letter to Quebec’s Minister of Health, Dr. Yves Bolduc, stating that, as a medical doctor, he had a professional obligation to oppose government financing of the Jeffrey asbestos mine. The letter, which received major media coverage, stated:
“The repeated referral to the ‘safe use of asbestos’ is part of a deliberate effort to drug public opinion in order to prevent our fellow citizens from perceiving the scandalous character of our country’s policy towards the asbestos problem, a policy which has caused us to be regarded as hypocrites and dishonest in the eyes of the rest of the planet. As medical doctors, our professional obligation, which you share with us, requires that we denounce any scientific fraud likely to threaten the health of the population. The safe use of asbestos is a fraudulent representation in terms of the protection of public health and we submit to you that you have the duty to make your cabinet colleagues understand this.” (Translation)
The signers of the letter were Dr. Fernand Turcotte, Dr. Yv Bonnier Viger, Dr. Gilles Paradis, Dr. Pierre Gosselin, Dr. John R. Keyserlingk, Dr. Jacques Levasseur, Dr. Pierre Biron, Dr, Elizabeth Robinson, Dr. Geneviève Tremblay, Dr. Benoît Gingras, Dr. Pierre L. Auger, Dr. Benoît Lévesque, Dre. Natahaelle Thériault, Dr. Perre Deshaies, Dr. Louis Drouin, Dr. Lynda Pinsonneault.
7) Asia-Québec Solidarity Delegation Visits Québec
In December 2010, activists, asbestos victims and a union representative from India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan (all countries to which Quebec was shipping asbestos or had shipped asbestos) came to Quebec to appeal for solidarity and to ask the people of Quebec and Quebec’s political and union leadership to not finance the re-launch of the Jeffrey mine. The Quebec health professionals, who were leading the asbestos battle in Quebec, stood shoulder to shoulder with them, providing support and assistance. In the National Assembly, Amir Khadir, leader of Québec Solidaire, honoured the Solidarity delegation, who were present in the visitors’ gallery, and introduced a Bill to ban asbestos.
The visible and human solidarity between the activists from Asia and Quebec health experts and a Quebec political leader had a powerful impact.
If the activists from Asia had been on their own, it would have seemed like an attack on Quebec by outsiders and would risk producing public defensiveness and hostility against the delegation, which the asbestos lobby was deliberately striving to stir up.
Because of the involvement and support of Quebec health professionals and the leader of Québec Solidaire, who is highly respected, the Asia-Quebec Solidarity delegation provided instead an inspiring example of solidarity and shared commitment to human rights for which Quebecers could feel proud.
8) The Quebec government’s Directors of Public Health challenge their government on asbestos
In January 2011 all of the Quebec government’s Directors of Public Health for the 18 regions of Quebec (including the asbestos mining region) sent a letter to Quebec’s Minister of Economic Development, who was in charge of funding the Jeffrrey mine, pointing out the scientific evidence of harm to health caused by chrysotile asbestos, noting the failure of Quebec itself to achieve “safe use” of chrysotile asbestos, and stating that, in their opinion, the expansion of mining and use of chrysotile asbestos in Quebec would result in an increase in asbestos-related diseases amongst workers and the general population, creating social and financial costs which the government must take into account in its analysis of the project to re-launch the Jeffrey asbestos mine.
In an extraordinary act of integrity and courage, which may never have occurred anywhere else in the world, the Directors of Public Health posted their letter and a media release on the Government of Quebec’s official website under the title “The Regional Directors of Public Health state that the safe use of chrysotile asbestos is a failure.” (Translation)
9) The Confederation of National Trade Unions takes stand opposing government financing of the Jeffrey mine
In March 2011, Claudette Carbonneau, President of the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions) recommended that the CSN end its decades long support of the asbestos industry. “This would honour those who fought and died for health and safety, and point out that the life of an Indian worker, just like that of a Quebecer, cannot be blindly sacrificed in the name of a job,” said Carbonneau. With regard to government financing of the Jeffrey mine, the CSN stated that Quebec workers deserve that their government invest in secure jobs; they deserve better than a poisoned gift.” (Translations)
Breaking rank with other Quebec unions and showing inspiring solidarity and courage, delegates at the March 2011 CSN convention supported the recommendation. The CSN was subsequently subjected to a barrage of vicious public attacks by other union leaders and the asbestos lobby.
10) Daniel Breton reverses pro-asbestos policy of the Parti Québécois
Daniel Breton is a long-time and respected environmental activist in Quebec. He ran as a star candidate for the Parti Québécois in the September 4, 2012 Quebec election. Citing the scientific evidence and the recommendations of Quebec’s own health professionals, Breton worked to get the Parti Québécois to end its support for asbestos. On August 28, 2012, the World Cancer Congress was taking place in Montreal and a session was scheduled on asbestos. Having been requested to provide a statement on the position of the Parti Québécois on asbestos to be read out to the delegates from around the world, Breton released a statement on August 28 saying that if the Parti Québécois won the September 4 election, it would cancel the $58 million loan that the Charest government had already given to re-open the Jeffrey mine. “The Parti Québécois pledges to invest these funds in economic diversification for the region and to ensure quality jobs in future-oriented, innovative sectors that will bring sustainable prosperity,” stated Breton. (Translation)
This statement was a bombshell in Quebec, particularly for the asbestos industry.
The Parti Québécois won the September 4 election; Breton was appointed Minister of the Environment; the new Quebec government cancelled the $58 million loan; and with the cancellation, asbestos mining in Canada ended.
The Canadian government attacked the Quebec government for closing down the asbestos industry.
Concluding comments: The battle was not just about asbestos
The battle to defeat the asbestos industry in Quebec was not just about asbestos. It was a battle to defeat corrupt science, to defeat the political, economic and social power of vested interests, and to demand that people’s right to health be put ahead of industry profits. These are the same issues that are at the heart of all battles for social and environmental justice, whether it is the fossil fuel industry, the chemical industry, agri-business, the sweatshop industry, Big Pharma, the mining industry, the fast food industry.
Key to the victory of defeating the asbestos industry was the solidarity shown between health professionals, human rights activists and asbestos victims. Key to the victory was the leadership and integrity demonstrated by a courageous group of Quebec figures. Key to the victory was the international solidarity shown between people in Quebec and asbestos activists and victims in Asia.
It is an inspiring story that deserves to be known nationally and globally.