Kathleen Ruff, RightOnCanada.ca
Concordia University has removed from the university’s website a report entitled “Lessons from the Quebec Asbestos Industry: Can there be meaningful dialogue and consensus when facts come up against feelings?” A number of health scientists and a human rights advocate made a complaint to the president of Concordia, Alan Shepard, that the report was replete with inaccuracy and bias, was dangerously irresponsible and did not meet even minimal academic and ethical standards. Concordia, located in Montreal, is one of the largest universities in Canada.
In his response, the president stated: “The University cares deeply about the integrity of its research and teaching, and we take seriously all such challenges to that integrity.” The report has been removed while an investigation is carried out.
The report was commissioned, funded, published and promoted by the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research, which is part of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. The Centre states that its mission is “to advance the strategic role of public relations at the highest levels of organizational management and leadership by supporting and promoting applied and innovative research and establishing best practices that can assist and inspire today’s and tomorrow’s senior professionals in all types of organizations.”
The John Molson School of Business describes itself as “a world-class business school, committed to academic excellence in teaching and research”.
Report promotes use of chrysotile asbestos
The report claims that an asbestos consortium seeking to re-open the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Quebec put forward evidence-based arguments and acted with integrity, while those opposing the re-opening of the Jeffrey mine used emotional and improper tactics. The report’s purpose was to offer public relations guidance to other proponents of controversial projects, particularly in the energy sector, so that they can overcome opposition. A number of energy projects, such as uranium mining, fracking for shale gas, oil pipelines, are facing significant opposition in Quebec.
With regard to chrysotile asbestos, the Quebec government’s top health authority, the National Institute of Public Health (INSPQ), and the Quebec government’s sixteen Directors of Public Health are, according to the report, ill-informed, their work is incompetent and their recommendations regarding the health risks of chrysotile asbestos should be ignored.
It is extremely irresponsible on the part of Concordia to have published and promoted such dangerous nonsense. Asbestos is by far the biggest cause of occupational deaths in Quebec. The INSPQ and Quebec’s Occupational Health and Safety Commission report continuing failures to protect workers from asbestos harm. If Concordia University believes that Aylen’s accusation – that Quebec’s health authorities are incompetent and their advice should be disregarded – is a legitimate accusation, then Concordia should call for the dismissal of Quebec’s Minister of Health for dereliction of his duty to protect the health of the Quebec population and failing to ensure the competency and reliability of the Quebec government’s top health authorities.
The report likewise dismisses as ignorant the views of the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society and the overwhelming scientific consensus that all use of chrysotile asbestos should stop. Instead, the report endorses the views of a tiny handful of scientists, promoted constantly by the asbestos industry, many of whom have financial ties to asbestos lobby organisations.
Report written by a consultant for the asbestos industry
The report was written by John Aylen, a lecturer at Concordia’s John Molson Business School, who was hired as a public relations consultant and spokesperson for the asbestos consortium seeking to re-open the Jeffrey mine. Aylen did not disclose his conflict of interest.
The report puts forward the discredited arguments that the asbestos industry has put forward for years, including the assertion that the World Health Organization (WHO) supports the use of chrysotile asbestos. According to Aylen and the asbestos industry, the official documents the WHO has placed on its website for a decade, the official presentations of the WHO at UN meetings, the public statements of WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, and the work being carried out by the WHO around the world, all calling for an end to any use of chrysotile asbestos, are illegitimate and do not represent the position of the WHO.
Aylen lists as the opponents of the asbestos mine project: Kathleen Ruff, Pat Martin, Dr. Fernand Turcotte, Dr. David Egilman, Stacy Cattran and Leah Nielsen.
Aylen lists as the proponents of the Jeffrey mine: Baljit Chadha (to whom he gives the pseudonym, Barry Smith), Bernard Coulombe (who is given the pseudonym, Bernard Pigeon), Jacques Dunnigan, PhD and Clément Godbout. Aylen states that these asbestos proponents demonstrated highly respectful standards in all their communications. Whether from ignorance or deception, Aylen excludes the clear evidence to the contrary. Aylen omits from his report the ugly slurs made in the media by the asbestos proponents, who called those opposed to the asbestos trade corrupt liars and launched a mocking attack on an asbestos victim, who came to Quebec to appeal for an end to Quebec’s export of asbestos and who died of mesothelioma a year later.
Request for an independent, transparent investigation, free of conflict of interest
While the action of Concordia in removing the report is welcome, the public statements made by Concordia have been misleading, inaccurate and contradictory. In a letter sent July 27, 2015, the scientists and human rights advocate who submitted the complaint have asked President Shepard to give his assurance that:
- The investigation will be truly independent, transparent and without conflicts of interest.
- The investigation will not only address Aylen’s paper, but also the systemic failure which allowed Concordia to commission, fund, approve, publish and promote a paper that does not meet the most minimal academic and ethical standards, that was written by someone with extreme undisclosed conflict of interest and that contributes to harm of public health.
It is particularly critical that the investigation be carried out by a person or persons who are completely independent of Concordia and have no conflict of interest because Concordia itself is deeply enmeshed in the publication of the report and has strong ties with the subject of the report.
- Concordia University commissioned, funded, approved, published, promoted and praised Aylen’s report.
- Concordia University did not disclose Aylen’s extreme conflict of interest.
- There are strong ties between Concordia University and Baljit Chadha, the proponent of the Jeffrey mine project and the key figure in the report. In May 2014, Concordia appointed Baljit Chadha a Governor Emeritus of Concordia University. Concordia has named an amphitheatre at the John Molson School of Business in honour of Baljit Singh Chadha. Typically, such recognition is given to persons who have made significant donations to a university.
In light of these conflicting interests, it is essential that Concordia make a commitment that the investigation will be transparent and will be conducted by someone who is independent, respected for his/her academic and ethical standards, and who has no conflict of interest.
See also article of July 25, 2015 in Montreal Gazette: Concordia to review asbestos report.