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Federal budget finally buries asbestos industry

Ends shameful practice of exporting it overseas

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OTTAWA -- If the asbestos industry in Canada was on life-support, last week's federal budget finally pulled the plug.

It was hidden midway through the budget papers, amid the more flashy and noticeable cuts to the cost of baby clothes and the "largest long-term federal commitment to Canadian infrastructure in our nation's history."

"Supporting the Economic Transition of Communities Economically Linked to the Chrysotile Asbestos Industry," said the headline on page 241.

"Historically, the chrysotile asbestos industry has been a significant employer in the communities of Thetford Mines and Asbestos in the province of Quebec," reads the section. "Due to the decline of the industry, these communities are now exploring ways to diversify their local economies and create new jobs. Confirming the commitment made by the government in September 2012, Economic Action Plan 2013 proposes to provide $50 million over seven years to Canada Economic Development for Quebec regions to support economic diversification efforts in the communities of Thetford Mines and Asbestos."

The money was actually first promised last September, announced by Christian Paradis, the country's industry minister, who also represents Thetford Mines and Asbestos in Parliament and was born in Thetford Mines.

The budget delivered on the promise.

For years, Liberal and Conservative governments held their fingers in their ears as the evidence mounted about the dangers of asbestos.

Medical experts and workplace-safety advocates called for Canada to stop mining the substance, whose fibres can lead to deadly lung disease and cancer if inhaled.

Yet Canada kept saying it was safe.

"Canada stands by its position that the policy of controlled use is well-founded because it has a sound scientific basis and is a responsible approach," said a spokesman for then-foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon in 2009.

Canada wouldn't even agree to add chrysotile asbestos to an international list of toxic substances. The list, part of the Rotterdam Convention, wouldn't bar the use or export of the substances but requires exporting nations to warn importing nations of the dangers.

So not only were we still exporting the stuff, we didn't even want to have to warn people it might kill them.

Canada has barely used asbestos in our own country for years. We're spending millions to remove asbestos from the Parliament Buildings. Asbestos found in a home inspection can send potential buyers running for cover. Canadians know it's dangerous and want nothing to do with it.

But until recently, we were still shipping more than 150,000 tonnes of the stuff overseas each year, mostly to places such as India and Indonesia where workplace-safety regulations are sparse to non-existent.

Photos and videos of workers covered in asbestos in plants overseas weren't enough to change the government's mind. An investigation by the CBC in 2010 documented exactly how Canada's asbestos was being used. It showed workers using it with no protection, not even minimal face masks.

But there were a few hundred workers left in the two mines in Thetford Mines and Asbestos, and no government seemed willing to put them out of work. What was the health of thousands of workers in Asia compared to saving the jobs of a few hundred Canadians, jobs that just happened to be in the riding of the industry minister?

So Canada kept agreeing to export it to developing countries and kept giving the Chrysotile Institute money to promote the product.

So what suddenly changed?

In November 2011, the last of the mines stopped operating.

Then, last fall, the Parti Québécois won the election in Quebec and Premier Pauline Marois pledged to pull the plug on a proposal by Liberal Premier Jean Charest to loan the asbestos industry $58 million.

It was the last of the few lifelines left for the industry.

Without any mines operating and the promise of reopening off the table, the political need to keep supporting asbestos was finally outweighed by the political damage of supporting it.

So it was that Canada finally said it would stop opposing the addition of chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention.

How Canada handles that matter will be seen next month during the annual meeting of the Rotterdam Convention.

Manitoba MP Pat Martin, who worked in asbestos mines in the Yukon and has some lung damage because of it, has been fighting against the industry for years.

He said the government deciding to finally find something else for the two asbestos towns to do is "the final nail in the coffin."

But he won't stop his crusade against the industry just yet. "I won't stand down until they ban asbestos in all its forms," said Martin.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 25, 2013 A6

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