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Last week, in an elaborate public relations ceremony in the town of Asbestos attended by hundreds of residents, the Quebec government of Premier Jean Charest announced it was providing $58 million in loans to enable the re-opening of the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine. The mine, located near the town, was closed in 2009 thanks to the international campaign against the use of asbestos. Since then, it had been unable to find a bank or any other loan source to enable it to reopen.
The Jeffrey mine is the world's largest, open-pit asbestos mine. President and owner Bernard Couloumbe says his potential investors are mainly the mine's potential customers in India and Pakistan.
The only investor publicly identified is Baljit Singh Chadha. His Montreal-based trading company, Balcorp, is Jeffrey Mine's sales agent in India. Mr. Chadha has raised money for the provincial Liberal Party as well as the federal Liberal Party. The latter has haltingly come to oppose asbestos mining in Canada.
The Jeffrey Mine was formerly owned by the U.S. construction materials firm Johns Mansville Corporation. It went into bankruptcy in 1982 prompted by lawsuits of the victims of asbestos.
The government's decision has been condemned by the Association of Community Health Specialist Doctors of Quebec (AMSSCQ). Its president, Dr. Yv Bonnier Viger, has written to Premier Charest: "Asbestos is a dangerous material little used anymore in Canada and is being removed from public buildings. With the re-opening of the Jeffrey Mine, our government is favoring its use in countries where it is difficult to protect workers and the environment."
Dr. Bonnier also accuses the government of giving false hope to the people of the region of Asbestos. "It is making believe that we are relaunching the economy of Asbestos, but we are relaunching a moribund industry. Let's not forget that the Jeffrey Mine went bankrupt." His letter notes that the salries of miners at the Jeffrey MIne will be $16 per hour, about half the average rate in the mining industry in Quebec.
As to the claims by the mine owner and government that strict standards will be applied for the transportation and use of asbestos by its eventual buyers, Dr. Bonnier calls that "an illusion."
Federal government support for asbestos
In the May 2011 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper twice visited Asbestos and pledged support for reopening the Jeffrey Mine. His government also supports reopening the LAB Chrysotile Mine in Thetford Mines, Quebec, which was closed in 2011. The asbestos mines in Quebec are more than 100 years old.
The Harper government, like Liberal governments before it, have successfully worked with other countries to block the placing of asbestos onto the list of substances regulated by the Rotterdam Convention. That's the international agreement for the cataloguing, handling and use of hazardous chemicals and materials.
In the 2011 election, the Conservatives came a distant third in the riding that includes Asbestos. The Bloc québécois narrowly beat out the NDP. At the outset of the campaign, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said asbestos mining is safe; several weeks later, he said the matter should be studied by a committee of the National Assembly.
The new leader of the Bloc québécois, Daniel Paillé, supports the asbestos industry. He was economic advisor to Duceppe and a one-time Parti québécois (provincial) cabinet minister. His opponents in the party leadership race last year said the Bloc's position in support of the industry was a big factor in its vote decline in the province in the 2011 election.
Continuing that position, the party voted last November with the Conservative government to defeat an NDP resolution calling for a ban on the export of asbestos from Canada and adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous chemical products under the Rotterdam Convention.
Asbestos is the leading workplace-related killer in Canada. Globally, more than 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease. When inhaled, the mineral fiber causes lung cancers, including mesothelioma, and asbestosis. The latter cause painful and incurable destruction of lung tissue.
World asbestos production peaked at 4.79 million metric tons in 1977. In 2010, it was 1.97 million metric tons. Use of the substance is banned in Europe and the United States; in Canada, it is classified as hazardous but not banned.
Trade union controversy
The record of unions in Quebec on the issue is a scandal. Clément Godbout, then Director of the Steelworkers union for Quebec and Maritime Canada, was a founding member of the Asbestos Institute in 1984 (afterwards renamed the Chrysotile Institute - 'chrysotile' is a chemical name for 'white asbestos', purported to be a less dangerous form of the mineral). The Institute has been the main promotion agency for the product and industry.
Godbout was president of the Quebec Federation of Labour from 1993 to 1999, following which he was hired as an 'expert consultant' by the Chrysotile Institute and then became its president in 2002. Ironically, the Institute was folded in May 2012 on the eve of an apparent triumph. It lost its federal government funding in 2011, following heavy lobbying by anti-asbestos campaigners.
At its convention in March 2011, the CSN union federation came out in opposition to the industry. Claudette Charbonneau, then president of the 300,000 member organization, told the convention: "Quebec, like many advanced industrial societies, has been shaken by the use of a resource which sows death. If health and safety conditions do not prevent these deadly illnesses in Quebec, it is difficult to pretend that there can be safe use of asbestos in developing countries."
The president of the 65,000-member CSD union federation, François Vaudreuil, attended the public relations event in Asbestos on June 29 and praised the Charest government's decision. His union has several tens of thousands of members in the construction industry.
The Canadian Labour Congress supports a total prohibition on Canada's production and export of asbestos. In a May 2012 statement, it called for a just transition program for displaced workers in the industry. Construction unions in English speaking Canada and some in Quebec have also demanded a ban on the product.
But the union movement is divided, and not only in Quebec. One of the CLC's largest affiliates, the United Steelworkers, has fallen silent on the issue, presumably squeezed by conflicting views among its affiliates. One of its historically important locals, Local 480 in Trail, British Columbia, produced a hard-hitting, anti-asbestos film in 2008. 'Asbestos: The Silent Killer' is 26 minutes long and is part of a broad effort by unions in BC to ban the product.
The campaign in BC was further prompted by a decision in 2002 of a newly-elected, provincial Liberal government to end payment of disability pensions for workplace disease or injury once recipients reach the age of 65. Instead, disability pensioners now receive a one-time lump sum payment at 65, amounting to a sharp cut in overall benefits.
The most well-known anti-asbestos campaigner in Canada is Kathleen Ruff, author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Exports Asbestos to the Developing World. She is also Coordinator of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance.
Another active anti-asbestos campaigner is the Canadian Society for Asbestos Victims. Another film that has been produced is Breathtaking, by Toronto filmmaker Kathleen Mullen. "It takes on the asbestos industry through a moving and personal investigation into her father's death from an asbestos-related disease and the current present-day use of asbestos in Canada and internationally."
The official opposition party in the National Assembly, the Parti québécois, says it wants a public inquiry into the use of asbestos before a reopening of the mines is decided.
Given the dubious economic prospects for a relaunched asbestos industry (The LAB mine in Thetford Mines has missed its deadline for a purported reopening), the $58 million 'loan' to the Jeffrey Mine looks an awful lot like a direct subsidy. Meanwhile, the Quebec government is currently in the midst of waging a social war against the young people of the province, demanding that they do more to finance post-secondary education.
Roger Annis is a social justice activist in Vancouver and retired aerospace worker.