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Two big victories in the fight against asbestos

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This past week has seen two very significant victories in the long battle against Canadian exports of asbestos. There is only one mine in Canada -- in Quebec -- that still exports the deadly substance but trying to halt the trade has proved extremely difficult, despite the fact that asbestos kills 107,000 people a year world-wide. As an industrial killer in Canada, more people die from its effects than all the industrial killers combined.

Yet despite these figures and despite the lobbying of virtually every relevant health organization in Canada and Quebec, the governments of Quebec and Canada have continued to actively support the single mine and its 400 employees, and promote sales abroad, especially in India. To add to the odds against stopping the export of asbestos, the union movement in Quebec has been doggedly supportive of the industry -- and the two past presidents of the Quebec Federation of Labour have become President of the asbestos lobby group, the Chrysotile Institute (CI). The CI also receives funding from both the Quebec and federal governments -- with Ottawa contributing at least $250,000 a year for over a decade.

But this week there were two huge breakthroughs. First, the federal government, after a concerted lobbying effort by some two dozen health organizations and agencies, including the conservative Canadian Cancer Society, has eliminated its annual funding for the organization as of March 31st. Secondly, and equally significant, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), which represents 300,000 unionized Quebec workers, announced it is withdrawing support for the industry. It called on the Quebec Liberal government not to provide a $58 million loan to investors planning to open a new mine which would provide a 25 year supply of abestos. The loan was quietly promised last year but has been in limbo due to the increasing controversy surrounding the issue.

The industry is not dead yet but these two reversals leave it on life support and its allies and supporters are diminishing. Those supporters began declining in number a couple of years ago as an intense campaign finally forced the Canadian Labour Congress, the federal NDP and the federal Liberal Party to come out against continued exports. All the main political parties in Quebec -- federal and provincial -- still support the industry.

The federal government, given its record of duplicitous behaviour on so many other issues, could still insert the $250,000 into supplemental estimates down the road. And the other labour federations in Quebec are still on side. The CSN is the most progressive group in the province and represents some 300,000 workers -- but not those in the asbestos industry.

Yet the breaking of labour's silence on this issue -- and the embarrassment it has experienced internationally -- suggests that the other Quebec labour federations may have to move soon as well. As Claudette Carbonneau, CSN President stated: "This [action] would, I think, honour those who have died and who struggled for health and safety, and remind us all that no worker's life, whether Indian or Québécois, should be sacrificed in the name of a job."

Carbonneau has informed her labour federation colleagues of the CSN's decision: "There was no joy anywhere. But our position is not for a ban tomorrow. I stated very clearly our desire to work with them. They received it in a very civilized way and they appreciated that I warned them in advance."

There is no indication that the federal government will support listing asbestos as a dangerous substance within the Rotterdam Convention, which meets this June. In every instance where efforts have been made to do so, Canada has been in the forefront of opposing such a move. And as the NDP's Pat Martin (who once worked in an asbestos mine) points out the government has made more effort promoting asbestos than any other Canadian export -- 160 trade junkets to 60 countries over the years.

But if Quebec labour and the Quebec government decide to cut the killer industry loose the Harper Conservatives may see no benefit in continuing to defend the indefensible.

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