Will the Quebec Election Mean the End of Asbestos Mining and Exports?

The outgoing Charest government in Quebec received a lot of flack over the summer for offering a $58-million loan to an industry that was on its last breath — the mining and export of asbestos. (Recriminations came from international labour and health groups, editorials in most major Canadian papers, and even the Fraser Institute — see links below.) But now that the PQ will be taking over the reins in the National Assembly there may be no resuscitation for the Jeffrey Mine.

In a historic shift, three of the four parties that elected members to the National Assembly — including the victorious PQ — pledged to end the province's long-standing and myopic support of the toxic industry. The Liberals were the holdouts. Prior to the election the CBC quoted Premier-to-be Pauline Marois as saying that asbestos is "an industry from another era" and relinquishing it is "the path forward that now seems to be clearing." The story notes that the PQ, CAQ, and Quebec Solidaire received kudos from the Canadian Cancer Society for their positions.

It might come as a surprise to many that the right “path” on asbestos is only just opening for the PQ or that the Liberals would consider re-opening asbestos mines, let alone providing a generous loan. But staunch support in Quebec for the asbestos mines in the Eastern Townships has been an obstacle for health and social justice activists trying to curtail the export of the harmful mineral to India, Thailand, and other countries in the Global South. The support has stemmed in part from a historic legacy and part from political opportunism.

The modern Quebec labour movement was born from strikes at the asbestos mines so until recently many progressive individuals and organizations have found it difficult to speak out on the matter. But at last the contradictions seem to have overcome the tendency to support or stay silent about the industry. The fact that the miners at the other closed asbestos mine in Thetford had to make considerable concessions on pay and benefits (putting them far below industry standards) may have helped tip the balance.

On the political front, the mines are located is a swing riding, so governments and hopeful political parties have pandered to the local desire to maintain jobs in the mines. In this week’s election the Liberals kept the riding by just a few hundred votes. It is now represented by the daughter of the former Member of the National Assembly, who announced the controversial loan to the Jeffrey Mine shortly before retiring in July.

Long before scientists declared the “Death of Evidence” in federal policy and budget making, federal governments (Conservatives and before them Liberals) ignored the overwhelming science on the hazards of asbestos, providing direct support to the industry’s lobbying organization, the Chrysotile Institute (originally the Asbestos Institute), and downplaying the hazards in international arenas. In 2011 the Conservative government led a successful effort to keep chrysotile asbestos from being listed on the Rotterdam convention – which would have required the mineral to be labeled as hazardous when exported.

The shift in the political support for asbestos mining in Quebec may be part natural evolution and the inevitable ripening of uncomfortable contradictions – but much credit must also be given to those who have organized and campaigned on the issue. They have been successful at keeping the issue in the media, highlighting international reactions in Quebec, and holding the credible science of organizations like the WHO over the bunk science of industry funded researchers and lobbyists. Congratulations to the other Ban Asbestos Canada coalition members, Right On Canada and especially to Kathleen Ruff — organizer, researcher, and author of numerous op-ed pieces as well as of the influential report Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World.

Of course the work of activists is never truly done. While we may have made important milestones in curtailing the export of asbestos there is still much work needed to deal with the legacy of past asbestos mining and its widespread use. The case of former asbestos miners in BC recently covered by CBC’s the National is a case in point.

Links to selected media coverage from the past 3 months (for a more comprehensive listings follow these links for Canadian coverage and international stories):