Challenging Quebec's Asbestos Exports

In November of 2010, the Quebec government announced its intentions to finance the reopening of the Jeffrey Mine north of Sherbrooke with a $58 million loan for investors. Since the threat of revival in the Quebec asbestos industry was announced, historically pro-asbestos sentiments in the region have begun to shift.

Industrialized countries have by and large banned the production and use of asbestos because of its dangerous health effects and inability to be used safely, even under “controlled conditions”. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary , the asbestos lobby insists that as long as its clients use the fibre as advised, asbestos will not have an impact on worker health.

Worker unions all over Asia have taken a strong stance against this falsehood. The nature of the largely informal sector in most poor countries is such that regulations and standards are very difficult to enforce, even if it were possible to use asbestos safely. Workers and those who use products in countries that import our asbestos are at risk of developing serious health problems.

In December of 2010, a delegation of victims of asbestos poisoning and trade unionists from across Asia came to Canada to speak out about the dangers of reopening the Jeffrey Mine and exporting 5 million tons of asbestos to Asia over the next 25 years. Oman George, an occupational health worker from India and member of the delegation condemned the hypocrisy of the Canadian government in reopening the mine:

“Canada finds asbestos too dangerous to use but it [wants] to export it to developing countries. That’s like telling everyone that Canadian lives are more important than those in India, Indonesia, and everywhere else where the asbestos mined in Quebec will be exported.”

Despite being refused a meeting with the Quebec Premier, the delegation was able to harness a lot of support and media coverage both provincially and nationally throughout its visit in publications such as Le Devoir, La Presse, and The Globe and Mail.

The Canadian Medical Association and the influential British medical journal The Lancet  have also demonstrated their strong opposition to the reopening of the mine because of the proven health effects of asbestos, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. The Lancet also singled out the federal government for funding the Chrysotile Institute, an asbestos lobby group, which promotes the use of the cancer-causing material internationally. Other groups that have endorsed the call for an asbestos ban include the David Suzuki Foundation and several unions across Canada.

The visit from the delegation, editorials in domestic and international publications and demonstrations around the world have all contributed to a gradual but visible shift in popular opinion on the asbestos issue. The Bloq Quebecois, which has always provided unwavering support for the industry, recently conceded that asbestos is very dangerous and should be used only in very limited circumstances. The Quebec Solidaire party is the first Quebec party in history to demonstrate strong opposition to asbestos projects in the province. Amir Khadir, the party’s representative in the legislature, has tabled a private member’s bill that would ban new projects and end all exports of asbestos from Quebec by 2016.

Federally the NDP has come out as a strong opponent of exporting asbestos and the federal Liberal Party has confirmed they support transitioning out of the export of asbestos. The federal Conservative Party, however, continues to give its support to the industry.

Andre Paradis, president of Amnesty International – Francophone Canada and former Secretary General of the Rights and Liberties League, called on Premier Jean Charest to immediately reconsider the financing of Jeffrey Mine:

“It would be a serious failure of public morality and human solidarity to close one’s eyes to the reality of the situation that a delegation of victims of chrysotile asbestos and trade unionists from Asia came to expose…We believe it is possible to promote economic deelopment and employment for workers in the region of Thetford Mines and Asbestos without forcing workers and citizens in Asia to pay the price."

MiningWatch Canada is an active member of Ban Asbestos Canada coalition and through our work with the Green Budget Coalition has been lobbying the federal government to end its support of the asbestos lobby group the Chrysotile Institute. We are also working with the Quebec Coalition Meilleure Mine (Better Mining Coalition) to challenge asbestos mining and export within Quebec.