(Un)Healthy Politics in Asbestos

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Peter Harris

Sitting on the campaign bus in a parking lot in Asbestos, Quebec, I am wrestling with the reality that Stephen Harper is simply coasting through his final week on the campaign trail. The volumes of questions being lobbed at the Conservative leader are sliding off him like water in a hot Teflon pan. His answers, ranging from the vague to downright avoidance, are often injected with a heavy helping of spin.

So, instead of focusing on what he is not saying, I decided to analyze what he is saying. One of the questions he did answer today concerned asbestos. It is easy to understand Asbestos’s connection to asbestos, especially since this small town in the rolling hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, has one of the biggest deposits of the mineral in the world.

In 2008, the Conservatives lost to the Bloc Quebecois by 9,000 votes in the riding of Richmond-Athabaska. The Tories have a record of defending the asbestos industry and the nearly 800 jobs that go with it. Stephen Harper came here to pledge his support one more time. He argues Canada only exports a relatively safe version of asbestos called Chrysotile. “Canada is one of a number of exporters of Chrysotile,” he says, “and there are many countries in which it is legal in which there are buyers. This government will not put industry in a spot where it’s discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted.” (Can you say what the question was?)

An abandoned asbestos mining site is pictured in Thetford Mines, Quebec. Thetford Mines was founded in 1876 after the discovery of large asbestos deposits in the area, and the city became a hub for one of the world’s largest asbestos-producing regions. Photo by Francis Vachon, The Canadian Press.

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What Harper fails to mention is the countries we export to – mostly China and India – do not have tight regulations on how to handle asbestos. He also failed to mention that nearly 30 countries, including the European Union, Japan, and Australia, have outright bans of the known carcinogen. While Harper says Chrysotile is safe, the World Health Organization calls asbestos deadly in any form. In fact, it estimates nearly 125 million people around the world are currently exposed to asbestos, which is responsible for killing 90,000 people a year.

By no means is Stephen Harper alone in defending this industry. So do the federal Liberals, the Bloc Quebecois, and Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Politically, support for the mine in Asbestos makes sense – the 800 jobs it supports goes a long way for the families who live in this riding. But at what cost? Support for an industry that is leaving millions of people around the world sick?

Peter is a Global National correspondent, based in Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter: @PeterHarris.

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