The federal government's deadly double standard on the export of asbestos is indefensible. Asbestos is strictly regulated and has long been pulled out of buildings at home – including, notably, the Parliament Buildings – in order to protect the health of Canadians, yet the government continues to support the export of asbestos from Canada around the world, ignoring the advice of medical professionals, scientists, even Health Canada, in the process.
Canadian government officials stubbornly defend the product as safe, if handled properly, even though they no longer sound convinced by their sales pitches. Nor should they.
To make matters worse, Canada has worked to prevent the United Nations from listing chrysotile asbestos (which is an industry name for white asbestos) as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, which sets controls on the trade of toxic substances. This omission makes the substance even potentially more dangerous when shipped overseas. The government must change this position when countries that signed the convention meet later this month.
The Conservative government's position on asbestos is morally bankrupt. During the recent federal election campaign Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear it has been driven by votes. He travelled to Asbestos, Que., where he said, in French, "The only party that defends the chrysotile industry is our party, the Conservative party."
It is encouraging to see the New Democrats, who rose to official Opposition status with record wins in Quebec, speaking out loudly against the export of asbestos. New Democrats and public health officials made a plea this week for the Harper government to stop blocking the UN treaty from acknowledging that the Canadian product is toxic and should not be shipped overseas without proper controls.
NDP MP Pat Martin, who has worked in an asbestos mine, called it a "big black eye" for Canada. "They were lying to us then about the dangers of asbestos, and they are lying to us now because of this irrational, unnatural affinity that Canada has for this Class-A carcinogen."
The government needs to listen to the advice of experts and get out of the way so that chrysotile asbestos can become part of the Rotterdam Convention. And, more than that, it should stop subsidizing a dying and toxic industry and, instead, support affected workers as they transition to new jobs.
The health of people in the developing world depends on Canada doing the right thing, as does our international credibility.