The federal Opposition New Democrats are urging the Conservative government to stop supporting Canada's asbestos industry, saying the government's own health experts have warned the controversial mineral is unsafe.
The calls by the party with by far most seats in the asbestos-producing province of Quebec come after CBC News reported Monday that internal documents show the federal government rejected advice from Health Canada that chrysotile asbestos be added to the United Nations' list of hazardous materials in 2006.
NDP MP Romeo Saganash urged the government to drop its opposition to adding chrysotile — a form of asbestos that has been linked to cancer — to the hazardous materials list.
Saganash also called on the government to provide transitional training programs for the industry's workers, as well as end subsidies for promoting asbestos abroad.
"It's a dying industry," Saganash told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday.
"I will always be a defender for sustainable development of our natural resources, but I can't accept the hypocrisy of some political deciders who for partisan reasons have refused to reach decisions that should be taken."
During Tuesday's question period in the House of Commons, Industry Minister Christian Paradis defended Canada's continued promotion of the "safe use" of chrysotile and noted the Quebec government's similar position.
Asbestos use banned in 50 countries
While Canada has strictly controlled domestic asbestos use and has been pulling the material out of buildings for years, Canadian officials have long held that the government’s approach to selling asbestos abroad is a responsible one.
According to documents obtained under Access to Information, a senior Health Canada bureaucrat wrote that the agency believed that chrysotile should be added to a UN treaty known as the Rotterdam Convention.
"[Health Canada's] preferred position would be to list — as this is consistent with controlled use — i.e. let people know about the substance so they have the information they need, through prior informed consent, to ensure they handle and use the substance correctly," wrote Paul Glover, then director general of Health Canada's safe environments program, in 2006.
The 2006 Rotterdam Convention comprises a list of hazardous substances that require countries to disclose any restrictions imposed for health or environmental reasons by exporting countries. Importing countries would then decide whether to import the substance, ban it, or restrict it, something known as prior informed consent.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his support for the industry during a campaign-trail stop in Quebec's asbestos-producing region in the last federal election.
But NDP MP Pat Martin, who once worked in an asbestos mine, said the federal government's support of mining the controversial mineral and exporting it to developing nations is a "big black eye" on Canada's reputation.
"They were lying to us then about the dangers of asbestos, and they're lying to us now because of this irrational, unnatural affinity that Canada has for this Class-A carcinogen," the outspoken MP said.
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More than 50 countries ban the use of asbestos. But Canada, one of the leading exporters of the material, lobbied to keep asbestos off the Rotterdam list with the support of producing countries such as Russia and Zimbabwe. Ultimately, chrysotile asbestos did not make the list and remains off it.
By pursuing a policy of controlled-use and working with developing countries to minimize exposure, Canadian officials have asserted that the risks associated with chrysotile can be minimized and the material can be safe under the right conditions.
More than 200 organizations have written an open letter to the prime minister saying Canada is "not acting as a responsible global citizen" and must help list the cancer-causing substance at next week's conference in Geneva.
Officials from the countries that agreed to the Rotterdam Convention will meet on June 20, but Canada remains undecided on its strategy.
Despite the fact that the government has had years to co-ordinate its position on this issue, an official from Environment Canada recently told CBC News that "Canada's position for the upcoming meeting is under consideration."