The Canadian government is giving in to the global fight against asbestos, saying it will no longer oppose international efforts to list chrysotile as a hazardous material.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who has been a staunch defender of Quebec’s asbestos industry, made the announcement Friday at Thetford Mines, a town in the province’s asbestos belt.
He blamed Quebec’s new government, Parti Quebecois, and its leader Pauline Marois for taking away jobs with the promise to cancel a $58-million loan that would have re-opened the Jeffrey asbestos mine.
The loan had been promised by Jean Charest’s previous Liberal government.
"First off I'd like to remind you that Pauline Marois, the premier-designate of Quebec, has clearly stated her intention to forbid chrysotile exploitation in Quebec," Paradis told reporters.
"Obviously that decision will have a negative impact on the prosperity of our regions...In the meantime hundreds of workers in our region are without jobs, are living in uncertainty and hoping the mine will reopen,” he said. “It would be illogical for Canada to oppose the inclusion of chrysotile in annex III of the Rotterdam Convention when Quebec, the only province that produces chrysotile, will prohibit its exploitation.”
Paradis said the federal government will spend up to $50 million to diversify the region’s economy.
The PQ said Friday it will not react to Paradis’ announcement.
Canada has long been criticized both at home and abroad for its continued support of Quebec’s asbestos mines, even as the rest of the Western world banned the production and export of asbestos, which has been linked to serious health risks, including lung cancer.
An estimated 107,000 people around the world die each year from asbestos-related disease, according to the World Health Organization.
“Up to about an hour ago, Canada’s position on asbestos was morally and ethically reprehensible,” NDP MP Pat Martin told CTV News Channel shortly after Paradis’s announcement.
“Frankly, I welcome the Conservative government’s move, but it’s kind of a cowardly way to do it. Rather than standing up and saying: ‘You know what, Canada is getting out of the asbestos industry,’ they’ve let Pauline Marois do their dirty work for them and now they are blaming her in some way.”
Martin said Ottawa should have taken a strong stand against asbestos, rather than just letting the industry “die a natural death” by conceding to a dangerous substance label.
“Most of the free world has banned asbestos in all of its forms and Canada has consistently refused to sign on to the international convention that would condemn asbestos as a class one carcinogen,” Martin said, adding that Canada has essentially been “peddling poison to third world countries” for decades.
Martin said Quebec’s asbestos mines have survived on “corporate welfare” while Canada’s international reputation as an asbestos exporter took a huge hit.
Still, Friday’s announcement is “a huge breakthrough” for Canada, Martin said.
“I think this marks the death rattle of the international asbestos industry.”
But the spokesperson for the Jeffrey Mine said countries like Russia, China and Brazil can still block asbestos from being added to the UN’s hazardous materials list.
And even if asbestos does make the list, the move would not prohibit imports and exports, Guy Versailles told The Canadian Press.   
"Inclusion of chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention would in no way signal the end of the chrysotile business in Canada," he said.
The Canadian Public Health Association applauded Paradis’s announcement, saying Ottawa made a “good public health decision.”
With files from The Canadian Press