The “Asbestos Issue” Then and Now, Again and Again

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By Dr. Jessica Van Horssen

[Re-posted from NiCHE’s Group Blog, The Otter]

This past July 1st, I was fortunate to have been able to attend one of the anti-asbestos protests in London on Canada Day while in the United Kingdom for research. Why was I researching in the UK? Because the first reported death due to asbestos-related disease was a woman who worked in a textile factory outside of Manchester in the late 19th century. Why were there anti-asbestos protests across the UK and around the world on Canada Day? Because there has been global shock and outrage aimed at both Quebec and Canada over the past weeks, months, and years due to the continued support of the province’s asbestos industry.

July 1st was the day Jean Charest planned to make his pledge of $58 million in subsidies to the struggling industry official, which made the Canada Day protests this year especially well-publicized. In the end, and perhaps partly due to international pressure, the $58 million Charest pledged to help establish and maintain 425 full-time positions at the mines in the province’s “asbestos belt” was reduced to $25 million, with a promise to find additional funding in the future, possibly meaning when media interest in the issue fades.

Quebec once provided over 70% of the world’s supply of asbestos, a once-valuable and highly sought after fireproof mineral that was used in everything from insulation to military uniforms to filters for baby incubators. Breathe in deep; if you’re in a major city, you now have asbestos in your lungs—it’s everywhere.

The industry collapsed in Quebec in the 1970s and 1980s due to rising awareness of the health risks associated with the mineral, and the federal and provincial governments have been subsidizing it ever since. Because of this collapse, and despite the subsequent government funding, Quebec fell from 1st to 5th in the global asbestos trade, producing far less of the deadly mineral than Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan!

If this is the case, then why is Canada still an international target for those opposed to the asbestos trade? Is it because Canada’s the only country in the western world that continues to mine and sell the mineral, not to the rest of the western world, (where it’s illegal to buy—though not to sell—asbestos), but to developing countries like India? Does the international community hold Canada to a different moral standard than Russia? Should Canada have a different trade philosophy than China? Is this fair?

Is the international focus on the Quebec asbestos industry actually an expression of global confusion over how Canadian history, culture, and politics work? Is it an attempt by countries with their own suspect relationship with asbestos to shift the blame? What role can environmental history play in a better understanding of this issue? Loretta Lynn has her coal miner’s daughters, Stompin’ Tom Connors has his Sudbury Saturday nights, and Cape Breton has its Men of the Deeps. What does Quebec’s asbestos industry have? What is it about this mineral specifically that makes the world outraged?

While held on July 1st to target Canada specifically, the Mesothelioma Action Day in London this year was aimed more at education than protest. Mesothelioma is fascinating disease: it’s a rare and fast-acting cancer that affects the lining of major organs about 30 years after exposure to asbestos. That’s right: this is one of the few cancers that has a clear cause (asbestos particles are found in the tumours) and a clear cure—prevent anyone, anywhere from being exposed to asbestos. This is an environmental and occupational disease that should be a relic in history, something that once occurred, but doesn’t anymore. Because of Canada’s role in helping to block UN resolutions to ban the trade of asbestos globally, mesothelioma is not even close to becoming an extinct cancer.

Most mesothelioma sufferers (or “victims” as they are often termed) are open about the pain and the cause of this disease, but Chuck Strahl, formerly one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s bosom MP’s, hasn’t had much of a problem with this. Strahl is quite famous in the UK asbestos circles, as he’s been suffering from mesothelioma for years, yet in his political life has supported the government’s decision to keep the asbestos industry alive. One of the few MP’s known outside of Canada, many in the UK are surprised that Strahl is still alive because of how rapidly mesothelioma typically ravages the human body. What they cannot understand—and understandably so—is that in Canada, whether you’re from Quebec or British Columbia, it’s political suicide to come out against the asbestos industry.

I’ve studied the Quebec asbestos industry for 6 years and have often been asked if there are historical factors present in the current debate, and I would say that there are definitely deep and complex issues at play here. When it comes down to it, Quebec’s asbestos industry is regarded as a major factor in the modernization of the province, when it moved from a primarily agricultural society to one where industry reached beyond the limits of major cities and labour groups began to really impact how corporations were run in Quebec. Some historians would say the Asbestos Strike of 1949 was an expression of this change, but it goes much deeper than that, and it’s time historians stopped placing contemporary Quebec into a nice and neat Quiet Revolution box. It goes deeper than this, and lies in a real desire in Quebec society to make decisions for themselves. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? The end to Quebec’s asbestos trade will come, but it needs to do so on local and provincial levels. Canada’s constitution clearly puts the environment in the hands of the provinces and the people of Quebec, (who have a long history of fighting for control of their own territory), not an outside governing body, are the ones who need to choose when and how the industry will end.

3 thoughts on “The “Asbestos Issue” Then and Now, Again and Again

  1. Neil White

    Excellent post on a serious occupational health and safety and public health issue that rarely gains traction in Canada, but has been big news in the United States for decades. Check out David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s books Dying for Work and Deadly Dust for background.

    I remember hearing somewhere that asbestos was included in one or more of our international free trade deals as a “cultural product,” thus reducing the chances that its sale would be discontinued or banned outright. Anyone know if that’s correct?

  2. Kathleen Ruff

    Would like to be able to contact the writer, Dr Van Horssen. It’s an important topic, but there are a number of errors in the piece. The Quebec government has offered a loan guarantee of $58 million and that figure has not changed. The consortium of anonymous foreign investors (apparently five asbestos products industrialists in India) have to come up with the $25 million to cover the $83 million total needed to complete the underground asbestos mine that was 90% built in the 1990s. The whole of Quebec’s medical and public health leaders, including all 16 of the Quebec government’s own public health directors, have strongly opposed the new asbestos mine project. The battle is between the Quebec asbestos industry (which is bankrupt and about to die out, but hopes that the foreign investors will revive it) and the Quebec Medical Association, the Quebec Public Health Association, the Quebec National Institute of Public Health, the Quebec Cancer Society, the Quebec Lung Association, the Quebec, the Quebec Association for Occupational Hygiene, Health & Security, etc, etc. The asbestos industry calls the Quebec health leaders “a little gang of Talibans”. Quebec can be extremely proud at the courage and integrity of its medical and health community who have, with one voice, loudly and clearly demanded that Quebec’s export of asbestos stop and that the Quebec government stop denying the clear scientific evidence that chrysotile asbestos (which represents 100% of the global asbestos trade) is deadly and cannot be safely used anywhere. The Quebec trade union confederations – the Confédération des syndicats nationaux and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec – have both strongly and publicly called for an end to Quebec’s asbestos export.

  3. Jessica van Horssen

    Thanks for your comments, Neil. The Rosner and Markowitz book is an amazing source and their experience with Johns-Manville is really enlightening. You are certainly correct with the “cultural industry” aspect of this story. It happened in 2005 and you can read more about it here: Michael Hahn, “A Clash of Cultures? The UNESCO Diversity Convention and International Trade Law,” Journal of International Economic Law, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2006).

    Kathleen, the information you believe to be incorrect was provided by LeDevoir and I think we’re actually talking about the same kettle of asbestos fish with regards to funding. The purpose of my post was to highlight the importance of a historical perspective on this issue. While the Canadian and Quebec medical communities have come out against asbestos, they did so only recently and both have a long history of collaborating with the companies that owned the Quebec mines in order to alter medical evidence and falsify reports. In fact, aside from a small collective of doctors at l’Université Laval in the 1940s, nothing negative was published on the health effects of asbestos in Canada until the 1980s. The British Medical Journal first published on the dangers of asbestos in the 1920s. This lag has a massive impact on how asbestos is understood and managed in Quebec and the rest of Canada.

    As far as the unions go, just three years ago you yourself told me via email that the Quebec unions threatened to campaign against any politician who came out against the asbestos industry, which is why Ignatieff retracted his statement against it oh so long ago. For years I’ve thoroughly researched the interaction between Quebec’s unions, industry heads, and government officials and there is a clear historical pattern of compromise in favour of employment. A recent change in opinion from union heads does not overshadow the long, ingrained effects of this. I understand that in the lobbying world the immediate situation is pressing, but a historical perspective on this issue complicates it in constructive ways.

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