PM defends asbestos industry in bid to topple the Bloc
Stephen Harper pauses during a campaign event at a retirement home in Asbestos, Que., April 26, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
ASBESTOS, Que. -- Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was deep in Bloc Quebecois territory Tuesday wrangling with the separatists over the town of Asbestos.
And Harper was forced to defend his party and government's support of the asbestos industry — based here and in Thetford Mines — which mines about 150,000 tons of the carcinogen every year, almost all of which is exported to developing nations.
A group of about 20 health and environmental groups and unions penned an open letter to Harper Tuesday that calls on him to stop supporting the industry. The Conservative government funded an asbestos lobby group and fought efforts to ban the product internationally, a move the European Union has already made.
In the letter, the groups call Canada "an immoral asbestos pusher" and "an enemy of global public health."
But when in government, the Tories maintained white asbestos -- or chrysotile -- mined in Quebec is safer than the amphibole asbestos that was so common in the past.
"Chrysotile specifically is permitted internationally under conditions of safe and controlled use. Canada is one of a number of exporters of chrysotile and there are many countries in which it is legal who are buyers," Harper said. He added though that he has "no plans" to lessen the restrictive conditions on the use of asbestos in Canada.
"This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted."
Canada is the second largest exporter of asbestos after Russia, and the fifth largest producer. And while Canada's production has dwindled in recent years to about 25% of what it was at the height of the industry, there are still between 500 and 800 people employed in asbestos mines in Quebec.
According to the World Health Organization, asbestos is "carcinogenic" and 90,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma -- a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity -- and asbestosis, which leaves its victims perpetually short of breath because of scarring of the lungs by the needle-like asbestos fibres.
In fact, former Conservative minister Chuck Strahl, who isn't running for re-election, suffers from incurable lung cancer likely caused by exposure to asbestos decades ago while working in the logging industry.
Critics nationally and around the world have blasted successive Canadian governments for continuing to support the industry. Both the Tories and Liberals support the industry, as do the Bloc and the provincial Liberals, while the NDP has pledged to transition asbestos miners into other work, as was done for tobacco farmers in southern Ontario.
Asbestos was first mined in Quebec in the 1870s, and was used in everything from clothing to coffee pots before its health risks became known. Currently, most Canadian asbestos is used to reinforce construction concrete. It's also used in friction parts of cars, like brakes and clutches.
On the political front, the Bloc Quebecois has held the seat since 2004. In 2008, the Bloc incumbent beat the Tory candidate by nearly 9,000 votes.
For the past few days and with less than a week to go before the election, Harper has been campaigning in enemy territory, with several stops in NDP ridings on Sunday and Monday.
Later Tuesday, Harper is expected to attend a rally in Ottawa before flying to Kitchener, Ont., for events there Wednesday.