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Kathleen Ruff: How one single-minded activist helped turn the tide on asbestos
3 June 2016
Michelle LaLonde, Montreal Gazette
You may not recognize her name, but Kathleen Ruff will receive a medal of honour in Quebec’s National Assembly on Thursday for her decade of work to stop Canada’s asbestos trade, work that some argue will save tens of thousands of people from contracting deadly asbestos-related diseases in Canada and abroad.
A longtime human rights activist based in Smithers, B.C., Ruff has toiled, for the most part, behind the scenes. But without Ruff’s dogged determination to rally health experts, victims and politicians to speak out and take action, Quebec might still be mining and selling the deadly fibre to developing countries for decades to come, with the active support and blessing of the federal government.
Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced May 10 that his government will “move to ban asbestos”. For the first time, a Canadian prime minister publicly acknowledged that the damage asbestos causes to human health far outweighs any benefit the mineral, once hailed as a miracle fibre, can provide.
That marks the culmination of a decades-long battle that has often pitted Quebec’s public health community and human rights activists on one side, against union leaders, industrialists and politicians on the other.
According to the World Health Organization, the asbestos-related death toll worldwide is estimated at 107,000 annually, including about 2,000 per year in Canada. In Quebec it is the No. 1 workplace killer: 118 of the 196 work-related deaths in the province in 2015 were officially deemed to be caused by asbestos.
That may be the tip of the iceberg, since fatal asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, and asbestosis, take decades after exposure to develop. Asbestos is present in homes and buildings across Canada, and Canada still imports asbestos-containing materials.
But the tide has finally turned. Quebec stopped mining asbestos in 2012, and it looks as if Canada will soon join the more than 50 countries that already ban its use. Ruff gives all the credit for this sea change to others. In a recent blog item, she salutes about a dozen members of Quebec’s public health community who risked their jobs by publicly criticizing the government’s stance, one brave Quebec trade union leader who finally broke ranks and a couple of politicians.
But there is no doubt that Ruff — through her tireless prompting, organizing and even hounding of some of the very heroes she credits — was a key catalyst.
“Kathleen Ruff is the true hero of this whole saga,” said Dr. Fernand Turcotte, one of Ruff’s longtime collaborators on the asbestos file and a professor emeritus of public health and preventive medicine at the Université Laval.
“She is generous, principled, committed and just unstoppable,” said Steven Staples, vice president of Ottawa-based human rights advocacy group, the Rideau Institute.
He said she is effective because she comes across as a polite, reasonable woman with a pleasant British accent who expects the best of people. But if you have power to change something and refuse, she lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that silence and inaction are not acceptable.
“She would approach these well-meaning, principled people. She pricked at their conscience. They all knew that she was right. And the various reasons, the rationales they had for not doing the right thing, made them uncomfortable. And she was able to do that in a nice way, a constructive way, and people became so uncomfortable, they had to do the right thing.”
While Ruff is a longtime board member, donor and senior adviser to the Rideau Institute, Staples said she has mostly tackled the asbestos issue as an independent, unpaid activist based out of her home in Smithers, B.C., about 1200 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.
“It is really amazing that she does this with just a phone and a computer, and just the skills she has, and an amazing Rolodex” of contacts in the arenas of government, human rights, academia and public health, Staples said.
He recalls asbestos promoters from Quebec would occasionally contact him to express frustration about the work Ruff was doing.
“They couldn’t understand her motives. They (would wonder), ‘Why is this 70-year-old woman from British Columbia making my life so hard and costing me so much money.’ They couldn’t figure it out.”
Ruff, now 76, was born in the United Kingdom and grew up in a working-class family in Richmond, a suburb of London. After studying French and English at Southampton University, she moved with her husband to Canada in the early 1960s. They lived in Hamilton, Ont., Fredericton, N.B. and Montreal before settling in British Columbia in 1968.
Ruff’s day job during those years was teaching — French to anglophones and English to francophones — but activism beckoned. While in Montreal, she became involved in the peace movement. When she moved to B.C., it was the plight of immigrant farm workers that first captured her attention and efforts, then the women’s movement and human rights more generally. She went on to become director of the B.C. Human Rights Commission and then a director of the Canadian Court Challenges Program, a non-profit organization that helps people fighting court cases that involve language and equality rights.
She first became interested in asbestos back in 2007. Canada was blocking the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on a list of dangerous substances under the Rotterdam Convention. That international treaty, to which Canada was a signatory, gives countries the right to be informed about, and refuse dangerous substances.
“Canada … was acting in this shameful way,” she said in an interview. “And no one was really doing much about it. That’s what drew me in more than anything, was that nobody was really challenging Canada.”
Federal politicians seemed reluctant to criticize Quebec or its asbestos industry, which was promoting chrysotile asbestos as safe, when used properly. But the scientific evidence that chrysotile was causing death and suffering in Canada was already in.
In 2004, Quebec’s National Institute for Public Health produced a report concluding that 832 Quebec residents had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, between 1982 and 1996. The United Kingdom had banned chrysotile in 1999, and bans were subsequently instituted in South America and Australia. As domestic sales plummeted, Quebec’s asbestos industry, with federal government funding and support, was aggressively marketing the product to the developing world.
Incensed, Ruff went to work. In time for the next meeting of the Rotterdam Convention in 2008, she wrote a detailed and strongly-worded report on Canada’s “unsavory” promotion of chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, in developing countries.
The report explained how the Chrysotile Institute — founded and funded by the asbestos industry, governments and unions — was using public funds to promote asbestos sales in developing countries. The Canadian government, she charged, was misleading poor countries into believing that chrysotile asbestos was a safe product, while paying millions of dollars to have chrysotile asbestos removed from the Parliament Buildings.
Canada, was using “intimidation, trade threats and political interference in the affairs of other countries to prevent the banning and regulating of asbestos” she wrote, and encouraging its use in poor countries, where enforcement of safety standards was virtually non-existent.
Appended to that report was a petition demanding that Canada stop blocking chrysotile’s listing under the Rotterdam Convention. Ruff went about looking for prominent health professionals and scientists from around the world to sign it. At the time, she didn’t have a lot of connections in Quebec, where she needed signatories most of all.
“The heart of the asbestos issue was in Quebec,” she said. “The other mines (across Canada) had closed down. Quebec had always been the biggest player in the industry and the centre of the asbestos lobby. Clearly, if things were to change it was critical … that there be reputable, independent, scientific experts in Quebec who would be willing to speak up, put forward the scientific evidence that it was harmful and has not been used safely anywhere in the world.”
But finding those voices in Quebec, at first, was not easy.
Historians say Quebec’s modern labour movement was born out of a protracted strike at four asbestos mines in 1949, partly over concerns about health hazards. In the decades following that strike, unions fought hard for and won better working conditions in the mines and plants. Workers expected union leaders to fight for their jobs, and that meant espousing the view that chrysotile asbestos could be used safely.
Also, the lion’s share of research on chrysotile asbestos in Quebec was done by researchers at McGill University in the 1970s, much of it funded by sources in the asbestos industry. Some of that research was used by the industry to suggest that chrysotile asbestos, the kind mined in Quebec and most commonly used in North America in the 20th century, was much less harmful to human health than amphibole asbestos. This research was not born out elsewhere and scientists agree that all types of asbestos can cause fatal asbestos-related diseases.
“A lot of people in Quebec hesitated to speak publicly (against chrysotile asbestos) because … they were afraid of the reaction of McGill,” says Turcotte. “McGill is one of the biggest universities in the country and a lot of people felt they would be exposed to attacks and consequences … That explains in part the difficulty Kathleen was having in trying to find partners in Quebec. So I agreed to play that role and I don’t regret it.”
In January of 2009, Turcotte and his colleague at Université Laval, Dr. Pierre L. Auger, joined three other health professionals from English Canada to publicly demand the federal government stop funding the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute.
Later that year, La Presse published a statement signed by Turcotte, Auger and a dozen prominent Quebec public health professionals and academics demanding an end to asbestos mining and export.
More public letters and opinion pieces, many written by Ruff, followed and the list of credible, prominent voices joining the anti-asbestos chorus in Quebec grew.
In February of 2010, Amir Khadir of Québec solidaire became the first leader of a Quebec political party to speak publicly against Quebec’s asbestos exports. At the time, Liberal Premier Jean Charest was on a trade mission in India, where he was being dogged by anti-asbestos activists. Back in Quebec, Khadir told reporters Quebec’s stance on the issue was “unacceptable”.
Khadir recalls the harsh reaction of colleagues when he broke the tradition of political support for asbestos in Quebec. “They discredited me, saying ‘You know nothing about the reality of the regions. You’re a guy from the Plateau’.”
But Khadir says the politicians and union leaders who supported the asbestos industry for decades, were not “bad guys”. They really wanted to believe that chrysotile asbestos could be used safely, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
“Sometimes people can be under so much pressure, they agree to things that with a bit more independence, they would not agree to.”
Khadir credits Ruff with pushing him and others to keep speaking out on the asbestos file.
“We need courageous people like Kathleen Ruff, completely independent of spirit to confront some of the solid consensuses in society. It is true that in Quebec, asbestos was still a consensus that seemed impossible to break even in 2009 when I came in the National Assembly.”
In December of 2010, Ruff organized a delegation of asbestos victims and activists from several Asian countries which imported Quebec asbestos to come to Canada and hold news conferences. They asked Quebecers to stand in solidarity with them and oppose the mining and export of asbestos.
In January of 2011, all 18 of Quebec’s directors of public health signed a public letter to the minister of economic development to urge against the expansion of Quebec’s last asbestos mine.
Then finally, in March of 2011, a union leader broke ranks with big Labour’s traditional stance and called on Quebec to get out of the international asbestos trade.
“Asbestos is hardly used in Quebec today, but is exported to developing countries like India,” said Claudette Carbonneau, then-president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux. “If the health and safety conditions do not prevent these fatal illnesses in Quebec, it is difficult to claim asbestos can be safely used in these developing countries.”
Nonetheless, in 2012, the Quebec government was poised to provide a $58-million loan guarantee to facilitate the expansion of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos. The Liberals had promised the money if re-elected that fall, and the Parti Québécois had always supported the industry.
The relaunch would have meant two decades more of mining in Quebec and the export of five million more tons of asbestos to developing countries.
Daniel Breton, a longtime environmental activist in Quebec, was running in that election as a star candidate for the PQ. Ruff knew Breton and knew he was against the mine expansion. She was lobbying him hard to get the party to say, before the election, that it would cancel the loan guarantee.
But as the election approached, the PQ had said nothing.
On Aug. 28, just days before the Sept. 4 election, Ruff was scheduled to speak on a panel about asbestos at the World Cancer Congress, which was being held in Montreal. Ruff called Breton and ratcheted up the pressure.
“I said to him that if we didn’t get a statement from the PQ then I would have no other option but to say in my talk that the PQ was no better than Jean Charest in terms of refusing to address (asbestos harm) and so … they were not worthy of being trusted by the people of Quebec.”
An hour before her panel, Ruff says she got an email from Breton saying the PQ was about to announce they would cancel the loan guarantee for the mine expansion. “I was able to announce it in the session.”
Breton, whom Ruff names as an “asbestos hero” in her blog, said in an interview that persuading the party to do the right thing on asbestos was not easy. Opposing asbestos had been seen as political suicide by all parties in Quebec for years, he said. He added that he knows from experience that the kind of activism Ruff practises is hard work that is often thankless.
“I salute her perseverance and her engagement in this cause. She really was one of the leaders who got Quebec out of asbestos,” said Breton.
The PQ was elected, and days later Premier Pauline Marois announced the government would not guarantee the financing of the mine expansion.
Two weeks later, the federal government announced it would stop blocking the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the list of hazardous substances in the Rotterdam Convention.
Ruff says she is humbled by news she will be honoured in Quebec’s National Assembly on June 9. She will accept the medal of honour in solidarity with Quebec’s public health community, leaders like Breton, Khadir, and Carbonneau and asbestos victims who had the courage to speak out.
And despite Trudeau’s recent announcement, Ruff warns the battle is not over. Canada still imports thousands of products that contain asbestos, and the safe management of asbestos in homes and buildings will be a challenge for years to come.
“Probably millions of people will be saved because Canada is not exporting asbestos anymore,” Staples said. “But Canadians still aren’t safe. We don’t have a registry. We don’t know where it is. And the fact they are still using this stuff to build hospitals blows my mind … So there is still a lot more work to be done.”
It is safe to assume Ruff will keep on fighting, he said.
“She is just unstoppable.”