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A Toxics-Free Future


Canada is sending a terrible message to the rest of the world.- Kathleen Ruff editorial on asbestos

Canada is sending a terrible message to the rest of the world. Oppose responsible trade; reject scientific evidence; obstruct international co-operation.

By: Kathleen Ruff Published on Fri Feb 27 2015

The Harper government makes a lot of noise about how sitting on the sidelines is contrary to Canadian values.

But when it comes to taking action to promote responsible trade that is exactly what the Harper government does: sit on the sidelines brandishing an absentee card. Or, worse, it vetoes international action in an ugly and arrogant style.

Harper won’t say, but it looks like Canada will be sitting on the sidelines at the United Nations Rotterdam Convention conference in May, refusing to support listing chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under global trade rules. In so doing, Harper will help Russia continue exporting asbestos to developing countries with no safety controls required.

Canada’s conduct is reprehensible and goes beyond the asbestos issue and into the very guts of who we are as a country.

  • Canada is promoting a global double standard:

The purpose of the Rotterdam Convention is to address the double standard whereby hazardous industries export products – that are banned or severely restricted in Western countries – to developing countries, claiming they are safe. We are protected; they are not

Chrysotile asbestos is a hazardous substance under Canadian law. But the Canadian government won’t support its listing as a hazardous substance under international law. Chrysotile asbestos, apparently, is hazardous to Canadians but not to folk overseas. 

Thus we promote inferior protection for people in developing countries than for ourselves. 

  • Canada is rejecting the scientific experts:

The Convention’s expert scientific body (the Chemical Review Committee) has repeatedly recommended that chrysotile asbestos be put on the Convention’s list of hazardous substances. The Harper government says the recommendation is correct and meets all the criteria of the Convention. 

But Canada won’t support the recommendation. There is one word to describe this conduct: sabotage. 

  • Canada is rejecting Health Canada’s advice:

The government’s own Health Canada experts recommended that Canada support the listing of chrysotile asbestos. The government rejected their advice, placing politics ahead of health. 

The government’s ideology and political agenda put extractive industries, such as the oil and gas industry, in the driver’s seat, ahead of effective health and environmental regulations. The Rotterdam Convention promotes responsible trade by setting internationally binding regulations over trade in hazardous substances. Harper has never expressed commitment to protecting people from asbestos harm. He is, however, strongly committed to protecting industry, saying he would not allow the asbestos industry “to be discriminated against.” In referring to “discrimination,” he apparently meant safety regulations in the Rotterdam Convention.

  • Canada is showing contempt for democratic values:

Public health policy should be public. Not so for the Harper government. It has consistently refused to tell the Canadian public, Parliament or the media what position Canada would take on chrysotile asbestos at upcoming Rotterdam Convention conferences.

The Convention requires decisions to be taken by consensus. Countries are supposed to provide reasons for their position and debate them. Not so Canada. For the past decade, Canada has refused to provide any reasons for its position and refused to discuss or co-operate. It has simply thumbed its nose at the rest of the world, sending a powerful message of international non-co-operation when it comes to protecting people from industrial harm.

  • Canada’s role is Missing in Action:

At the UN conferences in 2006, 2008 and 2011, Canada played a lead role in opposing the listing of chrysotile asbestos, along with its handful of allies, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Iran and Zimbabwe. At the 2013 conference, Canada ceased its opposition, instead sitting on the sidelines. After being lead saboteur, we were now Missing in Action, while tacitly supporting the seven countries that opposed the listing – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Zimbabwe and Vietnam – countries with whom we have collaborated for years to promote the asbestos trade.

  • Canada is opposing responsible trade:

Disrespectfully, at the 2013 UN conference, Canada gave no explanation for its changed conduct. Canada’s then-Minister of Industry and asbestos trade supporter, Christian Paradis, explained in the House of Commons, however, that “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.” 

The reason Canada stopped sabotaging the Convention is not because Harper changed his position, but because the Parti Québécois government closed the asbestos mines. Harper still supports unregulated export of asbestos, thus abetting Russia, the world’s biggest asbestos producer. If Quebec asbestos mines re-opened, the Harper government would then resume sabotaging the Convention.

Canada is sending a terrible message to the rest of the world. Oppose responsible trade; reject scientific evidence; obstruct international co-operation to build a safer world. 

This is being done in our name. This is the legacy we are giving to our children and the world.

Shame on us if we allow this to continue.


Kathleen Ruff is co-coordinator of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, director of and senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute.