The Harper Government: Merchants of Death

LOOK OUT the window of my Elgin and Albert Streets office, one block south of Parliament Hill in Canada’s Capital, and you will see before you a building in part reduced to rubble. The reason is that this Government of Canada edifice contains asbestos, or as it is now more commonly known, chrysotile. Across the city and the nation, this poisonous stuff is being extirpated. And, at the same time, the current Prime Minister of Canada is actively abroad promoting its sale, in what are euphemistically termed developing countries. If that in itself is of insufficient force to turn your stomach, please do yourself the favour of reading on, for there’s more.

In so many areas, there may be said to be controversy over the conclusions of medical science and environmental research. On this topic there is not. That is, putting aside the inevitable (self-) interest group — in this case the Chrysotile Institute, whose emphasis is necessarily upon risk management and “safe and reasonable use.” Chrysotile, or “white asbestos,” constitutes ninety-five percent of all asbestos in use. The science concerning its negative health effects is not equivocal. Known to be a dangerous substance since the 1920s, asbestos’ principal legacy is the lung disease known as mesothelioma, in which the dense fibres of asbestos penetrate the lungs while breathing, never to be expelled. This accumulation is at times carcinogenic, and by coincidence has led to cancer of the lungs for a former Minister in the Harper Government, Chuck Strahl.

The Government of Canada today joins Russia and Kyrgyzstan at the forefront of the battle for increased asbestos exports, and especially at the United Nations. In doing so, it puts a Quebec microindustry employing a few hundred persons ahead of the health of Asian and Indian workers. As many observers have noted, a substance banned in the “rich” countries is sold in the poor (asbestos is a relatively inexpensive and robust building material), and considered from a political perspective this arrangement bears the additional fruit of critical Quebec votes. Note that this cynical and colonial-era arrangement obtains over the objections of the Canadian Medical Association as well as over a Quebec study, “The Use of Chrysotile Asbestos in Quebec,” which concluded:

because chrysotile asbestos is a proven human carcinogen and causes asbestosis, and because in practice it is difficult to achieve safe use, especially in the construction, renovation and asbestos processing industries, the INSPQ [Institut national de santé publique du Québec] is of the opinion that the promotion and increased use of chrysotile asbestos in its traditional forms should not be endorsed by the ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux.

The Harper Government, as is so often the case, bares its contempt of research. The promotion of chrysotile abroad joins the promotion of D.D.T. in the litany of immoral commercial undertakings. But because the deadly health effects of asbestos do not manifest themselves for twenty or thirty years, Stephen Harper may reasonably expect to be ensconced in a (asbestos-free) reinforced retirement bubble when the accounting comes due. Such calculating foresight is not uncommon among the class of political scoundrel which the Prime Minister seems desirous to place himself.

As if giving cancer a deepened second- and third-world toe-hold weren’t a good enough day’s work, the Conservative Party of Canada is now threatening legal action against an “asbestos widow” (a phrase we may expect to hear more often), Michaela Keyserlingk. She campaigns against chrysotile, using the Conservative Party logo in her propaganda. It is the CPC’s prerogative to issue a cease-and-desist order, but here again the Conservatives disclose their tone deafness in matters political. This action once again places them on the side of lawyers and industry and profit and against the victims. It appears there is no snake oil whose sale the Conservatives will not sink to undertake. And it will be the poor and weak and politically unconnected who in a very real sense will pay the price.

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