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June 30 2011


Canada Causes Cancer: Government & Industry Collude to Keep Asbestos Off UN Hazardous Chemical List

Last week, the Canadian government successfully and unilaterally stonewalled efforts to list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical at a United Nations conference in Switzerland. 

According to Michael Stanley-Jones of the UN Environment Program, “[Canada] intervened in the chemicals contact group meeting ... and opposed listing". This is the third time that Canada has derailed efforts to list the deadly mineral under the Rotterdam Convention.

Following Canada's lead, the only countries that opposed listing asbestos under the convention were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. Even India, one of Canada's largest asbestos customers and the leader behind efforts at COP 4 against listing, changed its stance.

Asbestos is a potent carcinogen, and is known to cause pleural plaques, asbestosis, mesothelioma, as well as cancers of the lung, esophagus, and colon. For over 100 years, scientific evidence has demonstrated the dangers of asbestos.

Canada is the only advanced industrialized country that exports asbestos, and does so predominantly to the developing world where there are few health and safety standards. The Canadian position is widely considered hypocritical because the country exports a mineral banned in domestic construction, and have spent millions ridding parliamentary buildings in Ottawa of the toxic substance, all while lobbying extensively to ensure that asbestos remains unregulated. 

The centre of controversy currently is a new asbestos mine proposed in Quebec that would export 5 million pounds of asbestos to Asia.

How can Canada conscionably export cancer-causing asbestos to the developing world given the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that asbestos is carcinogenic? The key to that question lies in an extensive government and industry-backed lobbying and misinformation campaign that operates on an international scale, with Canada at its centre.

Like Big Tobacco did years before with the Council for Tobacco Research, the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute was founded in 1984 amidst growing opposition to the industry and its health implications. Asbestos had such a bad rap that the industry chose to fight tooth and nail to salvage its profits by spending millions on misinformation and to fight bans. The asbestos industry colluded with the Canadian government in an effort to use various means to pressure, threaten, and intimidate Brazil, Chile, France, Lebanon, South Africa and South Korea not to regulate or label asbestos as hazardous. 

In 2003, recognizing that it was increasingly difficult to peddle a known carcinogen, the Asbestos Institute was rebranded to drop the key word that the public recognized as dangerous and deadly.  The Chrysotile Institute (CI) was born with a mandate to market chrysotile asbestos as safer, and to suggest that it was not carcinogenic like amphibole asbestos. Though 95% of the world's asbestos is chrysotile, industry figured the name sounded safer - sort of like Big Tobacco did with "light" cigarettes. Still deadly, just slightly less so, and the profits keep flowing. Instead of recognizing that the product is too dangerous, the industry and government simply engaged in image control.

The Chrysotile Institute alleges that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely and responsibily, and that it can be broken down and eradicated from the body. Industry-backed lab rat studies allege that chrysotile asbestos does not cause cancer. This directly contravenes prevailing scientific literature from the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the Canadian Cancer Society, all of which argue there is no way to use asbestos safely.

The Chrysotile Institute's go-to "expert" is David Bernstein, who has received funding from the Canadian government, Chrysotile Institute, Union Carbide and Georgia Pacific in addition to the Brazilian asbestos institute. In fact, Bernstein has been accused of mispresenting his credentials, and is apparently not qualified as an epidemiologist, industrial hygienist, medical doctor, or pathologist, and not a single scientific body anywhere agrees with his views.

Despite these inconvenient facts about the industry's favorite expert for hire, his talking points are parroted widely as fact. Even Dimitri Soudas, Harper's communications director, argues that "All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions”.

In reality, only industry-funded studies suggest that chrysotile asbestos does not cause cancer. The Chrysotile Institute's stance reads like a page out of the big tobacco playbook: defer responsibility, create doubt, and encourage inaction. Doubt truly is their product, only in this case, it is developing and poor countries that will bear the true costs of the misery that is being exported by Canada.

The federal government funds the Chrysotile Institute to the tune of $250,000 annually to lobby on behalf of the asbestos industry, and the Quebec government matches that.  Since its inception, it has received over $50 million in public funds. The group maintains that they promote the safe use of asbestos, and work to track regulatory developments relating to asbestos around the world.

Rather than promoting the safe use of asbestos abroad, the Chrysotile Institute is at the centre of the global lobbying effort of the asbestos industry. According to a report from International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the institute funds a dozen sister organizations around the world. These organizations then influence science and policy in their own countries. ICIJ tracked $100 million in public and private money spent since the mid 1980s in Brazil, Canada, and India, all to keep asbestos on the market.

The Chrysotile Institute also insist that they promote the “controlled” use of asbestos and the adoption of appropriate safety measures. But it’s not an accurate picture of the industry by any means. Reporting by the Globe and Mail and ICIJ found inadequate protection measures and widespread exposure to asbestos dust.

Now, to return to the question of the new asbestos mine that would export 5 million tonnes of asbestos to Asia. Quebec’s Economic Development Minister Clement Gignac is championing the government’s decision to expand the mine. A 2004 Institut National de Santé Publique (INSPQ) report found rates of mesothelioma among men in Quebec nearly 10 times greater than for the rest of Canada and the rate for women to be among the highest in the world. It is also believed that asbestos disease is under-reported.

Not only is Canada's asbestos killing Canadians, it is killing people in the developing world. For the 400 jobs that the asbestos industry creates, why is Canada risking its international reputation and the health of millions to export cancer to the developing world? Will it move forward with a toxic mine, or follow the prevailing scientific evidence and help curb a worldwide epidemic of painful lung diseases and cancers?

May 04 2011


Facing Four More Years of Harper Inaction, Canadians Must Rally Their Own Climate Leadership

Earlier this week, Canadians flocked to the polls for the fourth time in 7 years. This time around, the election was triggered when the minority government led by Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper was found in contempt of parliament in March for failing to release information related to the costs of proposed crime legislation and the purchase of stealth fighter jets.

From the moment the election was announced, Harper derided it as ‘unnecessary’, and ‘unwanted’ even though public polling clearly indicated widespread displeasure with his handling of the economy, public programming including programs for women, the environment, and for proroguing parliament twice. After the 2008 election, when voter turnout was the lowest in Canadian history (59% overall, and a dismal youth turnout of 37%), people wondered if this so-called ‘unwanted’ election would fail to motivate voters to the polls.

While pundits and pollsters made their best guesses leading up to election day, no one correctly anticipated the outcome. With just under 40% of the vote, the Conservatives finally won the majority they have coveted since ascending in 2006. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 102 seats and formed the official opposition for the first time in history. The Liberal Party was reduced to a mere 34 seats, and the Bloc Quebecois lost 90% of its seats to end up with 4. On the positive side, Green Party candidate Elizabeth May won her party’s first seat in North American history.

Of the 14 closest ridings that Conservatives won seats, the combined margin of victory in all those ridings was 6,201 votes. That means the real difference between a Harper minority and majority was just over 6,000 votes. While 5.8 million people voted for Stephen Harper, another 9 million – the ‘real majority’ – voted for change. But, with his new majority, Harper no longer has to worry about impediments to his extreme ideology; he can ram his anti-science, pro-polluter agenda down the throats of the Canadian public. That spells trouble for Canada's environment, and it's especially bad news for the global climate.


Despite the news headlines of Harper’s ‘victory,’ sixty percent of Canadians still don't support his economic policy. Harper will likely table the same budget that he presented before the election. It focused on the economy and jobs - and no, I don't mean green jobs. Instead, Harper continues to promote and prioritize policies that hold Canada back from a prosperous clean energy future.

The Harper budget proposes to slash funding for clean energy programs and efficiency incentives – all significant job-creation vehicles that happen to protect rather than harm the global climate system.

The Conservatives have yet to introduce climate legislation to meet science-based international commitments to rapidly curtail global warming pollution. Harper’s position isn’t expected to improve over his last 5 years of inaction and obstruction, during which he failed to put in place any meaningful policy to meet his own weak pollution reduction targets (that aren’t even science-based). These policies made Canada a laughing stock in Copenhagen and Cancun. Now, with four years of unchecked Harper power, we’ll likely see more of Harper’s embarrassing stonewalling at international climate change summits including this fall in Durban.

What else have we to look forward to?  Will the government continue to muzzle scientists, who are required to seek ‘pre-approval’ before speaking with journalists?  

Will Harper even end the wasteful stream of $1.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to incredibly profitable oil and gas companies? Will he even continue to pay lip service by calling for a gradual phase-out of a small portion of these polluter subsidies? 

The world’s scientists have cautioned that climate disruption won’t wait four more years for a real Canadian action plan to materialize – if it does then – so we must act now, with or without Harper.

Even though we have our work cut out for us, this election caused a noticeable shift in Canadian politics, one that not only felt inspiring during the run-up to the election, but also one that produced a tangible outcome. The feeling that I have is like nothing I've ever experienced, and I know I’m not the only one who feels it.

A movement was born over the past few weeks, when Canadian youth woke up and engaged in politics. They are organizing. 

In my free time outside work obligations, I am one of those organizers. Some friends and I recently staged an action outside of a Harper press conference in Victoria. We criticized Harper’s campaign for failing to mention the issues that really mattered to young people – including climate and the environment.

Because of recent pressure on the Conservatives for kicking a student out of a rally and attempting to nix a special ballot on a university campus, a group of us were invited in (with no media present) to speak with the Prime Minister. In typical Harper fashion, we were allowed to ask 2 questions, the first about post-secondary education, the second about Canada’s horrible reputation for climate change inaction.

Demonstrating how out of touch he is with the most pressing challenge facing humanity, Mr. Harper seemed unfamiliar about the upcoming UN climate talks in Durban, and when he talked about Canada’s representative at the most recent climate talks, he referred to “Minister Prentice” (wrong guy, it was John Baird). At that moment, I worried for the future of my country.  

And I'm not alone. Many people fear what a Conservative majority will mean for the issues that many Canadians care about: banning dangerous tanker traffic on the west coast, ending dirty energy subsidies, and creating binding legislation for global warming pollution reductions. We are faced with an uncertain future, while scientists continue to alert us that there is no time to waste. 

We must work together to hold this government accountable. We need to work together for our First Nations communities that are suffering environmental anguish, for the accountability and oversight necessary to rein in the dirty tar sands boom, and for investment in a renewable energy future. We must demand a clean future, and a world that is safe for our children. 

Over the coming months and years, we must be vigilant, and work with an urgency and sense of purpose. We don't have time to wait for a new government to respond to the environmental crisis. We must respond now.

We must lead now. To the 'real majority' of Canadians out there, are you ready?

December 14 2010


Legislation Introduced To Ban Oil Tanker Traffic On B.C.’s North Coast

Today, Liberal MP Joyce Murray introduced legislation to Canada's House of Commons to formally ban oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s North Coast. This comes days after a successful House of Commons motion demonstrated support for a legislated ban on oil tankers.

Despite last week's victory, the motion is not binding, and formal legislation such as the one proposed today will have to be passed to legislate a formal ban.  The Conservative government maintains that a ban is unnecessary since a long-standing, informal moratorium on oil tankers has been in effect since 1972.  Without a legislated ban, however, opposition parties fear the Tory government could allow tanker traffic in order to profit from growing Asian energy markets.<!--break-->

A 2010 Mustel poll for Forest Ethics demonstrated that 80 percent of British Columbians support a ban on crude oil tankers in B.C.’s coastal waters.  51 percent of Canadians oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, and those who strongly oppose the ban far outnumber proponents.  Support for a ban has been growing since 2008 when 72 percent supported a ban.

The proposed legislation will be debated and voted on in Canada's House of Commons in 2011.  It would amend Part 9 of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 to prohibit the transportation of oil by oil tankers in the areas of the sea adjacent to Canada’s Pacific North Coast known as Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance.  It also allows the Governor in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, to designate other areas of the sea in which the transportation of oil by oil tankers is prohibited. 

Any formal legislation would put a lid on Enbridge's plans to develop a $5.5 billion 1,170-kilometre pipeline to carry tar sands bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to Kitimat, B.C., to be loaded onto supertankers destined for hungry energy markets in Asia.

There has already been widespread criticism for Enbridge's Northern Gateway project including the 61 First Nations groups from the Fraser Watershed who issued a declaration banning oil pipelines and tankers.  To date, no First Nations group has publicly declared support for the project. 

According to Enbridge’s own Corporate Social Responsibility Report, they have a glowing record of environmental performance, safety and fairness, and public disclosure.  This record is somewhat fulsome if you consider their spill record.  According to the Polaris Institute, Enbridge caused 713 spills between 1999 and 2009.  These spills released approximately 21.3 million litres (133,856 barrels) of hydrocarbons into the environment.

Perhaps as a consequence of their spill record, Enbridge has been hard at work in B.C. to build 'grassroots' support for their pipeline project.  According to information secured by the Prince George Citizen, Enbridge has been footing the bill for a Astroturf front group to build support for their pipeline project.  The Northern Gateway Alliance is the work of Enbridge who fears opposition to their profitable pipeline.  Former Prince George mayor Colin Kinsley is he chair of the Astroturf Alliance and on Enbridge's payroll. 

Will the House of Commons legislate a formal ban on oil tanker traffic in B.C.'s North Coast? Review the legislation introduced today here [PDF]. 

Image Credits: Dogwood Initiative

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