MONTREAL – The party considered the front-runner in the Quebec election is poised to shut down what’s left of Canada’s asbestos industry, following its lengthy and controversial decline.
The Parti Quebecois says it would start by cancelling a $58 million loan, promised by the current Liberal government, to help reopen what would be the country’s last asbestos mine.
It would then hold consultations with several hundred workers around Asbestos, Que., about diversifying the regional economy and finding replacements for an industry that, according to PQ Leader Pauline Marois, is a relic from another era.
Documented links between asbestos and cancer have prompted much of the developed world to stop using it in construction materials.
Now Marois says all signs point to a ban.
“All the trends are headed there. We know the health studies illustrate that,” Marois said Wednesday, referring to the links with cancer.
“We can still spend an hour or two with (workers) to correctly clean up the file and take the decisions that need to be taken and show people that they can count on a PQ government because the financial resources will be there for diversifying the region.”
But she added that a complete shutdown of the industry was the “path that seemed clearest at the present moment.”
That statement from the PQ, leading in the polls with a week left in the provincial election, could be a fatal blow to an already frail Canadian sector.
With Jeffrey Mine relying on the $58 million loan to reopen, and with Quebec’s other remaining asbestos mine in disrepair, the PQ policy could effectively end a Canadian industry that for much of the last 130 years dominated world production and led to the construction of entire towns.
Until recently, Quebec political parties were staunch defenders of asbestos but concerns about the health impact, particularly in poor countries, worked to turn the political tide.
Proponents of the industry insist chrysotile asbestos can be safe if packaged and handled with the right precautions; its detractors question whether safety standards can ever be adequately guaranteed in the developing countries where it’s exported.
The commodity was once hailed as the “magic mineral” for its fireproofing and insulating characteristics. Canadian asbestos represented 85 per cent of world production in the early 1900s and annual production peaked at 1.69 million tonnes in 1973, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The resource was so valuable that the U.S. military drew up plans during the 1930s to enter Quebec and defend the mines if Canada ever fell under German control, according to Jessica Van Horssen, a McGill University researcher who’s studied the history of Quebec asbestos.
In a 2011 interview, she said Nazi leader Adolf Hitler bought Canadian asbestos up until the Second World War for fireproof building material and Winston Churchill’s bunker on Downing Street was also made of asbestos cement.
But the industry began its decline in the 1970s as science started linking asbestos exposure to serious health problems, such as lung disease and cancer. By 2010, Canada produced just 5 per cent of the world supply at 100,000 tonnes, the USGS says.
The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die globally each year from asbestos-related disease.
Premier Jean Charest, the Liberal leader and election underdog, called Marois’ announcement poor economic policy and he accused her of “political opportunism.”
“There will be a growing demand over the next 25 years so why attack a project and a region if not for scoring political points on the back of a single region,” Charest said.
He levelled the same accusation at the other main party leader, the Coalition party’s Francois Legault, who has also promised to ban asbestos. He called it wrong to let people die abroad in order to save jobs here.