The “Asbestos Issue:” Then and Now, Again and Again

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Janice Haney Carr
Janice Haney Carr

This past July 1st, I was fortunate to have been able to attend one of the anti-asbestos protests in London on Canada Day while in the United Kingdom for research. Why was I researching in the UK? Because the first reported death due to asbestos-related disease was a woman who worked in a textile factory outside of Manchester in the late 19th century. Why were there anti-asbestos protests across the UK and around the world on Canada Day? Because there has been global shock and outrage aimed at both Quebec and Canada over the past weeks, months, and years due to the continued support of the province’s asbestos industry.

July 1st was the day Jean Charest planned to make his pledge of $58 million in subsidies to the struggling industry official, which made the Canada Day protests this year especially well-publicized. In the end, and perhaps partly due to international pressure, the $58 million Charest pledged to help establish and maintain 425 full-time positions at the mines in the province’s “asbestos belt” was reduced to $25 million, with a promise to find additional funding in the future, possibly meaning when media interest in the issue fades.

Quebec once provided over 70% of the world’s supply of asbestos, a once-valuable and highly sought after fireproof mineral that was used in everything from insulation to military uniforms to filters for baby incubators. Breathe in deep; if you’re in a major city, you now have asbestos in your lungs—it’s everywhere.

The industry collapsed in Quebec in the 1970s and 1980s due to rising awareness of the health risks associated with the mineral, and the federal and provincial governments have been subsidizing it ever since. Because of this collapse, and despite the subsequent government funding, Quebec fell from 1st to 5th in the global asbestos trade, producing far less of the deadly mineral than Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan!

If this is the case, then why is Canada still an international target for those opposed to the asbestos trade? Is it because Canada’s the only country in the western world that continues to mine and sell the mineral, not to the rest of the western world, (where it’s illegal to buy—though not to sell—asbestos), but to developing countries like India? Does the international community hold Canada to a different moral standard than Russia? Should Canada have a different trade philosophy than China? Is this fair?

Is the international focus on the Quebec asbestos industry actually an expression of global confusion over how Canadian history, culture, and politics work? Is it an attempt by countries with their own suspect relationship with asbestos to shift the blame? What role can environmental history play in a better understanding of this issue? Loretta Lynn has her coal miner’s daughters, Stompin’ Tom Connors has his Sudbury Saturday nights, and Cape Breton has its Men of the Deeps. What does Quebec’s asbestos industry have? What is it about this mineral specifically that makes the world outraged?

While held on July 1st to target Canada specifically, the Mesothelioma Action Day in London this year was aimed more at education than protest. Mesothelioma is fascinating disease: it’s a rare and fast-acting cancer that affects the lining of major organs about 30 years after exposure to asbestos. That’s right: this is one of the few cancers that has a clear cause (asbestos particles are found in the tumours) and a clear cure—prevent anyone, anywhere from being exposed to asbestos. This is an environmental and occupational disease that should be a relic in history, something that once occurred, but doesn’t anymore. Because of Canada’s role in helping to block UN resolutions to ban the trade of asbestos globally, mesothelioma is not even close to becoming an extinct cancer.

Most mesothelioma sufferers (or “victims” as they are often termed) are open about the pain and the cause of this disease, but Chuck Strahl, formerly one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s bosom MP’s, hasn’t had much of a problem with this. Strahl is quite famous in the UK asbestos circles, as he’s been suffering from mesothelioma for years, yet in his political life has supported the government’s decision to keep the asbestos industry alive. One of the few MP’s known outside of Canada, many in the UK are surprised that Strahl is still alive because of how rapidly mesothelioma typically ravages the human body. What they cannot understand—and understandably so—is that in Canada, whether you’re from Quebec or British Columbia, it’s political suicide to come out against the asbestos industry.

I’ve studied the Quebec asbestos industry for 6 years and have often been asked if there are historical factors present in the current debate, and I would say that there are definitely deep and complex issues at play here. When it comes down to it, Quebec’s asbestos industry is regarded as a major factor in the modernization of the province, when it moved from a primarily agricultural society to one where industry reached beyond the limits of major cities and labour groups began to really impact how corporations were run in Quebec. Some historians would say the Asbestos Strike of 1949 was an expression of this change, but it goes much deeper than that, and it’s time historians stopped placing contemporary Quebec into a nice and neat Quiet Revolution box. It goes deeper than this, and lies in a real desire in Quebec society to make decisions for themselves. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? The end to Quebec’s asbestos trade will come, but it needs to do so on local and provincial levels. Canada’s constitution clearly puts the environment in the hands of the provinces and the people of Quebec, (who have a long history of fighting for control of their own territory), not an outside governing body, are the ones who need to choose when and how the industry will end.

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I am an Associate Professor in the Department of History at McMaster University m. My research interests are in transnational environmental health and contamination, and I always seek to blend historical research with public engagement. I’m currently a Co-Investigator on the Mining Danger SSHRC Insight Grant, while also developing an augmented natures project. My monograph, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Change, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community was published by UBC Press in 2016.

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