Quebec's Liberal government announced last June a $58 million loan to Mine Jeffrey Inc. for the revival of its chrysotile asbestos extraction project. This loan was conditional on the financial involvement of up to $25 million in the project of Balcorp Ltd, a Montreal-based international trade company with associated offices in India. The population of Asbestos received the announcement with great enthusiasm: twice, in 2008 and in 2009, the mine had temporarily ceased its operations, leading to the layoff of about 300 workers.
However, no one seems to really attack these long periods of recurrent unemployment head-on. As soon as the mine restarts, people tend to forget the underlying problem and they no longer speak about it. But yet, this is one of the biggest drawbacks of the mining industry: its phases of recession due to its reliance on foreign markets. Less affected by the high variability of the prices in the metals sector, the asbestos industry has had to cope instead with a permanent decline since the 1970s, a consequence of the continual decrease of the demand for this material, which causes a constant fall of production.
And why is the demand going down? Because fifty-five countries in the world (including all of the European Union) have banned the use of this mineral due to fears regarding its toxicity.
If this sector played an important role in Quebec's economy for more than a century, it has now become a dying industry that cannot survive without government support. Forced into bankruptcy in 2002, Mine Jeffrey, one of the last two asbestos mines in Canada, placed itself under the protection of the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in 2003.
The lobbying of this mining sector however has been bearing fruit. In 2001, opposition political parties in Québec City blew the whistle on the possible influence of Balcorp's president in the decision to grant a collateral loan to Mine Jeffrey. Balcorp's president had organized a fundraising cocktail party for the benefit of the Québec Liberal Party, an event that brought in $ 20,000 to the party. That same year, Harper government took part in efforts that aimed to block the inclusion of asbestos on a United Nations' list of dangerous chemical substances.
Obviously, the reasoning is not limited to economic factors as the main issue about the asbestos industry is health. The health of industry workers, but also the health of people exposed to this fiber in their working environment or elsewhere. Numerous studies confirm the connection between the exposure to this material and the development of various kinds of lung diseases and cancers. Moreover, this causal association is the subject of a broad scientific consensus.
The issue of health is not limited to Quebec since asbestos is mainly produced in order to be exported to countries such as India or Indonesia. Furthermore, the Canadian Cancer Society has spoken out against the government's support for the reopening of the mine. It argues that workplace health and safety standards in these countries are not strict enough. Moreover, Indian activists have expressed misgivings as to the loan granted to Mine Jeffrey by the Quebec government and ask it instead to come to the aid of asbestosis victims in their country.
A range of experts, associations and organizations, nationally and internationally, have spoken out against this loan. They have urged the Quebec government to definitely suspend operations of the asbestos industry. Among them appear about a hundred scientists from 28 countries, families of victims of asbestos related diseases, Greenpeace, Québec meilleure mine, and many other nonprofit, medical and public health organizations and associations based in Quebec. As for the World Health Organization (WHO), it more generally takes a stand against the use and exportation of this mineral. Even the World Trade Organization (WTO) admits the carcinogenicity of this material.
As for Canada, it simply banned the use of this product within its own borders, without necessarily banning its exploitation and exportation. It stands to reason that the financial support to this industry, the promises of spin-off and the assertions from the two levels of government saying that asbestos can be used safely are not only blatant contradictions, but qualify as insults to intelligence.
The economic diversification of the regions could represent a better use of the public money. Many alternatives are taking shape in terms of green-collar jobs (based on ecological restoration of housing developments, transportation systems and electricity infrastructures), as highlighted in a report from the CCPA on the green industrial revolution.
Despite this, short-sighted policies of the Liberal government kept fostering economic dependence and job insecurity, and persisted in artificially keeping alive a deadly industry, itself doomed. Time will tell if the newly elected Parti Québecois government will keep its promise to cancel the $58 million loan to the mine. If not, we'll have no other choice than to conclude that if history repeats itself in such a way, and officials keep making the same mistakes, asbestosis is nothing more than one of the endless ills brought about by the "white gold".
This article was written by Laura Handal, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank. Translation by Dominique Lemoine