Thursday, 18 July 2013

Former Asbestos Cheerleader Christian Paradis is the new Minister for International Development

As part of the changes to his cabinet on Monday, July 15th, 2013, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Christian Paradis to the post of Minister for International Development. Twice the Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding Megantic-L'Érable, Paradis was Minister for Natural Resources from 2010 to 2011 and Minister of Industry from May 2011 until this past Monday when the most recent cabinet shuffle was announced by the Canadian government. Paradis is Harper's Quebec lieutenant and has also long been associated with the asbestos debate in Canada.
Paradis was once a vocal supporter of asbestos but he and the federal Conservative government have recently been forced to change their tune as a result of the election of Quebec Premier Pauline Marios, who stopped her predecessor's fifty-eight million dollar loan guarantee to the Quebec asbestos industry. The federal government has since begun promoting a plan to diversify the economies of towns reliant upon the asbestos industry.

The global asbestos industry over the past couple of decades has shifted its focus to market to developing countries. Before the Canadian mines closed in 2011, much of the asbestos exported to developing countries (mostly in Asia) was from Quebec, Canada. As a supporter of the asbestos industry, Paradis therefore also supported the export of asbestos to developing countries, without concern that it is often mishandled in factories and also by consumers due to lack of safety regulation and enforcement. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure often results in dangerous health consequences like asbestosis and cancer.

So the question is: Can Mr Paradis succeed in promoting healthy development around the world in the role of Minister for International Development with a past coloured by his support of the asbestos industry?

Paradis was born in the Quebec town of Thetford Mines, which was the home of one of the world's largest asbestos mines. Thetford Mines' open pit and underground asbestos mines were open from the late nineteenth century until 2011. Paradis has a legal practice in the town. He is also the head of the town's chamber of commerce.

As the Prime Minister's top Conservative MP in Quebec, Mr Paradis was a long-time cheerleader of the asbestos industry in Canada. He was part of a Canadian tradition, both Liberal and Conservative, to support the asbestos industry, even as the rest of world was on the opposite side of the argument.

In 2011, Canada stood alone in front of the world at the Rotterdam Convention, the lone voice in opposition of the decision to officially recognize chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous material. In 2012, though, Paradis announced that Canada's official stance on the issue changed - Canada would no longer block the placing of chrysotile asbestos on the list of hazardous materials at the 2013 Rotterdam Convention. (However, the listing was blocked by seven countries, who mine or import chrysotile.)

Despite the fact that the change in Canada's stance was a positive note in the anti-asbestos fight, it is important to note that this decision did not come freely from the government of Canada. The decision was the result of the newly elected Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marios delivering on an election promise; that, if she was elected, she would halt the fifty-eight million dollar loan promised by former Quebec Premier Liberal Jean Charest to reopen asbestos mines in the province.

She was elected and she stopped the loan from reinvigorating the Quebec asbestos mines, forcing the federal government to acknowledge the death of the entire asbestos industry since the Quebec mine are the only ones left in the country.

Paradis said that that it would be illogical to continue blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention after Canada was no longer in the business. Kathleen Ruff has written that this sends a clear message to the world: If you have economic interests in a dangerous or hazardous industry, you should fight against efforts to control or regulate that industry.

Ruff has also called Canada's change in heart too little too late and even cowardly. She says it is easy to stop opposing the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance when you don't have anything to lose (because you won't lose money since the mines are already shut down). But it takes courage to commit to change because it is the right thing to do to protect the health and therefore prosperity of all citizens.

Though the Canadian government has taken this first step, however small, it is troubling that there was no mention of the terrible health effects of asbestos at all by the government when discussing its decision to not block the listing of chrysotile on the Rotterdam Convention. Instead, Paradis lamented the negative economic impacts that the closing of the mines for good would have on the community.

To combat the jobs lost as a result of the end of the asbestos mining industry in Quebec, Paradis also announced in 2012 that the Government of Canada would pledge up to fifty million dollars to economic diversification in area in which the local economy was reliant upon asbestos.

But it is important to ask if Premier Marios had not stopped the loan Charest had promised to the asbestos mines, would Paradis and the Canadian government have announced this plan at all or would they have allowed the mines to continue exporting deadly asbestos fibres around the world and into unprotected consumers' lungs?

While job loss as a result of the closing of the mines can be handled with this plan, the health consequences of mining and exporting of a carcinogenic fibre will haunt mining communities in Quebec and communities in developing countries all around the world for years to come.

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