Bad news: late last Friday afternoon the Government of Quebec confirmed a $58 million loan to enable Jeffrey Mine to restart and expand operations.
Over the next 20 years, the mine is expected to extract 200,000 tonnes of asbestos annually for export, most likely to developing countries in Asia. Asbestos is rarely used anymore in Canada because health authorities warn it causes cancer when its fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Currently the federal government is spending millions to remove asbestos insulation from the buildings on Parliament Hill.
Sign up for our newsletter
Globally, it is estimated that asbestos exposure causes more than 90,000 preventable deaths each year. Some 40 countries have banned asbestos altogether, including all the member states of the European Union. But there's still a market for it in developing countries — thanks in no small part to Canada's hypocritical efforts to promote exports and block restrictions on international trade.
It looked like this sorry chapter in Canada's history might at last come to a close, when the last two asbestos mines in Quebec were shuttered last year. But the owner of Jeffrey Mine — an entrepreneur in the export business with connections in India, where asbestos is still used in construction — pitched the Quebec government on a plan to revive the industry. He had the support of local politicians, promising hundreds of jobs at the mine. All he needed was a $58-million loan guarantee from the province to help attract private investors.
That was objectionable, but it gets worse. Instead of the originally proposed loan guarantee, the province on Friday confirmed it would dole out $58-million in a direct loan to resuscitate Jeffrey Mine.
Perhaps private lenders were not convinced that keeping the mine open was a good investment — even with the prospect of a taxpayer-backed guarantee. Maybe they were deterred by Jeffrey Mine's credit history (the mine declared bankruptcy in the past), or by the dubious future of trading in a recognized carcinogen that countries around the world are moving to ban. Neither of these considerations, nor widespread public opposition, were enough to turn the Quebec government off the project. With an election in the offing, and the seat up for grabs in the riding where the mine is located, politics won out over principles.
Countries from around the world recently met at the United Nations conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Rio "Earth Summit" on sustainable development. Jean Charest attended the original summit as Canada's Environment Minister. Leading up to the recent Rio meeting we sent Quebec Premier Jean Charest a letter urging him to concretely demonstrate his continued commitment to sustainable development by ending his government's support for the deadly asbestos trade. We still haven't received a reply our letter.
But, while at the summit, Premier Charest issued a press release stating, "Today I return to Rio as Premier of Quebec in order to measure the progress of sustainable development at the international level, as well as to witness to the fact that Quebec is committed, and has been for 20 years, to realizing the commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit".
Actions speak louder than words, Mr. Premier. Quebec's decision to bankroll a revival of the Canadian asbestos industry flies in the face of the principles of sustainable development. Canada's international image as a leader on sustainable development isn't exactly glowing these days, and now it has been further tarnished with the stain of hypocrisy.