Parishioners protest

Published April 1, 2012

If the fourth of the five Marks of Mission seeks to transform unjust structures of society, how can Anglicans sit by while Canada exports cancer-causing asbestos to people in the developing world? That’s what the Rev. Michel Dubord would like to know. Until he hears of some kind of ethical solution, he’s made it his mission to protest the exporting of Canada’s asbestos. His protest, which began during Lent, will continue until the end of April. Each week, accompanied by parishioners from St. John’s Anglican Church in the Ottawa suburb of Richmond, Dubord carries signs to the community’s memorial cenotaph honouring the war dead. It was chosen as the protest site to emphasize the threat to life for asbestos users in developing countries. “We want to get the message out that Canada exports a hazardous substance to some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” says Dubord.The substance in question is chrysotile asbestos, a white silicate mineral used as a binding agent in cement. The rot-resistant material is also used to fireproof as well as insulate homes in Africa, India, Korea and Thailand-even though it is a known carcinogen that has been linked for decades to fatal pulmonary diseases. Critics point out that Canada is the only G8 country to allow the export of asbestos and the only G8 country that has not supported adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous substances in the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty on the traffic of hazardous chemicals and substances.While occupational safeguards protect workers in this country, “Canada has no means of monitoring the use of Canadian asbestos elsewhere,” says Michaela Keyserlingk, an Ottawa-based asbestos activist. And despite safety rules here, the mineral poses a serious threat to Canadians as well because it has been used in the construction of tens of thousands of homes and public buildings.According to the World Health Organization, asbestos is responsible for about 100,000 deaths a year worldwide. Asbestos sheds tiny dust fibres that, once inhaled, become entangled in lung tissues. This can trigger asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, as well as lung cancer and mesothelioma, a terminal cancer of the lining of the chest wall. It can take decades for asbestos exposure to translate into diagnosable diseases.Until recently, the mineral was extracted at two mining sites in Quebec, which in their heyday sent hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos to developing countries. The facility at Thetford Mines closed last year, at least temporarily, due to access problems, and the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que., also cut back operations last year due to money problems in mining operations underground. The Jeffrey Mine’s owners remain hopeful, however, that the Quebec government and private investors will solve these problems. The mine is still producing 20,000 tonnes. (At its peak it mined 800,000 tonnes.)Keyserlingk knows all about the insidious course of asbestos poisoning. In 2009, her fit and health-conscious husband, Robert, a retired university professor, died from mesothelioma. Never a smoker, he had spent summers in the 1940s and 50s working on naval ships, where he was exposed to asbestos. “Today, there are still plenty of schools, hospitals and other public buildings with asbestos in them,” she says.After Robert’s death, Keyserlingk embarked on a campaign to stop Quebec mining companies from exporting asbestos to the developing world. Her website at documents the dangers of asbestos and shows how people of conscience can help influence the federal government to shut down the mines for good and end the export of asbestos to the developing world. For its part, the Quebec industry association, known as the Chrysotile Institute (, says it is committed to the safe and responsible use of asbestos. It also points out that current WHO policy does not support a chrysotile ban. The WHO has proposed a global plan of action on workers’ health, which, according to the institute, suggests that asbestos-related diseases can be eliminated by the controlled use of chrysotile. The ailing Quebec asbestos industry is fighting back. Bernard Coulombe, executive director of the Jeffrey Mine-the world’s largest asbestos mine-disputes the WHO mortality figure and says the number is much lower. He also contends that Canadian chrysotile is less hazardous than other forms of the mineral. The mine’s owner, Balcorp Ltd., is seeking a $58 million bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government as well as $25 million in private investment to revive operations.In 2011, a campaigning Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the position that Canada is only one of several exporters of chrysotile, which remains a legal building material in many countries. His government, he said, would not put Canadian industry in a disadvantaged position in a market that permits the sale of asbestos.So, even as Ottawa is removing tonnes of asbestos from federal buildings, it supports the export of Canadian asbestos abroad.Though tragic, the rising toll of asbestos-related disease and deaths in Canada (estimated at 100 a year) is helping the cause of activists like Keyserlingk and Dubord. “What’s really raised awareness is the growing number of Canadians who are having serious health problems or dying-especially in indigenous communities where the houses are full of asbestos,” Keyserlingk says. The Quebec asbestos-mining industry appears to be on its last legs. And activists such as Dubord and Keyserlingk are appealing to people of faith and conscience to keep it that way.For related feature article, see

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  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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