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UN Rotterdam treaty on toxic trade restrictions marred by Canada’s stance on asbestos

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ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: The Rotterdam Convention protects people the world over from hazardous substances. Under the convention, a committee of experts has created a list of harmful chemicals, which corporations cannot export without informed consent from the receiving country. Recently Canada shocked the world by blocking the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos to the list. Kathleen Ruff, former director of the BC Human Rights Commission and founder of, has been campaigning against this move.

KATHLEEN RUFF, FOUNDER OF RIGHTONCANADA.CA: This product is already banned in many, many countries. It should be put on the list for prior informed consent. That was the recommendation, and under the convention rules, it should have been listed. More than 100 countries wanted the recommendation of the experts to be respected, wanted the convention to do its job as it’s supposed to do. But Canada, supported by five other countries, blocked the more than 100 countries who wanted the convention to do its job.

ZAA NKWETA: Canada’s position is mysterious, given that asbestos is a minor mineral in the economy. Barry Castleman, who has been battling asbestos use, says Canadian party politics is playing a major part in promoting asbestos with Canada’s official diplomatic support.

BARRY CASTLEMAN, ScD, ENVIRONMENTAL CONSULTANT: This has been a tradition with the Canadian federal government just to try and subsidize and resuscitate the asbestos mining industry in Quebec. But this has really about played out. The competitors in the world are all closer to the markets, the main markets being in Asia, and the competitors being Kazakhstan and Russia, in South America, Brazil, and in Africa, Zimbabwe. And these are industries in countries that don’t have any regulation or protection for workers for the most part, maybe a little in Brazil. The Canadians, between the shipping costs and the costs of trying to produce the mined material in a slightly hygienic way, at least, can’t compete with these other countries. So it’s only a matter of time before the Canadian mines are closed down anyway.

NKWETA: It seems Canada’s internal politics is influencing decisions and making it a champion of a toxic substance like asbestos.

RUFF: Canada has had an asbestos industry in the province of Quebec for many decades, and it has been one of the leading exporters of asbestos around the world. That asbestos industry in Quebec is dying. It’s down to just one company in operation. Eighty percent of the workers have lost their jobs without any assistance from the government of Canada.

NKWETA: Canada’s chemical and asbestos lobby have been active in Geneva to prevent asbestos from being put on the Rotterdam list. Kathleen Ruff says it challenges the values Canada stands for.

RUFF: I don’t know whether it’s because our government at the moment—we have a minority government that is ideologically what you would call fundamentalist in terms of putting corporations’ interests first and disregard the health and lives of people I don’t know [sic]. Another reason could be that if Canada admits signs that chrysotile asbestos is deadly, then perhaps it feels that it will be on the hook for compensation to the people across Canada who are dying from past-use asbestos, and it might be responsible or the asbestos industry might be responsible to pay for the cleanup of asbestos-contaminated sites across Canada. Canada says it stands for human rights and democracy, but what it’s doing on the asbestos issue and on the Rotterdam Convention is completely disregarding the lives of people and the health of the environment, and it’s doing it in a totally undemocratic way. There has been no democratic debate in Canada, no public debate on Canada’s positions.

NKWETA: And just how is Canada being perceived in the rest of the world because of its role?

CASTLEMAN: Canada is increasingly being seen as an obstacle to progress in toxic substances controls, especially asbestos. It’s just a real shame to see that the Canadian government doesn’t wake up and realize that the times have changed and that whatever justification might have appeared for subsidizing the asbestos industry 15 or 20 years ago is long gone now.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Kathleen Ruff is founder of, a human rights website that supports citizen action. She was the former director of the B.C Human Rights Commission.

Barry Castleman is an independent consultant in toxic substances control and author of several books, including most recently, Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects.

Kathleen Ruff is founder of, a human rights website that supports citizen action. She was the former director of the B.C Human Rights Commission.