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Canada labelled 'immoral asbestos pusher' as Harper visits Quebec mining town

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pauses during a campaign event in Asbestos, Que., on April 26, 2011.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Stephen Harper says he won't allow a substance synonymous with cancer to be reintroduced in Canadian homes or schools but he's firmly behind allowing Quebec's maligned asbestos industry to export its product to willing buyers abroad.

The Conservative Leader made a campaign stop in Quebec's Eastern Townships to show the failing asbestos industry some support, a move the Tories are hoping will enable them to win a seat in the area.

Mr. Harper's stumping, however, sparked renewed pressure on him to end Canadian production and export of the cancer-causing mineral.

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The matter hits close to home for the Tory Leader. One of Mr. Harper's own cabinet ministers, Chuck Strahl is a victim of asbestos.

Mr. Strahl, not seeking re-election, has been diagnosed with incurable lung cancer - mesothelioma - believed to be triggered by breathing asbestos when he was younger.

But the Conservative Party chief was defiant when challenged on the subject.

He said it's not fair to deny a Canadian enterprise export markets for a product that's in demand elsewhere. And he declined though to reconsider a ban on using asbestos in homes and schools.

"We have no plans to do that but chrysotile, specifically, is permitted internationally under conditions of safe and controlled use," Mr. Harper said.

"Canada is one of a number of exporters of chrysotile and there are many countries, in which it is legal, where there are buyers," he said.

"This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted.

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Asbestos is a silicate mineral used in building construction that can trigger cancer if it's inhaled. Its sale is restricted in Canada but large quantities are exported to developing countries. Most forms of asbestos have been banned in the European Union.

The Conservatives, however, support the industry. Ottawa funds an asbestos industry lobby group and fights international efforts to restrict trade in asbestos.

A coalition of environmental and union activists released an open letter to Mr. Harper Wednesday, urging him to stop backing the failing industry.

"The science is indisputable that all asbestos is deadly. Not a single reputable authority supports your claim that chrysotile asbestos can be safely used," the Rideau Institute's Kathleen Ruff said in the letter on behalf of more than 15 activist groups. "Canada is becoming known as an immoral asbestos pusher and as an enemy of global public health. This is not the role Canadians want to play in the world."

Asbestos is home to the Jeffrey mine, one of the world's largest asbestos mines.

The Tories are hoping their bid will help them wrest the riding of Richmond-Arthabaska from the Bloc Québécois. It's an uphill battle however; the Conservatives lost in the 2008 election by more than 8,800 votes.

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The Conservatives are running Jean-Philippe Bachand, brother of former Progressive Conservative MP André Bachand, as their candidate.

The Quebec government recently approved expanding the Jeffrey mine as well as a $7.5-million economic diversification fund for the region.

The aid is expected to boost employment at the Jeffrey mine to 425 full-time jobs from 225 part-time jobs.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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