Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s control, Canada has gone from being a leader in global environmental and health negotiations to being an international pariah. Unlike previous Canadian governments that were praised for their leadership in peacekeeping and reducing landmines, Canada is now the international bad boy.
Harper’s policies on cancer-causing asbestos and heavily climate-polluting oilsands are undermining progress on international health and climate agreements, such as the Rotterdam Convention and Kyoto Protocol. Canada’s embarrassing positions could affect the health and survival of millions of people worldwide.
Canada’s recent action to block asbestos from being listed as a hazardous chemical under an international convention is just the latest in what is becoming an undistinguished track record. Canada has been drawing fire for blocking mandatory warnings around the dangers of asbestos to be required under an international convention. Environment Canada recommended that Canada support listing asbestos as a dangerous carcinogen, but Harper’s government decide to overrule them and stand alone as the only industrialized country against mandatory disclosure of significant health impacts. Only Canada, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan opposed the United Nations declaration last week.
Asbestos is only the latest in a series of decisions in which the Harper government has prioritized partisan regional economic interests to prevent international action on an issue that could affect the health and survival of millions of people worldwide.
While deplorable, Canada’s position wasn’t a surprise. Harper’s government has openly supported Quebec’s asbestos industry politically and financially, giving millions of dollars to pro-asbestos industry organizations. In fact, during the federal election campaign Harper twice visited the riding where the town of Asbestos, Que., – and one of Canada’s last chrysotile asbestos mines – is located. All this despite the fact that the World Health Organization warns that “at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures.” These deaths are collateral damage to Harper because the Canadian asbestos industry – isolated into a tiny corner on Quebec – is politically powerful and brings an estimated $90 million into the country.
But Harper’s prioritization of powerful regional industries over the survival of people in other parts of the world is not unique to asbestos. The same is true for the oilsands. Harper continues to subsidize the oilsands with money and sympathetic tax policies as well as rules that allow massive development without safeguards to protect our air, land and water. The consequences are mindboggling. The UN Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that 325 million people are seriously affected by climate change – a number it says will double by 2030. Apparently for Harper the hundreds of billions of dollars the oilsands pumps into the Alberta economy trumps the hundreds of thousands of people that the UN estimates will die each year as a result of global warming.
Even Conservatives have condemned Harper for his death-causing position on asbestos. Former MP Chuck Strahl, who until the recent election served under Harper as Minister of Indian Affairs, has denounced Harper’s position on asbestos. Although it could lead to far more deaths, Conservative critics of Harper’s position on the oilsands and global warming have been less numerous, but international criticism abounds. At recent UN meetings on global warming, the Harper government has received numerous “fossil awards,” because of its steadfast support for the expansion of the emissions-heavy oilsands, and role in undermining meaningful international co-operation on reducing heat-trapping pollution. In fact, Canada has won an unprecedented three consecutive “Colossal Fossil” awards – aka the Fossil of the Year awards – which is handed out to the country that has done the most to obstruct global climate negotiations.
While the humanitarian consequences are shocking, Harper is betting that Canadians will forget about his deadly policies come election time. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps Canadians will be willing to tolerate the 90,000 deaths from asbestos and the hundreds of thousands who will die if the oilsands and Canada’s global warming pollution-intensive industries are allowed to expand unabated. Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Canadians want strong regional economies, but not at the cost of the lives of others. A poll released by the Pembina Institute last week showed that British Columbians support carbon taxes and are confident that taking action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution will help grow, or have little or no impact on, the provincial economy.
According to the poll, the majority of British Columbians (69%) are worried about climate change and most (70%) want the province to continue showing leadership on the issue without waiting for other jurisdictions to take similar steps. These sentiments have been echoed in polls in Quebec and Ontario.
Canadians are not prepared to sacrifice people at the altar of asbestos and oilsands. Unfortunately, we now have a government in Ottawa that is prepared to do just that. The Conservatives are counting on the theory that these death-promoting policies won’t cost them votes in the next election. Together, let’s prove them wrong.
Will Horter is the executive director of the Dogwood Initiative.