Inquiry into Quebec’s asbestos mining legacy reveals shocking findings

It has witnessed deaths, lack of compensation and safety and lower penalties in contrast to other Canadian provinces

Thetford Asbestos Mines in Quebec. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Thetford Asbestos Mines in Quebec. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Exposure to asbestos caused 85 per cent of all workplace-related illnesses in Canada’s Quebec province between 2005 and 2015, according to an ongoing inquiry.

The 1,107 deaths were confirmed by the province’s workers’ safety agency, CNESST, before the inquiry by Bureau des Audiences Publiques sur L’environnement (BAPE), in December 2019. 

The Quebec government agency confirmed an annual average of 250 diagnoses of asbestos-related illnesses and 120 deaths from on-the-job asbestos exposure.

BAPE has to submit its report to the government by July 24, 2020. It was mandated in September 2019 to figure out what should be done with the heaps of asbestos-laced residues of mining in the province.

Canada has been in a quandary regarding asbestos residues. The mineral was mined in the Estrie and Chaudière-Appalaches regions of Quebec between 1870 and 2012. Breathing in asbestos fibres has been associated with cancer since the 1930s.

Most developed countries banned its use decades ago. But in Canada, it was only in 2016 that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau banned the import, sale, use and export of asbestos and products containing asbestos in Canada. The ban that came into effect in 2018, however, exempted asbestos residues.

Many companies in Quebec want to use the residues that contain manganese, magnesium and silica, in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Producing magnesium ingots for car manufacturing
  • Making fertilisers
  • Cutting steel and sandblasting

The companies say there is no asbestos fibre in the residue and that harvesting them would not just help in their disposal but also create economic opportunities for the province.

The inquiry also revealed other shocking findings.

For instance, Quebec allows its workers to be exposed to more asbestos fibres in the workplace than other provinces. The limit is one fibre per cubic centimetre of air. That is 10 times higher than the limit in the rest of Canada, and 100 times higher than the norm in some European countries.

Even more worryingly, many workers in Quebec are refused compensation because their employers contest their claims. This is lesser than other major Canadian provinces like Ontario and British Columbia even though Canada’s asbestos mines are primarily in Quebec and it has a longer history of use in the province.

Even when companies in Quebec provide the best available equipment, workers end up breathing asbestos dust.

Finally, legal penalties are lower for flouting asbestos-protection norms.

An employer who intentionally exposes a worker to asbestos in Quebec is liable to a fine of $68,721. In Ontario, this amount is $1.5 million and one year in prison, whereas it is $500,000 plus $30,000 per day (of exposure), plus one year in prison in Alberta.

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