Canada’s unions have been working hard for this ban for decades. Asbestos is the leading cause of workplace-related death in this country. More than 2,000 Canadians die every year from asbestos-related cancers like mesothelioma, and because it can take 20 to 50 years for cancer to develop after exposure, that number will initially continue to rise.
Banning asbestos will lead to better occupational health and safety protections for workers. Experts estimate that 150,000 Canadians are exposed to asbestos at work, particularly in industries like construction, automobile maintenance, shipbuilding, trade contractors and waste management. Internationally, the World Health Organization reports more than 100,000 asbestos-related deaths per year.
In the years that we’ve been working towards a ban, I’ve spoken to many people whose lives have been torn apart by asbestos-related disease. Many had lost a loved one. Others were battling an asbestos-related illness themselves. I’ve also met workers who unknowingly brought deadly asbestos fibres home, exposing their children and spouses. I’ve even met spouses who are now battling mesothelioma because they were exposed to asbestos fibres while washing their husband’s work clothes.
Their stories struck a personal chord for me. Working as a mechanic in my 20s and 30s, I, like so many others in my trade, was exposed to asbestos in brake pads and clutches. Because asbestos-related cancers have such a long latency period, I don’t know yet if I’ll be one of the unlucky ones. What I do know is that there are far too many workers who, unlike me, may have been exposed to this killer for years without even knowing it.
Even more frightening is the knowledge that so few people realize that asbestos exposure remains a very real danger. Many people I spoke to on this issue over the last several years believed that when Canada stopped mining asbestos, the risk of exposure dropped drastically. In fact, imports of products containing asbestos — like brake pads and construction materials — have risen sharply, nearly doubling over the last five years.
Even as more than 50 countries banned asbestos themselves, asbestos imports to Canada grew, from $4.7 million in 2011 to $8.3 million in 2015. Deaths from mesothelioma increased 60 per cent between 2000 and 2012.
A ban on asbestos is about protecting workers, their families, and communities. It is about saving lives, here in Canada and internationally. I commend the federal government for its leadership, and I urge the provinces and territories to work diligently to help implement the ban. Canada’s unions are committed to working with governments at all levels — and with First Nations — to ensure this ban is as effective as possible.
For a start, we need to remember the legacy of Raven Thundersky, a tireless health advocate who died of asbestos-related cancer after losing several family members the same way. Her home on the Poplar River First Nation, like thousands of others on reserves, was filled with friable asbestos-laced vermiculite insulation.
Provinces and municipalities need to work on inventories of public buildings containing asbestos. All governments need to work together to harmonize regulations around remediation and disposal.
The work ahead will be challenging, but is absolutely essential.
Last week’s announcement from the federal government is the result of years of struggle and the hard work of people dedicated to safer, healthier workplaces. Today, I celebrate with them and I thank them for giving the next generation of Canadian workers a better future, free from the pain and suffering caused by asbestos.
Hassan Yussuff, president
Canadian Labour Congress