BTC: What do you see?


This week’s asbestos thing is probably difficult to get excited about. A little lacking in relevance to your day-to-day life, what with your kids, your spouse, your job, those leaves that need to be raked, the flavoured tobacco your kids are smoking, Stephane Dion’s permanent tax on everything, Angelina Jolie’s marital status, the decline in the housing market, your retirement savings, international terrorism, the socialist who is about to be elected president of the United States, Madonna’s marital status, and the financial crisis that will ultimately leave your children with nothing to eat but flavoured tobacco already demanding so much of your attention.

So here’s another way to look at it. How you feel about asbestos defines how you feel about the fundamental human responsibilities of your government. It’s a political inkblot test.

The asbestos industry employs about 1,000 people in Canada. Much of what’s produced is then exported to countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia where its use may be sickening untold numbers of people who are not Canadian. A number of countries would like to require that any country receiving asbestos be explicitly warned of its potential harms. Canada opposes such an international agreement.

Let’s assume you believe, quite reasonably, that the government’s first responsibility is to the citizens it is elected to represent. But let’s assume you also feel, quite reasonably, that the government should act as a generally positive force in the world, championing abroad the same values it hopes to represent. Generally speaking, those two objectives aren’t going to be in conflict. But in this case they are.

So, first, how do you balance—or even choose between—them?

Do a thousand jobs for Canadians justify potential harm to citizens of other countries? If not, is there a number of jobs that would justify that harm? What about 10,000 jobs? Or 100,000? Does it matter how many people might suffer elsewhere? Or how badly they might suffer? What if they might die?

Do the jobs at stake matter more if they are specific to certain small communities that were dependent on those jobs? Does the government have a responsibility to sustain those towns, even if the products they depend on are hazardous to human health?

What about the socio-economic status of those receiving the potentially harmful product? Should the government take more responsibility if the countries accepting the stuff are relatively poorer and acting more generally out of desperation? Are we free to sell whatever we like if countries elsewhere are willing to buy it? Or, even if the opposite government won’t, should we take into account the human interests of those in other countries? What if the situation were reversed?

How do we choose between us and them? And how would we want other countries to balance those responsibilities?

That, simply enough, is the issue.


BTC: What do you see?

  1. And as you answer those questions, imagine that instead of Canadian, you are an Afghan. Instead of asbestos, it is a poppy crop. Does that change your answer?

  2. Jenn
    Except for the fact that Afghanistan and Canada are world’s apart in so many ways.

  3. Agreed….. we can’t judge Canada by Afghani standards. We judge Canada by Canadian standards.

    If we can figure out what they are.

    And that sometimes entails debunking our national mythologies.

  4. But if India, with its huge population, is desperate for our cancer-causing fibres. And their rupes are certainly good currency. Add in the fact that we can do an exchange, acquiring a number of their physicians to employ driving taxis in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But we’ll give them the Canadian dream.
    And they can help us be outraged that China is exporting lead-painted toys. It’s not hypocrisy that gives us the right to demand they stop exporting that stuff. But we are responsible, or that is our position when caught, and act accordingly when things are shipped into our borders.
    And our PM can stand outside the bathroom door hectoring quietly the great human rights criminal, before signing an accord with Colombia, or reason that we will decide what the Americans want us to do regarding our single prisoner in Gitmo. That’s leadership, Harper style.

  5. [C]ountries like India, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia all have internet access, where information on the dangers of asbestos is easily searchable.

    So it’s all a bit silly to be having this debate among nations on one country being required to warn another about the obvious and well-known dangers of asbestos as it travels across borders.

    Which also makes it pretty silly to be working so hard to fight that requirement.

  6. Simply warning the other country of the potential health effects seems quite reasonable. Give those countries the information they need to weigh the pros and cons. It’s too bad in these circumstances we don’t get more transparency from government so that we can completely understand the justification they use to support their stance.

  7. I agree with Jenn.

    As for the comment by Jean-Marc Samson, that “Afghanistan and Canada are world’s apart in so many ways.”, does this make Afghans any less human than us?

  8. To KSaber
    Surely no less human and a solution has to be found about the problems of the poppy crop.However,my reference has more to do with the wealth of the two countries,and unfortunately our “stand” on asbestos is way more political than it is financial.

  9. Indeed. You would imagine some disclaimer of asbestos’ carcinogenic properties would be necessary for liability reasons.

  10. The poppy crop has had thousands of years of use and while many have died or simply drifted away, the everyday encounters with poppy has not resulted in the horrible deaths by asbestos, in most cases years after the first encounter.

    Where I grew up we had (likely still have) asbestos ceiling tiles. In our houses. Just under a few coats of paint or cooking smoke in many cases. Asbestos (chrysotile) is quite beautiful; fine as green sea-glass with wispy airs.

    Asbestos was used for things like heat-proof trivets where we put our hot pots; oven mitts containing asbestos carried our food to table. I remember marvelling at how even I could, with the help of this wondrous material, carry a blazing hot pot from the fire to the table.

    I was also the proud owner of a beaker full of mercury. Some from school, some from careful gleaning of thermostats from torn-down houses. The winter hours I whiled away running that quick silver down HotWheels tracks into a wall to see that silver stream dash itself into thousands of perfect shiny warm icy-sleek orbs willing to collect themselves into one clean shiny ball just dying to do it again. With happy hands I scooped up that ball and set it in motion once more.

    Later I saw mercury used again in a whole different manner. I still have the gold pan and the memories of the rivers and creeks where gold sticks to mercury and visions of el dorado danced in my head.

    Sadly, those who were there who were older when we first used these everyday items are no longer here. Back then though, dying young was not extraordinary. Dying horribly was. Still is.

    As I set my feet in five decades I wonder still at the everyday-ness of such poisons as asbestos and mercury back then. And now. The death toll in Canada has not yet been counted, yet Canada will continue the merry dance and racing speed and light, and reflect again my youthful wonder at such substances. These substances will forever reflect back the horror of the heat, fever and insidious creeping death of those who once greeted them without a care in the world.

    I believe I know how I will die. As a Canadian knowing how so many others will die simply because Canada balks at denying this beautiful poison to others seems to me a worse pain than any disease can cause.

    The faces of the stricken will be for a moment reflected on the surface of asbestos and mercury. The face of a craven Canada will be indelibly carved into stone as long as Canada is an errant purveyor to far-away victims to come.

    It is time for Canada to do what is good for the easily bequiled by flashing silver, and put away these most beautiful of poisons, even if it costs money, jobs but surely not lives in Canada anymore. After all, Canadians travel the world and who knows when a Canadian could be caught up in a world of deadly beauty found in a flash of light and silver.

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