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Liberal leader Ignatieff backtracks on commitment to ban asbestos exports

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told a B.C. crowd on Saturday that he supports a ban on the export of asbestos, but his position appears to have since weakened.

“Our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop,” he said responding to a question at a March 28 town hall meeting in Saanich attended by hundreds of people and recorded by The Tyee.

He noted at the time that the position might get him in political trouble. “I'm probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I'm unaware, but if asbestos is bad for Parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else,” he said.

The commitment went unreported in the media until activists who have been working to stop the export of asbestos circulated Ignatieff's comments. That drew a press release from the industry and government funded Institut du Chrysotile and a column in Quebec City's Le Soleil on Tuesday criticizing Ignatieff. Canada's remaining asbestos mining industry is centred in Quebec.

The Liberal Party has always supported the asbestos industry, Le Soleil quoted the institute's president Clément Godbout saying. There must be many people in the party who are surprised today by Ignatieff's comments, he said.

On Wednesday the Ottawa Citizen quoted Ignatieff saying Canada has an obligation to warn other countries of the dangers of asbestos, but stopped far short of repeating the call for a ban on exports.

“We knew he would come under intense pressure from the asbestos lobby to recant,” said Kathleen Ruff, a senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs.

Ottawa reporters have told her Ignatieff denied on Wednesday having said he would support a ban, she said. “We never thought he would deny the comment he made in Saanich that this export must stop.”

A call to a media contact in Ignatieff's office was not returned by posting time.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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