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Ignatieff waiting on science to decide asbestos export position

When Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff arrived April 29 to sign copies of his latest book, True Patriot Love, at Munro's bookstore in downtown Victoria, he was greeted by Raging Grannies protesting the government's support of the asbestos lobby.

Asbestos became an issue for Ignatieff after a visit to Victoria in March when he told a town hall meeting, “Our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop.”

Supporters of such a ban, frustrated with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's inaction on the file, were thrilled with Ignatieff's comments and circulated them, only to be disappointed when he later backtracked.

What does he think now?

“The complication in the issue is simply chrysotile asbestos in the Eastern Townships of Quebec,” he said. “I've had strong representations since I said what I said, which has been my basic position, that there is a form of chrysotile asbestos that is not as harmful as other forms.”

Whether that's true is a matter of science, not opinion, he said. “The issue is whether that is factually correct or not. The government has a study on chrysotile asbestos they have not released. They should release that and then we can resolve this once and for all.”

He added, “It doesn't substantially alter what I said in Victoria. It simply says on that issue we need further scientific clarification.”

If it is harmful, he said, it should not be exported or produced. “No country, certainly not Canada should export materials that are known to be harmful. Nor should we produce them.”

A doctor who is a member of Ignatieff's Liberal caucus and represents Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Keith Martin, said there's plenty of evidence to support banning the export of chrysotile asbestos. “The export of asbestos is the export of a dangerous substance and it certainly contravenes World Health Organization guidelines,” he said. “Canada should be a party to that in the interest of public health.”

Martin last year introduced a motion in the house of commons to ban the export, he said, and reintroduced it this year. “As an individual member of parliament it's something I'm fighting for, and as a physician,” he said. “We really need to step up to the plate in my view and ban the export of chrysotile asbestos.”

As a party the Liberals will continue working towards a unified position, he said. “We're certainly interested in tackling this and the government's not,” he said. “I hope at least we get marks for trying to tackle this issue as opposed to sticking one's head in the sand and not willing to talk about it at all which seems to be Mr. Harper's position.”

Hedy Fry, the MP for Vancouver Centre, is also on record supporting a ban on asbestos exports.

Ignatieff and Martin made their comments the day after Liberals and Conservatives on the Standing Committee on Natural Resources voted to provide $250,000 to the Chrysotile Institute, an industry lobby group.

“The government is funding grotesque misinformation that harms people,” said Kathleen Ruff, a senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs. “I'm shocked the Liberal Party would allow itself to be tainted by this wrong doing . . . [For] the Harper government, we don't have the highest hopes.”

Ignatieff's hour-long book signing was crowded, by the way, with a line-up out the door and down the street. Store workers, however, said they'd had even bigger turn-outs at signings by former prime minister Jean Chretien, feminist Gloria Steinem and pro-marijuana icon Tommy Chong.

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

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