National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Michelle Cote says her father didn't want to see anyone else have their life choked from them the way he did before succumbing to asbestos-related disease last July.

Cote added a human face and emotional wallop Thursday to a long overdue federal government announcement that Canada will ban asbestos-containing products by 2018.

It marks the beginning of the end of the road for a storied Canadian product that was first mined in Quebec in the mid-1870s — but has been known to have deadly health impacts since the 1970s.

Clem Cote, a boiler maker from Sarnia, Ont., didn't want to become the public face of mesothelioma after he was diagnosed with the terminal, asbestos-caused cancer in 2014. But when his daughter asked him if she could take up the cause, he readily agreed.

"I talked to Dad and said, 'Dad, are you OK?' and he said 'I don't want anyone else to die like this. Go. Do what you've got to do,'" a teary Michelle said Thursday at a cancer centre at Ottawa's General Hospital.

"That's why I have his hard hat, this is his hard hat, and I carry it everywhere I go."

Four Liberal cabinet ministers had just announced the comprehensive ban, which comes following years of lobbying by unions and public health advocates and long after other developed countries, including the entire European Union.

"There is irrefutable evidence that has led us to take concrete action to ban asbestos," said Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.

"Today is the first step to ban asbestos — its manufacture, its export, its import — and we hope to do this, we will do this, by 2018."

There will also be new workplace health and safety rules, changes to the building code and an expanded inventory of public buildings that contain asbestos.

This year, about 2,300 new cases of asbestos-related cancer were diagnosed across the country, continuing a trend the Canadian Cancer Society says it hopes has peaked, long after heavy asbestos use began to decline. About three quarters of those new cases are lung cancers and 25 per cent mesothelioma.

"We were hoping to see it starting to decline this year," said Gabriel Miller of the cancer society.

"It hasn't happened yet, so hopefully we have peaked but that still means, for years to come, at or about the level we're at now."

Mesothelioma, in particular, can take 20 or 30 years to appear, setting up a deadly generational sleeper cell.

Canadian shipments of asbestos fibre peaked at almost 1.7 million tonnes in 1973 with a value of $234 million. But as recently as 2010 about 100,000 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos were still mined in Quebec. Quebec's last two asbestos mines closed in 2011, which was also the last year Canada recorded any exports.

Imports of asbestos-containing products — mostly friction materials such as brake pads, and construction materials — were down to $5.9 million in 2014, according to Statistics Canada.

However even in a fading market, Canada continued to balk at international efforts to label chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous material.

"As long as we were mining this product and exporting it from Quebec and Canada, our federal government was reluctant to interfere in the economic activity of Quebec," Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said following Thursday's formal announcement.

Under the Rotterdam Convention, 156 countries have listed asbestos as hazardous. The Liberal government suggested it will sign on at the 2017 spring meeting.

"It's very important that we join almost every other country in the world in showing that we recognize the health risk associated with asbestos, we recognize the need to take action together," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

There doesn't appear to be any funding attached to Thursday's announcement, and federal officials hedged when asked whether Canadians might anticipate help in having asbestos removed from their homes.

Public Service and Procurement, meanwhile, says there are almost 400 Crown-owned buildings and 70 per cent of them contain asbestos.

The asbestos plan includes creating an inventory of provincial and territorial public buildings to add to the growing federal list.

Workers, meanwhile, continue to lodge difficult-to-verify claims under provincial worker compensation programs for catastrophic illnesses related to their jobs or work spaces.

"This has been a horrible fight throughout the years to get the boards across the country to recognize this as a compensable disease," said the CLC's Yussuff. "That work will now intensify."

Health Minister Jane Philpott told the news conference the announced ban is only the beginning.

"There's clearly much more work to be done on a number of fronts and we look forward to doing that with our partners."

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect number of asbestos-related cancer cases.

The Canadian Press
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