Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a few moments at the beginning of my speech to provide a history of the fight by asbestos workers. There are many key moments in this struggle. I think that we need to provide asbestos workers with immediate and proportionate help for all that they have done for this country for decades and for all the suffering that they have endured for close to 30 years now.
Why can the struggle of asbestos workers not be ignored? Let us go back to the very beginning. In the 19th century, a deposit of asbestos was discovered in the Asbestos region. For over half a century, people in the region worked under simply appalling conditions: even minimum workplace safety standards were not met and accidents occurred almost daily. Occupational health would have been more aptly described as occupational illness. People were sick on a regular basis.
Three other NDP members and I had a full day meeting with people from Asbestos at the end of the summer. Workers who are 50 or 60 years old told us about how, when they were young, they took their fathers lunch at the factory. When they opened the door, they could not recognize the fathers and mothers who worked there. They saw only shadows in a sort of opaque dust. They had to call out to their fathers, “Dad, it's me. I brought your lunch.” Their fathers would appear to be a sort of shadow in a big cloud of dust inside the asbestos mine. These are the types of conditions that people experienced until 1949.
In 1949, there was an event known as the Asbestos strike. That was the key point in this whole story. For eight months, the workers in Asbestos battled with law enforcement, and the other asbestos miners across Quebec quickly joined in. The Duplessis government was in power during this period, which was referred to in Quebec as the great darkness. Our kindly premier at the time considered any action taken by the workers to be the work of big bad socialism, even though the workers were getting together to demand something as fundamental as the right to not die at work. Our good friend and premier at the time saw this as big bad socialism. The battle was difficult and cruel.
One important thing happened during that time. For the first time, because these people were so destitute and in so much pain, the clergy did not take the side of the government of the day, which was unthinkable at the time in Quebec. A large number of the clergy sided with the workers. This is what led historians to claim that the strike was one of the first steps towards the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, if not the very event that instigated the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.
Gérard Picard, president of the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada, was my mother's favourite uncle. During my childhood, he would often recount the entire battle. Mr. Picard, my great-uncle, was regularly arrested by law enforcement officials for no reason, for example, because his left turn signal was not on for a full eight seconds. This harassment went on for over a decade. It was a very long battle for such simple demands as working without dying of lung disease.
Canada is also indebted to the asbestos workers. Everyone here knows the Right Hon. Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Asbestos has traditionally been associated with the start of his political involvement. He and others, like the Hon. Jean Marchand, went on to have long careers in federal politics. They are the ones who worked with Lester B. Pearson, in what was probably the Liberal government most influenced by social democratic values at the time. For example, they are the ones who proposed the first plans for universal access to health care, student loans and the Canada pension plan. The battle fought by the asbestos workers is in part responsible for helping to instigate these fundamental changes in Canada. Quebeckers and Canadians must recognize the historic importance of the battle fought by the asbestos workers.
International consensus on the harmful effects of asbestos on public health is motivating the NDP to take a courageous political position and to call for the ban of the use and export of asbestos. We cannot forget that this international consensus means collapsed markets and unemployment and despair among hundreds of workers. These people have fought to modernize Quebec and Canada as few other groups of workers have. They deserve our complete solidarity, and they deserve it now.
I will quickly go over the different points of the NDP motion, which calls for stopping the export of asbestos and also assisting affected workers as soon as possible.
First, the government must “ban the use and export of asbestos”. Internationally, the World Health Organization says that more than 107,000 people a year die from an asbestos-related cancer. The International Social Security Association—I have its report right here and we can see that it is rather lengthy—is calling for an outright ban on asbestos. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found that asbestos causes a number of different types of cancer. In Canada, since 2006, Health Canada has said that we cannot say that chrysotile asbestos is safe and we must choose to add it to the list of regulated substances. The Association des pneumologues de la province de Québec also favours banning asbestos mining.
The thing that is important about this part of the motion is that the main buyers of Canadian asbestos are Indonesia, India and the Philippines. We had discussions with the asbestos people and I asked a question that I felt got at the heart of the problem: can we guarantee that the young construction worker in the Philippines or in Indonesia who, in 10, 15 or 20 years will be asked to tear off the shingles from hundreds of roofs, will remove shingles containing asbestos in accordance with the necessary labour standards, in other words, wearing a mask and gloves, removing one shingle at a time and disposing of it in a self-closing container? It is impossible. Even those who support the use of asbestos could not guarantee that in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years, we will not be poisoning a young worker in Indonesia. No one could reassure me on this. That is the crux of the problem. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand.
Second, the motion calls on the government to, “support international efforts to add chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous chemical products.” This is the third time this government has spoiled international efforts to include chrysotile asbestos on the UN's list of hazardous materials. This is serious. It means that part of our Canadian diplomacy, which had such a good reputation in the 1970s and 1980s, until 1990, is currently supporting something that the entire international community condemns. Nearly everyone has been calling for a ban on asbestos. At the very least, it should be included on the list in order to send a clear message everywhere, from Korea to Indonesia, that it is a dangerous product. The government is involving Canada's diplomats in all kinds of processes to prevent that.
Third, the motion calls on the government to, “assist affected workers by developing a Just Transition Plan”. The workers' co-op in Asbestos, among others, has a long tradition of organization and job creation. It is such a key stakeholder in the economy there that it even owns shares in the mine. Imagine if funding like that given to the Chrysotile Institute—about $2.3 million over 10 years—were given to those people to create jobs.
Finally, the last point, which is very important to me, calls on the government to, “support communities and municipalities in asbestos producing regions through an investment fund for regional economic diversification”. Over the past 35 years or so, nearly $50 million in Canadian and Quebec public funds has been invested in supporting asbestos. That equals $1.4 million a year. If we were to invest $1.4 million in organizations like the local CFDC, we would be talking about a lot more than 300 short-term jobs for three or four months of the year. That would be the smarter choice.
Above all, the motion before us aims to put an end to the contempt being shown towards the people who work in the asbestos industry. I invite everyone to vote in favour of the motion, in order to immediately break the stalemate facing asbestos workers. Collectively, we owe it to them to lend our support as quickly as possible.