Asbestos, Abortion and the Canadian Prime Minister's cats
by Perry Bulwer
Several Canadian Parliament buildings, including the Prime Minister's residence, are currently undergoing renovations to remove deadly asbestos used as insulation for decades before it was known to cause cancer and other deadly diseases. That particular kind of remedial renovation has been going on across the country for some time now, in all kinds of buildings including homes and schools, because there is absolutely no doubt that asbestos kills people. Those renovations on Parliament Hill will cost taxpayers close to one billion dollars, but the politicians and bureaucrats who work and live there deserve a safe environment so the cost is justified. Or is it? Perhaps those politicians, who love to call themselves public servants, ought to actually serve the public before serving themselves, and first end homelessness and near homelessness by ensuring that all citizens have adequate, safe housing before they fix up their own house. They obviously care little about the citizens they claim to serve, especially the poorest ones, but even worse, most of the politicians, including a medical doctor, who are part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government have absolutely no qualms about exporting Canadian-mined asbestos to poor countries where it will surely kill people. Either that or they simply ignore their conscience and obey the dictates of our anti-democratic Prime Minister.
To save the Canadian asbestos export market, which brings a mere $90 million into the economy (that's 10% of the cost of renovating just those Parliament buildings), Stephen Harper ordered his government delegates attending the 2011 Rotterdam Convention to oppose listing asbestos in the international list of hazardous chemicals. Listing asbestos as a hazardous material would not prevent Canada from exporting it. Instead, listing it would simply require Canada to acknowledge the well established harms to health it causes and provide health information labelling on export shipments. Yet Stephen Harper is not willing to take even that minimal step to protect people in poor countries, including women and children, who will be exposed to Canadian asbestos, though he is willing to protect himself and his colleagues by spending a billion dollars to remove it from his home and work place. That deadly hypocrisy is obvious to both the international and domestic communities.
Adding to Harper's hypocrisy on the issue of asbestos is the fact that he claims to be an international advocate for maternal and child health. In September 2011, a day before attending a high-level conference at the U.N. on maternal and child health in developing countries, Harper stated: "Canada continues to play a leading role on the world stage – from improving the health of women and children in developing countries to ...." If that is true, why is he endangering the health of women and children by allowing exports of Canadian asbestos and insisting that no health warnings of its toxicity accompany those exports? He is obviously aware that asbestos is dangerous to health, otherwise why remove it from the Parliament buildings at such great expense at a time of serious fiscal instability. Does Harper think women and children in India, for example, do not deserve the same protection from asbestos as he and his colleagues, or the women and children of Canada? Here is how asbestos affected just one Indian family.
One thing Rajendra Pevekar remembers from falling asleep on his father’s chest as a child is the smell of burnt plastic and the shiny specks of dust sticking to his clothes.
What Pevekar didn’t know was that the dust had a name -- asbestos -- and a record of wrecking the lungs of those who inhale it. Only last year did he draw a connection between the fiber from the auto-parts factory where his father worked sweeping the floor, the man’s early death, the disease that left his mother crippled and his own shortness of breath.
“This is a slow poison,” Pevekar said in an interview at his home in Mumbai’s working class neighborhood of Ghatkopar. “It destroys your lungs and you don’t even know it.”
Canada was India’s second-largest overseas supplier of asbestos in 2009, trailing Russia, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics database.
We should not look to Harper's politically motivated public statements expressing concern for the health of women and children, but to his actions, which demonstrate exactly the opposite. It is deceptive of Harper to claim a leading role in improving women and children's health internationally when he continues to insist on Canada's right to export toxic materials that will kill many of those women and children, or when he prohibits any Canadian funding from going to international reproductive services for women.
Harper's desire to be seen as an international advocate for women and children's health began during the lead up to the G-8 summit meeting held in Canada in June 2010. His approach to the issue, informed by the religious dogma of his church, was controversial from the start because of his insistence that no Canadian funding be used for any international project that included contraceptive or abortion services. U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did not hesitate to publicly criticize Harper's position during her visit to Canada in March 2010, stating:
You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.
I've also been very involved in promoting family planning and contraception as a way to prevent abortion. If you're concerned about abortion, then women should have access to family planning. And finally, I do not think governments should be involved in making these decisions.
Two weeks before that Clinton visit, Canadian Foreign Minister, Lawrence Cannon, announced that birth control would not be part of any maternal health program supported by Canada. Two days later, Prime Minister Harper seemed to reverse that position, stating that contraceptive services would not be ruled out, but he remained adamant that abortion services would not be part of any Canadian funded program.
Stephen Harper is a member of the evangelical, fundamentalist Christian and Missionary Alliance church, so he has no choice but to oppose abortion, though it is politically dangerous for him to say so publicly. That is why Harper has never publicly affirmed that right of citizens, although abortion is legal in Canada and supported by a majority of Canadians. Since 2006, when he was first elected, until the most recent federal election in May 2011, Harper led a minority government. That meant he did not have the political clout to reopen and win parliamentary debates on issues important to his conservative constituents and caucus, such as the legal right to abortion or same sex marriage, which became legal in 2005. Harper managed to avoid the issue of abortion during those years, however, in the lead up to the election in May of this year, and with a majority government within his grasp that he did not want to jeopardize, he was forced to reassure voters he had no intention to reopen that debate. But now that he has won that majority (though only 40% of those who voted, voted for his part), and despite those assurances, it seems political debate on abortion has reopened even though it is a constitutional right.
Harper's claim that he had no intention of reopening parliamentary debates on abortion was undermined by the actions, or more accurately deliberate inactions, of one of his cabinet members, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, who was undoubtedly directed by Harper. Applications by Planned Parenthood in 2009 and 2010 for funding were ignored by Oda, prompting one of Harper's Conservative MPs, Brad Trost, to declare during the 2011 election campaign that the government had defunded Planned Parenthood because of its support for abortion and therefore had reopened debate on the issue. That wasn't exactly true, as no decision had been made, but it forced Harper to make those assurances that he would not reopen the abortion debate while he was Prime Minister. After the federal election this year, Planned Parenthood submitted a revised application for funding and in September 2011 Oda approved funding to provide sex education and contraception, but only in five developing countries where abortions are illegal. That decision by Oda prompted Trost to state: "So in reinvigorating the debate as they have by funding IPPF, you'll see more politicians like myself will be discussing the matter. In a respectful way, but it will be discussed."
Although Harper is legally restrained from denying Canadian women their legal right to abortions, he has no problem exporting his fundamentalist ideology abroad. He can't help himself, it is what evangelists do. Morally, however, I see no difference between exporting asbestos that will kill women and children in developing countries and exporting religious ideology disguised as aid that comes with contractual conditions that prohibit life-saving and live-improving health services because of dogma. But morality is not Stephen Harper's strong point, if his official website is anything to go by. As I wrote in a previous post:
Around four million Canadians, including more than one in seven children, live in poverty yet the Harper government recently refused to accept the evidence-based recommendations of a Parliamentary committee to develop and implement a poverty-reduction plan. One in seven Canadian children in poverty amounts to over one million poor children. It is a national disgrace for one of the richest countries in the world, yet Prime Minister Harper shows more compassion and concern for the welfare of cats than children. His official website demonstrates that clearly. The home page under Family Center provides information on how to foster or adopt pets, but nowhere can you find any concern for the welfare of a million children suffering the indignity of poverty.
Perhaps Harper thinks a million Canadian children suffering the indignity of poverty is nothing compared to the suffering of an estimated 70 to 100 million feral cats in North America. Or maybe his concern for cats is nothing more than mere politicking. "This public cuddling and cooing might have something to do with presenting a warmer image of the Prime Minister, but the Harpers seem legitimately committed to the cause of feline welfare," speculated Aaron Wherry in Maclean's. Too bad Stephen Harper is not legitimately committed to improving the welfare of children living in poverty, or the estimated 67 to 78 thousand Canadian children living in care homes, most of whom are awaiting adoption. He would rather promote the adoption of house cats, which are an invasive species not indigenous to Canada, than promote the end of poverty, sub-standard housing, and homelessness for Canadian citizens and their children.
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