08/11/2012 06:58 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Asbestos's future in Quebec election crosshairs

Quebec's party leaders tossed around the delicate subject of the province's still operating asbestos industry on Saturday as they outlined platforms on health and the environment.

François Legault, the Coalition Avenir Québec leader, said he would ban exports of asbestos from Quebec, one of a series of environmental initiatives the party laid out.

"Exporting a toxic product is morally and scientifically indefensible," Legault said. "Quebec has to come to terms with an industry that's stuck in the past."

Legault said a CAQ government would honour the province's $58-million loan to the Jeffrey asbestos mine in the Eastern Townships, which is set to reopen after it shut down last year in financial distress. But he would work with the company — the last remaining producer of asbestos in Canada — to switch to other lines of business.

As recently as 2010, Canada was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos annually, all of it in Quebec, and exporting 90 per cent — worth about $90 million — to developing countries. More than 50 countries ban the mining and use of asbestos, but Canada, traditionally a major exporter, has successfully lobbied in the past to keep it off a UN list of hazardous substances.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois took a flipside approach to Legault's, deploring the way the Jeffrey mine loan was granted but saying she wasn't ready just yet to ban asbestos mining or exports.

Campaigning with Marois on Saturday, PQ candidate Réjean Hébert, the former dean of medicine at the University of Sherbrooke, said that, while the scientific debate about asbestos's carcinogenicity is closed, there's still a social debate to have about the future of the industry in Quebec. The Jeffrey mine, for instance, will employ more than 400 people in the town of Asbestos and has long been the community's largest employer.

Quebec Solidaire repeats call for a ban

Québec Solidaire already took its stance on asbestos exports as part of its green plan, in which it promises to "get Quebec out of asbestos."

"It's encouraging, after being the only ones to take this position, to hear another party propose banning exports of this carcinogenic product," Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Amir Khadir said Saturday.

"It's indefensible to export asbestos while knowing full well that it be used in poorer countries in ways that are banned in Quebec and in Canada."

Khadir called the PQ's position on asbestos opportunistic. Meanwhile on Saturday, the Liberal Leader Jean Charest addressed his party's youth wing and announced a debt-repayment plan.

His party would pay $200 million a year — about half the province's expected $400 million in annual royalty revenues over the next few years — into Quebec's Generations Fund.

The fund, which currently has about $4.2 billion in it, is money the government is setting aside to invest at higher interest rates than it borrows at, with the aim of eventually making lump payments toward the province's debt.