Saskatoon man receives highest national award for his leadership in asbestos awareness

11 March 2013


The National Council of the Canadian Cancer Society has posthumously awarded Howard Willems the 2013 Impact Award for Leadership in Public Policy. It is the highest award within the Society granted to an individual who has made a significant contribution to public policy in the fight against cancer. Only one award is granted each year.

At the age of 59 Mr. Willems died in November from a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos on the job. He was a building inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Right up until his death, he advocated for a mandatory on-line registry of public buildings that contain asbestos, believing that everyone has a right to know if their workplace, school, healthcare facility or daycare is safe.

“Howard’s selfless efforts, while battling cancer have had a positive impact on government practice, social activism and public awareness about the danger of asbestos,” says Marc Généreux, national chair of the Canadian Cancer Society Board of Directors. “We have no doubt that the accomplishments already achieved and the ones to come, are a direct result of Howard’s tireless efforts.”

“For Howard to receive this award is not only an honour but validation of who he was and what he stood for,” says his wife, Brenda Baergen. “The award gives us, as a family, hope that he won’t become a statistic but will be remembered for his tireless work on the hazards of asbestos and that the work he started will not be in vain but will result in the mandatory registry of all public buildings.”

Just days after Mr. Willem’s passing in November, the Saskatchewan government announced the creation of a voluntary asbestos registry, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada. In the coming days Saskatchewan MLAs will vote on an NDP private members bill that would make the reporting of asbestos in public buildings mandatory and the information available on-line. “We are proud to work with Howard’s family to finish what he started and get Howard’s Law passed. In doing so, we honour Mr. Willem’s dedication and accomplishments in protecting all of us from asbestos exposure,” says Donna Ziegler, director of Cancer Control for the Canadian Cancer Society in Saskatchewan.

“He would never quit and he would certainly never let his family quit while there was work to do. He would be especially proud of the boys and how they have stepped forward to not only continue the advocacy work he started but embrace it. Howard inspired that sort of commitment from people,” added Baergen.

The Society says regardless of whether Bill 604 is adopted the public has a better understanding of the issue thanks to Willems’ activism. This will help to reduce the incidence of cancers associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is the leading cause of industrial cancers and death in Canada.

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is the only national charity that supports Canadians with all cancers in communities across the country. No other organization does what we do; we are the voice for Canadians who care about cancer. We fund groundbreaking research, provide a support system for all those affected by cancer and advocate to governments for important social change.

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For more information, please contact:

Donna Pasiechnik

Manager, Tobacco Control, Media & Government Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Saskatchewan Division

Phone: 306-790-9871