The Commission on Conservation, a Canadian government agency, was established in 1909. It was perhaps the earliest forum for business-conservation cooperation. It was a prescient and often thoughtful organization, producing hundreds of reports. Its objectives were mild-mannered enough, fitting for an era when polite society was inclined to civility and decorum.
The Commission sought to advance scientific conservation. It advocated sensible resource development and the conservation of Canada’s forests in the name of future prosperity. It was wary of the more radical-for-its-day concept of preservation.
It was then abruptly, as it were, axed in 1921 by the Conservative government of Arthur Meighen. The demise coincided with a recession and the government claimed that the Commission duplicated other agencies (none of which had much interest in conserving anything).
Sounds familiar, does it not?
Trashing environmental protection agencies is not new to our nation’s capital. It is a painfully repetitive tale. One almost expects Prime Minister Harper to announce that he hopes to rid Ottawa of the whole pesky lot of green sympathizers before the centennial of the Commission on Conservation’s destruction. But he won’t do that because he is not the sort of person inclined to speak his mind in public.
Arthur Meighen was not, of course, the only other Canadian political leader to abolish environmentally inclined agencies. In 1993, again during a recession, a Conservative government eliminated the Science Council of Canada (1966-1993, RIP). Other environmental agencies were eliminated at the same time, including the Canadian Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC).
The Science Council had advanced environmental discourse in Canada with the 1977 publication of Canada as a Conserver Society. The term conserver society was first used in 1973 in a Science Council publication and later discussions led to the debates around sustainable development and sustainability, Canadian-influenced contributions to environmental thought. Wouldn’t want too much of that sort of thing, would we?
By the mid-1990s, things got really nasty. Ironically, Brian Mulroney who wielded the axe against the Science Council and CEAC late in his Prime Ministerial term had earlier been reasonable on environmental issues, when they were on the political ascent. Regardless, Ontario Premier Mike Harris soon made Mulroney look like a cross between David Suzuki and Aldo Leopold.
The mid-1990s Ontario budget cuts were aimed squarely at any Ministry that had anything to do with environmental protection. Agencies were eliminated with abandon, water testing was privatized and environmental budgets were cut in half.
Shortly thereafter even Liberals got into wielding the chainsaw against anything vaguely green. Prime Minister Chrétien and Finance Minister Paul Martin, facing massive deficits, cut environmental agencies disproportionately. In 1988 Environment Canada was the 7th largest federal department; in 1998 it was the smallest. Its budget of $800 million dollars in 1993 was scheduled to expand to meet Mulroney’s Green Plan obligations. Instead it was cut by 30%. When the smoke cleared its largest program was weather forecasting.
All of this provides a context for the recent actions of the Harper government. Á la Meighan, Harper axed the very useful and reasonable National Roundtable on Environmental and Economy (NRTEE), again eliminating a key business-environmentalist-government contact point. But today’s cuts are much deeper and come without apology. They are not framed as an unfortunate matter of reducing duplication. This time they come with nasty ministerial mutterings about foreign funding of environmental organizations and environmentalist disloyalty to Canada.
The attacks on environmental protection from the Harper government are no-regrets cuts from the heart. They are coordinated with legal threats from ‘Ethical Oil’ lobbyists regarding the charitable tax status of environmental organizations. Today’s withdrawal of federal protection of water quality exempts lakes in key conservative ridings and other cuts go directly at core environmental science like the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Federal environmental assessment processes are also being undone. This government is not just reluctant to take protective action; it does not want Canadians to know why or even if there is a need for protection.
Above all this government wants to block any and all action on climate change and to expand tar sands production without limits. It wants to build tar sands pipelines everywhere even into the sensitive coastal regions of British Columbia. This is why they engage in no-regrets chopping; these cuts are not about saving money.
Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. He was the first editor of Alternatives Journal and is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), and Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008).
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