Bear with me: I want to tell you about an odd thought I had the other day that may induce minor whiplash. I confess that it tests the bounds of believability. But I actually think it’s true:
Stephen Harper is the best thing to happen to the environmental issue in Canada. Ever.
I know, I know. You’re thinking that I’ve spent too much time in the summer sun.
After all, Stephen Harper is to environmental protection what Freddy Krueger is to unsuspecting teenagers in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Over the past eight years, the Conservative anti-green reign of terror has eliminated or terribly weakened virtually every federal environmental law.
The Fisheries Act no longer protects most fish.
The Navigable Waters Protection Act no longer protects most lakes and rivers.
The federal Environmental Assessment Act was repealed in its entirety and replaced with a law so cursory it might as well have been drafted on a cocktail napkin.
Canada remains the only country in the world that signed the Kyoto agreement on carbon pollution, only to withdraw from the treaty.
Even the impressive environmental achievements of previous Conservative governments have been dismantled, such as the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
All this, and more, is correct.
But here’s the thing: Canada’s environmental laws were inadequate to begin with. In a 2005 study, a year before the Conservatives took office, Canada ranked 28th out of 30 industrialized countries for environmental performance. Harper just accelerated a miserable trend that was already well-established under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
Working in the environmental field at the federal level in Canada, whether under red or blue governments, has for years been a bit like the little boy holding his finger in the dike. You can plug the leak for a while only to see other cracks opening up all around you. Eventually you run out of fingers and toes. Environmental advocates long ago abandoned hope of real Ottawa breakthroughs and settled for simple mitigation of the most horrendous of the damage.
So now that Canada’s environmental house has been thoroughly burned to the ground it seems to me we have an opportunity. There’s no pretending anymore. We have nothing. So at some point, hopefully soon, when we once again have a government at the federal level that’s interested in the environment, we’ll have the chance to rebuild.
The question at that point will be the following: Do we revert to the clearly substandard environmental laws of the 1980s and ’90s or do we take the opportunity to create a truly modern and effective federal environmental architecture? A new, world-class series of laws and policies that for the first time qualify as something Canadians can be proud of.
This brings me to the second environmental legacy of the Harper years: a fierce and rejuvenated environmental movement. The great irony of the much-reported, politically motivated Canada Revenue Agency assault on environmental charities is that it has made traditionally cautious and low-key individuals and groups very angry. Blatant injustice tends to have that effect on people.
I can tell you from personal experience (because I ran one of the country’s major environmental organizations for nearly 10 years) that, to a one, Canada’s environmental charities have always been extremely serious about complying with the letter and the spirit of CRA charitable rules. To have that sincere attempt thrown in its face by a tax agency that clearly isn’t playing straight has galvanized the environmental community in a way it never has been before.
A similar phenomenon has occurred with increasingly annoyed communities across the country who, because of the short-circuited environmental processes I mentioned earlier, are finding they no longer have venues where they can air their concerns. As one example, the National Energy Board now requires a nine-page form be filled out before it will even grant people permission to write a letter about controversial pipeline projects. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.
Of course it’s true that the obvious environmental impact of the Harper years will be measured in increased levels of pollution and real damage to precious land and waters. The less obvious and possibly longer lasting impact will be the creation of a country energized to decisively break with the failed environmental policies of the past in favour of a better future for us all.