They arrived in canoes, cars, recreational vehicles and on horseback, and when they gathered on the banks of Alberta’s Oldman River, 150 km southwest of Calgary, last week, they numbered more than 8,000. The attraction: a fundraising concert starring singers Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot and Murray McLauchlan and featuring geneticist David Suzuki, environmental activist and host of CBC TV’S The Nature of Things, as speaker.
The celebrities gathered in common protest against the Alberta government’s $353million project to dam the Oldman and flood 24 km of valley to provide agricultural irrigation. The project’s chief opponent and the concert organizer—the 500-member Friends of the Oldman River Society—claims that the dam will destroy wildlife habitats and archeological sites. But the government says that it will infuse $77 million into the local economy during the 1987-to-1990 construction period and boost local agricultural production by $42 million in 1991 alone. Such arguments had little impact on the protesters who stood on the bank of the Oldman River.
They cheered when Suzuki said, “The bottom line is economics and profit, and because of this, the government is hell-bent on destroying the environment of Alberta.”
Issues: The Oldman River concert was a graphic illustration of the newfound prominence of environmental issues in Canadian politics. Recent public opinion polling consistently shows that preservation of the environment is one of the chief concerns among the majority of Canadians. Last November’s federal election was the first one in which the environment was the major issue among voters. And that shift in public opinion has produced a greening not only of the federal government but of provincial governments and
certain sectors of private industry as well. Conflicts between environmentalists and governments remain—as the Oldman River controversy clearly shows. But even Alberta Premier Donald Getty’s Conservative government has promised new environmental initiatives— including a wildlife conservation strategy and
the establishment of an Environmental Round Table made up of private and public sector representatives. Said resource planner Anthony Dorcey of the University of British Columbia’s Westwater Research Centre, which concentrates on research into water-quality policy: “People feel threatened by their food, their drinking water, the air they breathe. It’s not just the special-interest groups— now the public is leading the politicians.”
The growth of environmental concern has
been particularly noticeable in British Columbia. Despite questions from critics about Social Credit Premier William Vander Zalm’s sincerity, the government has in fact taken action. In May, it proposed legislation—expected to be passed this fall—that calls for the province’s pulp-and-paper mills to reduce toxic dioxin and organic chloride discharges by at least 70 per cent by 1994. The announcement came after years of protests from citizens and environmental groups over pollution of waterways by the mills—and polls that have shown the Socreds running well behind the provincial New Democrats. Said Environment Minister Bruce Strachan: “It is not just the polls but people we meet and talk to every day. There is a very real concern about the environment. You can cynically look at how or why we have arrived at certain initiatives, but the important thing is that we have done them.”
In some provinces, environmental disasters have contributed to the sense of urgency with which governments appear to be confronting environmental issues. A fire last August at a storage site for oil containing toxic PCBs in the Montreal suburb of St-Basilele-Grand sent potentially hazardous soot over surrounding neighborhoods and forced 3,000 residents out of their homes for more than a week. In its aftermath, Quebec’s environment minister at the time, Clifford Lincoln, formed a 67person investigative squad made up primarily of former police officers to investigate and initiate proceedings against polluters and negligent waste-disposal and -storage firms. Lincoln also added muscle to Quebec’s already ambitious Environment Quality Act by increasing fines for corporate polluters to $1 million from $60,000 for second and third offences and adding jail terms of up to 18 months.
Respect: During his three years in the portfolio, Lincoln earned the respect of environi mentalists. But Lincoln resigned his post last December in protest over Premier Robert I Bourassa’s language policies, and Cultural Affairs Minister Lise Bacon assumed responsibility for his portfolio. And although environmentalists have called for the appointment of a full-time environment minister, Bacon has joined in some major initiatives. Earlier this month, she and federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard announced a joint program to force the 50 worst industrial polluters of the St. Lawrence River to reduce their discharges by 90 per cent by 1993. Under the plan, the two governments will concentrate on industries such as pulp and paper, chemical manufacturing and petroleum.
In Ontario, some of the government’s initiatives have also elicited praise from environmentalists. Colin Isaacs of Pollution Probe said that the one-third provincially funded blue-box recycling program, which provides separate
garbage pickup for recyclable products such as glass and tin cans, is “extremely advanced— absolutely first-rate.” He also praised the government’s Municipal/Industrial Strategy for Abatement, introduced in 1986 and designed to improve water quality in the province by designing regulations industry by industry— not just for individual plants and factories.
Focus: For his part,
Christopher Winter, research director with the Conservation Council of Ontario, an umbrella group for 33 provincial organizations, told Maclean’s that the province’s intensified focus on environmental issues has created a new role for environmental lobby groups long accustomed to being critics hounding governments. Now, Winter said, they are being asked for their advice in establishing policies and programs.
Added Winter: “It’s like a
dog that chases the wheels of a car. The driver has stopped the car, gotten out and asked the dog how to drive.”
But the new emphasis on the environment is not restricted to the bigger provinces. In New
Brunswick, Premier Frank McKenna’s Liberal government passed the Clean Water Act in May, which set maximum daily fines for any industrial, corporate or municipal polluter at $1 million. The government has also broken its department of municipal affairs and environment into two separate portfolios, with the present minister, Vaughn Blaney, taking charge of the environment portfolio. Said Blaney, who has earned the widespread respect of regional environmental groups: “The public interest in the environment has been just phenomenal, and I think we were all caught with our pants down.”
Still, Blaney acknowledged that funding for environmental initiatives is a big problem for New Brunswick and the other poorer provinces. “I do not think that we will ever have “ enough money to address 2 all the concerns,” he said.
Critics have also noted that the province’s stated commitment to the environment was not matched by spending in the March provincial budget. Said David Coon, policy co-ordinator of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, an environmental organization: “If the environment is such a priority, why isn’t the money there?” Criticism: The Nova Scotia government of Conservative Premier John Buchanan has also been subject to its share of criticism on the environmental front. On June 7, almost 100 protesters picketed the provincial environment ministry offices in Halifax, saying that the department’s name should be changed to the ministry of pollution. Dianne Coish, spokesman for the ministry, acknowledged that the province faces environmental challenges. Among the more serious: cleaning up Halifax Harbor. Said Coish of the problems: “They weren’t created overnight and they won’t be solved overnight.” But she noted that the government’s commitment is evident in seven new pieces of legislation and 15 new sets of regulations related to enx vironmental improvements g that it has produced within ® the past two years.
Those initiatives have won the Buchanan government some praise. “There
has been an incredible change
in the last five years in the government’s sensitivity to the environment,” said ecologist Patricia Lane of Dalhousie University in Halifax, who also lectures on environmental issues at the Harvard School of Public Health, part of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Still, the government’s critics note that some of those new acts or regulations have not yet been passed—including the province's environmental assessment act, which contains provisions for heavy fines and jail terms for polluters. Said Floyd Day, president of the Eastern Shore Environmental Protection Group, a fledgling 12-member group based in Tangier, N.S.: “This government has really done nothing. They won’t clean up the environment because they think too many people will be laid off.”
In Newfoundland, where the unemployment rate is around 16 per cent, the province’s chief priority is to attract industry and development. But the new Liberal government of Premier Clyde Wells has stated that there would be “a provincial conservation strategy for the sake of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of the next century.” Adele Poynter, president of the province’s Wilderness Society, an environmental protection group, said that she was pleas-
antly surprised when one of the first acts of the Wells government was to order a temporary halt to the use of the toxic chemical fenetrothion, used to combat hemlock looper worms in the province’s forests. According to a senior government official, fenetrothion has toxic effects on small birds, pollinator insects and some forms of aquatic life. Added Poynter: “When [Wells] was in opposition, he promised to do it, and he did it.”
Efforts: Meanwhile, some environmental protesters have turned to the courts in their efforts to stop projects that they consider to be harmful. In Saskatchewan, the Canadian Wildlife Federation brought construction of the $ 1-billion Rafferty-Alameda power project in the southeastern part of the province to a halt by suing both the federal and provincial governments on the grounds that the project—which calls for the construction of dams on the Souris River and Moose Mountain Creek—would destroy wildlife habitats. As a result of the suit, on April 10 a Federal Court of Canada judge revoked the federal licence for the dam, saying that Environment Canada had relied on provincial environmental impact studies without conducting its own review—as required under the federal Environmental Assessment Review Guidelines Order. Since then, Ottawa has acknowledged that not enough is yet known about the potential impact of the project. Environment Canada
has now completed an initial environmental evaluation and is organizing public meetings in not only Saskatchewan but also Manitoba and North Dakota, through which the Souris flows. But for its part, the Saskatchewan government says that it has conduct-
ed exhaustive environmental impact studies for the project and has launched an appeal of the Federal Court decision. That appeal is scheduled to be heard this week.
Methods: In Alberta, the Friends of the Oldman River Society have also appealed to the courts to stop the project. Declared society president Cliff Wallis: “The government is just singing Looney Tunes about the dam. There are cheaper and more efficient ways to irrigate the land, methods that don’t destroy the environment.” In its efforts to stop the project, the society has launched six legal actions since 1987, trying to get the licence for the dam quashed on the grounds that Ottawa has not done a proper environmental assessment of the project. Last week, the Federal Court in Edmonton adjourned a decision in the case until July 21. Martha Kostuch, a spokesman for the Friends of the Oldman Society, said that the delay
0 will give the organization 1 “more time to put together I ammunition.” Clearly, despite the greening of governments across Canada, there will continue to be hard-fought battles over the environment.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.