CANADA

Risky business

Ottawa wrestles with the environment issue

BRUCE WALLACE September 11 1989
CANADA

Risky business

Ottawa wrestles with the environment issue

BRUCE WALLACE September 11 1989

Risky business

CANADA

Ottawa wrestles with the environment issue

Under the surveillance of riot police and the threat of truncheons, Baie-Comeau residents watched in frustration last week as another shipment of Quebec’s controversial waste polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was returned to the province and off-loaded at their St. Lawrence River port city. Neither legal appeals nor the presence of demonstrators who turned out to protest their arrival on Aug. 30 managed to prevent the waste from being trucked to a storage site 30 km from the port. But while Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s government may have moved the PCBs out of sight, the political furor was not out of mind (page 13). In fact, the saga of Quebec’s vagabond PCBs was a vivid reminder to Canadian politicians of every stripe of the new political volatility of environmental issues. Bourassa is not the only politician who has discovered that pollution is far easier to talk about than to solve. Federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, who promised last November to overhaul Canadian environmental policy, was also finding the challenge to be daunting.

The potency of the environment as a political issue has been driven home to government leaders by several recent polls. A Maclean’s/Decima poll published in July, for one, showed that more Canadians identified pollution as the number 1 problem facing Canada than any other issue. And the international media attention drawn to Quebec’s attempt to dispose of its waste PCBs in Wales illustrated the dimensions of the risk that the issue poses for governments.

“The Ottawa and Quebec gov-

ernments have given this country an international black eye by trying to export our toxic wastes,” said James MacNeill, secretary general to the Brundtland Commission, which produced a sweeping report on the world environment in 1987, and now a member of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s independent advisory panel on environmental policy.

In fact, despite some early initiatives, a shakeup in the senior ranks of the environment ministry, and Mulroney’s own commitment— made in the April throne speech—to place a high priority on the environment during his second term, many of the most pressing issues

remain untackled. Last week, Bouchard ended one uncertainty, giving his conditional approval to a dam project in Saskatchewan stalled by doubts over whether its environmental impact has been adequately studied. And he promised a solution to the PCB disposal problem by October. But he offered no details, and many envi-

ronmentalists noted that Bouchard would be restrained in whatever plan he finally settled on by the government’s deficit-reduction targets and the limits of Ottawa’s power to infringe on provincial jurisdictions. As a result, despite the urgency attached to environmental action by voters, few of the government’s critics predicted any early change in the pace of Ottawa’s response. Said Digby McLaren, a vocal environmentalist and president of the Royal Society of Canada: “These days, there is a tremendous silence from the government.”

As if to underscore that assessment, federal and provincial politicians demonstrated again

last week that they have difficulty translating rhetoric into action. Federal and provincial energy ministers met for a one-day closed conference in Toronto to set a strategy for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that Canadian industries, cars and other sources produce. Canada is the world’s ninth-largest producer of the gas, which many environmental scientists say is the leading contributor to a dangerous global warming trend. Last year, Mulroney hosted an international conference on climate control in Toronto and endorsed its recommendation that countries should make a 20-per-cent cut in carbon dioxide emission levels by the year 2005—still less than the 50per-cent reduction that the same conference

concluded was necessary to stabilize the atmosphere. And last week, the energy ministers balked at matching the timetable endorsed by Mulroney. Instead, they argued that more study is needed into the economic effects of reducing the troublesome emissions.

Some critics said that the energy ministers and their officials still hold an entrenched hostility to environmental needs. Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis, who was the chairman of last summer’s Toronto conference, for one, branded the energy ministers as “ostriches burrowing in the sand.”

Whatever the truth of that assertion, with

the energy ministers having failed to strike a deal, demands for federal action on the environment focused on Bouchard and his new advisers. Said one longtime environment official: “There is a whole new team in here with a mandate to jump start the bureaucracy and turn things around.” Among them: Montreal lawyer Arthur Campeau, a longtime friend of Mulroney, who became a special adviser to Bouchard on international environmental law. Bouchard also has several new senior bureaucrats with strong economic credentials—most notably new deputy Minister Len Good, an economist who enjoys Mulroney’s confidence—to help develop policies compatible with the Tories’ market-based philosophy.

For his part, Finance Minister Michael Wilson has mused publically about using taxes as levers on the private sector to accomplish environmental goals. And recently, officials in his department have been studying some novel antipollution measures first developed in trend-setting California, including a proposal to levy taxes on owners of cars that emit unacceptable levels of pollution. But those ideas remain far from being translated into government policy. Said one official: “We are still at the stage where the cabinet ministers are learning their way around the issues.” Meanwhile, environment officials are devoting much of their energy to special projects, such as a package of ecological proposals for Mulroney to take to his meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, expected this November.

Bouchard’s defenders said that the Tories’ stated commitment to deficit reduction has hindered the environment minister’s ability to announce expensive new programs. They also argue that many environmental problems, such as toxic waste disposal, are difficult to solve because they involve both federal and provincial jurisdictions. Provinces, for instance, are

responsible for waste disposed in landfill sites, while the quality of major watercourses falls under Ottawa’s authority. Despite the overlapping jurisdictions, however, critics insist that Bouchard should assert federal leadership in combatting pollution. Said Toby Vigod, director of the Canadian Environmental Law Associ-

ation: “Many environmental issues may not be a federal responsibility, but they are national problems. It is up to Ottawa to lead.” Ontario Environment Minister James Bradley agreed. “It is much more effective to move nationally,” he told Maclean’s. “If you have six provinces that have tough environmental regulations and four that do not, you can create a pollution haven.” But other provinces, notably Quebec, are leery of federal intervention.

In the absence of a broad national policy on the environment, some analysts predicted that Bouchard would find himself increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises. Said David Runnalls, an environment analyst at Ottawa’s Institute for Research on Public Policy: “The government still has not dropped its Band-Aid approach to the environment. That means political problems will keep falling on Bouchard.” Last week, Bouchard faced one such potentially explosive issue when he gave permission for construction of the $ 140-million Rafferty Dam project, on the Souris River near Estevan, provided 22 environmental conditions are met. Said Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine, who was clearly pleased by the announcement: “This project has got more scrutiny and more protection than any project in the history of the country.” But the decision angered some environmental groups, who have fought the project on the grounds that the reservoir created by the dam may harm wildlife in southeastern Saskatchewan. Said Rod MacDonald, a New Democratic Party activist and spokesman for the Rafferty opposition forces: “What Bouchard has done is a sham, a smoke screen.” And, as the depth of public passion and fears over the PCBS showed, patience for government action is waning.

BRUCE WALLACE

MARC CLARK

PAUL KAIHLA

DALE EISLER