21 Years Later: Is Canada still an Environmental Leader?

March 13th marks the 21st anniversary of the signing of Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement that dealt with acid rain under the Mulroney Government. “The Acid Rain Accord is an example of how good legislation and political will can make a difference,” said Green Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands). “It is tragic to realize how poorly climate change is now being handled in comparison with acid rain.”

May worked in the Progressive Conservative government as Senior Policy Advisor to Environment Minister Tom McMillan during the time preparations were being made for the Acid Rain Accord.  Government leaders of that era were lauded for their political vision in negotiating the agreement with the United States after agreements for 50% reductions of sulphur dioxide had been secured with the seven eastern provinces.  In 2006, Corporate Knights honoured Brian Mulroney as the “Greenest PM in Canadian History,” partly due to his achievement with this important file. 

In addition to the Acid Rain Accord, Canada was a leader in the 1987 Montreal Protocol to stop depletion of the ozone layer and in 1988 Canada was the first western government to endorse the sustainable development recommendations of the Brundtland Commission. Also in 1988, Canada hosted the first international scientific conference on climate change.

Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley was also applauded for his leadership in staring down Inco, the single largest point source of sulphur dioxide in North America. Despite Inco’s efforts to have Premier David Peterson fire Bradley, Ontario regulated Inco anyway. 

“It was a time of Progressive Conservatism,” said May. “A time when partisanship was set aside, alliances were built, and political leadership was evident.

Prime Minister Mulroney had put in place a process where the environmental implications had to be considered for all government initiatives.  His vision was that Canada would be a world leader in protecting our natural resources.  In a 2006 interview by Corporate Knights, Mulroney commented, “I think the government has to reposition environment on top of their national and international priorities. It has to be an integral part of the articulation of a national series of objectives. Right now, it’s not. And only the Prime Minster can do that.”  In his acceptance speech, Mulroney called climate change “the most compelling environmental challenge facing the world today.”

“Prime Minister Mulroney suggested that Canada could lead by example. ‘Claiming the high ground,’ he said.  Unfortunately, instead, the current Conservative government seems to be dragging us into the ditch,” said May.  “Canada was once a global leader on environmental issues.  We may yet get there again one day but only if current political winds change.  I have hope they will and our country will again rise to the challenge.”