Sustainability is about equity

Elizabeth May
Madam Speaker, it is a great honour for me to rise this afternoon to speak to the debate on the amendments to the Federal Sustainable Development Act.

The concept of sustainable development is not new in Canada. There have been a number of reports and bills on this topic. Sustainable development was first set as a goal in 1995 as part of the amendments to the Auditor General Act, which sought to create the position of commissioner of the environment within the Office of the Auditor General.

We have had laws on the books for some time that make sustainable development a goal of the Government of Canada. As I mentioned, since 1995 and the Auditor General Act, we have had a commissioner for environment and sustainable development to review government policies. We have also had federal sustainable development strategies. Since 2008, we have had this law, the Federal Sustainable Development Act.

Canada has a long engagement with the term “sustainable development”. I want to retrace those steps briefly.

The term “sustainable development” was first used in 1987 in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. This report was generally referred to as the “Brundtland Report” because it was a world commission of primarily people who had some role in political life. Gro Harlem Brundtland was prime minister of Norway at the time, which gave this UN effort quite a lot of prestige. She started out as chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development as leader of the opposition party in Norway. Quite extraordinarily, she stayed committed to this process. When the government fell, she became prime minister of Norway and continued as chair of the process.

Two notable Canadians participated in this process. One was the Canadian member of the commission itself, Maurice Strong, who I met at the time in the late 1980s when I was working for the minister of environment. The federal Government of Canada, at that time, under the leadership of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, played a significant role in helping to fund the work of the work of the Brundtland commission.

More significant with respect to the creation of the term sustainable development, the man who held the pen in writing “Our Common Future”, the report of the Brundtland commission, became one of my very best friends, Jim MacNeill. He passed away a little more than a year ago. He was secretary-general to the World Commission on Environment and Development. He is the only person I know to have written a bestselling book without his name on the cover.

“Our Common Future” sold in many languages and sold around the world. It put in place the goal that in order to ensure countries and people, including Canada, who lived in poverty, could be raised out of poverty and at the same time limit the damage done by a consumerist industrialized society in destroying our environment, we needed to ensure that we developed to lift people out of poverty but do it in a way that did not destroy the life chances of peoples around the world, and particularly future generations.

The goals of the sustainable development strategies as put forward by the Brundtland commission rested on three legs, not two. It was not merely environment and development, but environment, development, and peace to which the Brundtland report directed its attention. It called for a limiting of military spending, attention to the need to end wars, and to end the environmental damage of the military industrial complex.

By the time the Brundtland commission report went to the United Nations General Assembly, the goals of peace and non-violence and ending military spending were set aside. It was the Brundtland commission report’s recommendations around sustainability that led to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The acceptance of the framework convention on climate change and our entire agenda on fighting global warming by reducing greenhouse gases can all be traced back to this document from 1987 written by Jim MacNeill and endorsed by world leaders.

The term sustainable development in the Brundtland commission report is the one that more or less appears in Bill C-57. There were a number of definitions, in fairness, within the Brundtland commission report entitled “Our Common Future”. The one that seemed to achieve the most salience, which appears in somewhat changed form as a principle within a number of principles in this revised act is the following.

The principle of sustainable development is based on the ecologically efficient use of natural, social, and economic resources and the need for the Government of Canada to take environmental, economic, and social factors into consideration in every decision it makes.

That is a slight change, as we can see from the Brundtland definition, which was that sustainability and sustainable development required that the current generation develop in ways that did not jeopardize the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, the intergenerational equity piece was very strong.

Intergenerational equity then appears in the second part of principle 5 under this act, “that it is important to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In taking this forward, the act has broken apart in two pieces, but I do not think it has done damage to the concept.

The principle of sustainable development was taken forward by the Government of Canada and we became one of the leaders of the world in operationalizing the Brundtland commission report when we put in place the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. This was the primary mechanism of the Government of Canada in ensuring sustainability. It was brought in under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The act on which it was based was repealed in Bill C-38 in the spring of 2012 in the omnibus budget bill bulldozed through by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I do not know how many people even remember that is how the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was eliminated, because that bill touched over 70 different laws and ran to over 400 pages. People could be forgiven for forgetting the various pieces and how they bulldozed forward.

This piece of legislation comes at a good time.

On October 3, 2017, Julie Gelfand, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development in the Office of the Auditor General, released a very serious report. She said it is clear that this government, like its predecessors, has no chance of meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets. Here it is in her words:

Climate change is one of the defining issues of this century. It will require a whole of government approach. It’s time to move from planning to action.

Clearly, time is of the essence. The Government of Canada and all of the people on this planet are in an emergency situation because climate change grows worse by the day and we are still without an action plan to reduce greenhouse gases. However, we do have targets, and I think we also have the will to meet them. I think this government’s desire to reduce greenhouse gases is genuine, but the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development made it clear that there has been too much talk and not enough action.

If we had a sustainable development strategy that was working, that touched all aspects of government, we would have a response to the single greatest threat to our future in climate change.

This bill, which I support, creates an opportunity that perhaps is more significant than members in this place realize as we debate this bill and take it forward to committee. The opportunity is here. Again I want to thank the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development for its report in June of 2016. Most of the committee’s recommendations were unanimous, and are coming forward in this bill. I will pause to note some that are not.

However, the committee did good work after having heard from many witnesses. One witness, who I am very proud to say is also my constituent, is one of Canada’s leading experts in environment and sustainable development. Professor David Boyd described the current bill as a disaster.

I want to go back and say, as I did in earlier questions and comments, that the sustainable development bill that came forward in 2008 was based on a private member’s bill from a member of the opposition, a Liberal member of Parliament, a former cabinet minister in the government of the former prime minister Paul Martin, a very dedicated parliamentarian who was very committed to climate action, and a dear friend of mine.

I mean no criticism of the Hon. John Godfrey when I say that the current bill is too weak. He had to get a private member’s bill in 2007 in the time of a minority Parliament where the prime minister was Stephen Harper, the minister of environment was the Hon. John Baird, and there was tremendous co-operation to get this bill through before John Godfrey resigned from Parliament. It was a tremendous effort and success. We got a sustainable development act, but it did not call on the government to adopt a whole-of-government approach. The strategies around sustainable development were essentially environment strategies.

I also want to share this with the members of this place. We are told to get Christmas card designs in to the House of Commons print shop to receive free Christmas cards to send to all our constituents. However, I want to warn members that they will not be on recycled paper. Members might think that, having had a sustainable development strategy act since 2008, something as basic as the Parliament of Canada having Christmas cards on 100% post-consumer waste card stock would not be a current issue of concern. I hate to tell members this, but by ordering Christmas cards through the free available Christmas card stock, it is not from recycled paper.

It is virgin non-recycled paper.

I know that all of us would rather have our Christmas cards go out on recycled paper. That is a basic thing, as well as that the parliamentary dining room would serve seafood that does not come from an endangered species, and does not contaminate coastal waters because it is farmed salmon. I have written to the Board of Internal Economy and to the Speaker about this. I tried over the years to figure out how to control the decision-making by the wonderful staff in the terrific parliamentary dining room. The chef is wonderful and I do not mean to criticize. However, the staff does not have the scope to ensure that they can spend the money on ethical seafood for parliamentarians and their guests. Therefore, one has to be very careful when looking at the menu.

One would think these are basics for the Government of Canada, having had a sustainable development strategy since 2008. I do not think Canadians would be surprised to find that it had not radically reformed our attitude towards fossil fuels. Members might have hoped the strategy could do the little stuff, such as use recycled paper for Christmas cards, have ethical seafood in the parliamentary dining room, and not allow cars to idle outside Parliament Hill. That was a role, by the way, put in place by former speaker John Fraser when he was Speaker of the House in a document called “Greening the Hill” in which he required recycled paper, no idling of cars, and no use of pesticides on parliamentary lawns. That one is still in place. I hope what this bill does is to ensure the little stuff is done. More than that, it is my hope that some of the large goals can be achieved based on the changes in this act.

What are the places where we are looking at sustainable development now globally in 2017? Our biggest challenge is the sustainable development goals that were adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.

There are 17 sustainable development goals, and they have within them 169 specific targets to be achieved by 2030. They include such things as taking care of oceans, and a specific goal of stopping the dumping of plastics in our oceans. They include eliminating poverty. They include education for women and girls. These are broad and critical sustainable development goals, all 17 of them, and they apply domestically to industrialized countries, just as they apply globally, and create pressure for industrialized countries to do more in official development assistance to lift all people of this planet out of poverty. We can do it, we have the resources to do it, and that is a sustainable development goal.

I should also mention rights of indigenous peoples. In the Brundtland report, “Our Common Future”, it is very clear that an essential aspect of sustainable government are rights of self-determination for indigenous peoples. Therefore, I would submit to the House that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is part and parcel of the sustainable development goals, which are now called the SDGs of the United Nations system.

I will now return to Bill C-57 that we are debating.

I like the “Purpose” language under the act:

The purpose of this Act is to provide the legal framework for developing and implementing a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that makes decision making…more transparent and subject to accountability to Parliament, promotes coordinated action across the Government of Canada to advance sustainable development and respects Canada’s domestic and international obligations relating to sustainable development, with a view to improving the quality of life of Canadians.

The international piece is important here as well.

I do not think there is a single department of the Government of Canada that will not find itself challenged to take these principles on board seriously, develop a strategy, and report to Parliament. These principles now include: openness and transparency; indigenous engagement; intergenerational equity; and social, economic, and environmental sustainability. These are all positive changes.

However, there is one change that I find problematic, and that is the deletion of the requirement under the previous act of performance-based contracts, which is found in section 12 of the act as it exists right now. It reads:

Performance-based contracts with the Government of Canada shall include [which is mandatory language] provisions for meeting the applicable targets referred to in the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy

The parliamentary committee makes a reference to the performance-based contracts but does not suggest that the section be deleted. It suggests that it be given more specificity and applied to more entities. Therefore, I find it a little disturbing that, having done such a good job overall in drafting amendments to Bill C-57, performance-based contracts are removed. One of my law professors used to refer to something like this as having a lot of “weasel words”. This is now replaced with proposed section 10.1 under “Power of Treasury Board”.

10.1 The Treasury Board may establish policies or issue directives applicable to one or more of the designated entities in relation to the environmental impact of their operations.

In other words, that proposed section is a big fat nothing compared to the performance-based contracts section that exists in the current act. Therefore, I certainly will be taking amendments forward to committee, when the bill goes to committee, in hopes of preserving the existing section 12 for performance-based contracts.

Overall, Bill C-57 cannot come too soon. Sustainable development has been on the lips of Canadian politicians, who did not have any idea what it really meant, for decades now. If we are serious about this, it is about equity between a wealthy, industrialized country like Canada, and people who are the poorest of the poor living on this planet right now with us: our human family.

It is also about equity in intergenerational terms. I am a grandmother, but I do not have the right, nor anyone in our baby boom generation that just had a great big party since the end of the Second World War, to leave the ecological damages and ecological debt on our kids’ credit cards. We do not have the right to deprive children born today of their access to a healthy and sustainable biosphere to live out their lives without fear of annihilation.

We are on the cusp of the last moment we can save this place. Let us get this bill to committee, and let us get a climate change plan under way immediately.

Adam Vaughan – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families

Madam Speaker, I commend the member opposite for a very thoughtful and wise intervention, including some of her suggestions and ideas on how government can approach sustainable development with an actual work plan.

The member for Vancouver Quadra is currently engaged in a greening of government exercise. It would be great, if you have not put those specific proposals on recycled paper, to have you do that.


Madam Speaker, the question I have is the following.

Given that we are all so involved as a country in supporting the sustainable development goals at the international level, I am wondering what advice the member might have on practical things we can do to support other countries as they, too, decide to engage in sustainable development goals, as we leave that era of thinking that all progress is good progress, that said that if we build an expressway in downtown Toronto, it is good because it means jobs, even though it destroys the city, wipes out the local economy, pollutes the air, and displaces low-income populations—a policy, by the way, that the CCF supported, curiously enough.

I am just curious if the member has advice for us on what we can do to support other countries as they embrace sustainable development goals.

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, very briefly, we should lead by example. They will not believe us if we tell them what to do when we are not doing it.

It has always been very clear that we have to live off the earth’s interest. We cannot dig into the capital. We have to recognize that we should be ensuring, in the word’s of indigenous peoples, that we are borrowing from our grandchildren, not stealing from them. We need to ensure a legacy for future generations that is better than the earth that we received. Frankly, we are doing the opposite.

Charlie Angus – Member for Timmins-James Bay

Madam Speaker, I listened with great interest to my hon. colleague.

A five-minute walk from my house is the most beautiful place I know on earth, Cross Lake. People cannot swim in that lake. People will probably not be able to swim in that lake for another 100 years, because it used to be considered completely acceptable to take the toxins from the mine and just dump it in lakes because they were there.

The environment is recovering, but it is only recovering because of legislation. No one did this or made this happen voluntarily; it was legislation. Could my my hon. colleague comment on the necessity of having strong legislation to protect not just our water, but our air as well?

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, there is a clear record on this.

When we fought acid rain, we did it with regulations. Eliminating mercury took banning it. Getting lead out of gasoline took regulations. We can do a lot with carrots, but we better not forget our sticks.