Stephen Harper, History, and the Canadian Environmental Movement

Prime Minister Harper with Jim Prentice, Minister of the Environment, 8 February 2010. Source: Office of the Prime Minister

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by Ryan O’Connor. In the July 31st edition of the Toronto Star, Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, makes the case that “Stephen Harper is the best thing to happen to the environmental issue in Canada. Ever.” While Smith admits that “the Conservative anti-green reign of terror has eliminated or terribly weakened virtually every federal environmental law,” he also argues that Canada’s environmental laws were already among the most lax among industrialized countries. Furthermore, Smith claims that the government hostility has resulted in “a fierce and rejuvenated environmental movement.” What is to be made of these assertions?

Smith speaks from a knowledgeable position. From 2003-2012 he served as executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, one of the country’s leading ENGOs. And if we look south of the border we can find an interesting historical parallel with the administration of Ronald Reagan, the two-term Republican president (1981-1989) whose deregulation agenda stifled many environmental gains, particularly those relating to the environmental bureaucracy that had developed throughout the 1970s. As George T. Frampton Jr., president of the Wilderness Society, has noted, “It was eight lost years – years of lost time that cannot be made up and where a lot of damage was done that may not be reparable.”

That said, not all was lost. As environmental journalist Philip Shabecoff writes in A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement:

Because the American people do care, the Reagan environmental counterrevolution fell well short of its goals. It was unable to dismantle the environmental agencies, to gut the environmental laws, to ‘privatize’ the public lands, to give away public resources as quickly as it wanted, or to subvert the environmental ethos that is putting down roots in American society. Membership in national and grass-roots environmental organizations, in fact, experienced unprecedented growth during the Reagan years …. To the consternation of industry, state governments across the country beefed up their environmental budgets and staffs to fill the vacuum created by the federal government.

Essentially, the hostility showcased by the Reagan administration was met with renewed efforts from the grassroots-up to protect the environment.

Can the same be said about present-day Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper? Canadian ENGOs don’t tend to publicize their membership numbers, so it is difficult to make this connection. One very evident sign of interest in the environment is support for the Green Party of Canada, which has moved from the political wilderness to a rump caucus of two. (Support for the party was negligible in the pre-Harper years, although the case could be made that the upsurge in support has more to do with the personal popularity of party leader Elizabeth May.) For further evidence of Canadians’ concern for environmental causes, one need look no further than the growing opposition to the construction of energy pipelines, as well as the participation rate for events such as the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour, which engaged two in five Canadians in 2013.

One way that the Reagan-Harper parallel doesn’t quite work is in the issues at stake. Many of the issues at play in the 1980s could be successfully addressed by local action. To successfully resolve the ever-present dangers of climate change, however, requires strong leadership at the national (and international) level. We don’t have that.

Is Prime Minister Harper “the best thing to happen to the environmental issue in Canada”? If the current administration is followed by one that reacts by significantly strengthening the environmental protection bureaucracy, perhaps. Short of this, and with all respect to Rick Smith, I don’t see the validity of the argument.

Ryan O’Connor is an historian of the environmental movement in Canada. A research associate of the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University, he is author of The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario, which is set for release on November 15 through UBC Press. His publications on the history of the environmental movement include “Advertising the Environmental Movement: Vickers and Benson’s Branding of Pollution Probe” and “An Ecological Call to Arms: The Air of Death and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario.” He maintains a research blog at where this post was originally featured.

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