Brian Mulroney: Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister?

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The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, who recently passed away, has been called Canada’s “greenest” prime minister.1 In terms of environmental policies, the country’s eighteenth prime minister (from 1984 to 1993) is probably best known for the 1991 Air Quality Agreement with the United States. He also helped forge the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, took a stab at international climate change diplomacy, instituted national policies such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and Canada Water Act, and created eight national parks. But he and his Progressive Conservatives were also major driver of the types of deregulation and neoliberal economic policies—including free trade—that have caused enormous ecological damage. In this post, I’ll survey Mulroney’s environmental record with an emphasis on his international environmental activities.2

Photograph of the Reagans and Mulroneys at the Shamrock Summit
Photograph of the Reagans and Mulroneys at the Shamrock Summit.

Acid Rain, Ozone, Climate

In the 1970s, acid rain burst onto the scene as a major North American environmental issue. Acidified precipitation, or acid rain, is created when sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SO2 and NOx) emissions are transported through the atmosphere and transformed into sulphuric and nitric acids. Coal-fired plants, smelting, and other industrial processes are the chief emissions culprits. Acid rain that originated in the U.S. and fell in Ontario was the biggest problem, though the smelters in the Sudbury region certainly contributed to acid rain within the province. That acid rain affected cottage country north of Toronto further helps explain why the issue gained so much public traction.

While Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, diplomatic talks and bilateral scientific studies about acid rain got underway. The latter demonstrated the widespread extent and damage of acid rain, showing that 70-80 percent of it originated in the United States. But the Reagan administration was reluctant to pursue cross border measures since the U.S. was the prime contributor and, as such, would have to bear the brunt of any necessary changes. Matters were not helped by Reagan’s ideological unwillingness to impose any environmentally-motivated regulations on economic activity.

At the 1985 Shamrock Summit, after the election of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, the U.S. disingenuously agreed to appoint special envoys to study the problem. At summits in 1987 and 1988, Mulroney demanded a bilateral pact on acid rain. Informal talks and public diplomacy continued—what political scientist Stephen Clarkson called “the largest effort Canada has made to attempt to shape the policy of another country.”3 But the Reagan administration’s stonewalling continued. A frustrated Ottawa pulled out of formal negotiations, awaiting the president’s successor.

The U.S. proved more amenable to addressing the problem after George H.W. Bush entered the White House in 1989. Some scholars contend that this shift was attributable to Canadian pressure, but it was probably driven by other factors.4 Bush moved to reform domestic air pollution laws, and the ensuing compatibility of American air pollution laws helped clear the way for movement on a Canada-U.S. accord. Negotiations began on what would emerge as the 1991 Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement (AQA). National differences remained, but a compromise was broached. Canada wanted something with more concrete commitments and teeth; the United States, for its part, did not want to put any promises on paper.

In the 1991 Air Quality Agreement, SO2 emissions were permanently capped at approximately 13.3 million tons by 2010 in the US and 3.2 million tons in Canada.

In the Air Quality Agreement, SO2 emissions were permanently capped at approximately 13.3 million tons by 2010 in the US and 3.2 million tons in Canada. But the latter did not achieve one of its major goals: to get an American agreement to reduce deposition in Canadian territory. The U.S. would not make any commitments beyond its borders. It did commit to following the requirements of its recently enacted Clean Air Act, which had the potential to reduce the emissions that created acid rain which eventually went across the border.

The results of the 1991 Air Quality Agreement were mixed. In 1996, the Canadian co-chair of the International Joint Commission, Adele Hurley, resigned in protest of the American failure to live up to its acid rain commitments. In the longer run, neither country has fully followed through on its commitments. However, SO2 emissions did go down by almost 70 percent. Granted, this decrease probably had more to do with domestic regulations and technological changes instituted in each country than the international agreement.

Turning to a different type of atmospheric problem, Canada was an adherent to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer of 1985. The Mulroney government was central to the outcome of the ensuing 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This protocol is one of the few success stories in terms of global environmental agreements. The signatory countries agreed to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by 1996.  By the end of the twentieth century, CFC production had been mostly eliminated, and the hole in the ozone layer was shrinking.

The international ozone talks in the 1980s also included discussion of what would eventually be known as climate change. At the 1988 Toronto Conference, sometimes cited as the start of international diplomacy on climate change, Mulroney touted a law of the atmosphere. While this didn’t materialize, it did help lead to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Granted, Mulroney’s interest in climate change seemed to wane during his second term in office.

First Space-Based View of the Ozone Hole
First Space-Based View of the Ozone Hole. At an August 1985 meeting in Prague, atmospheric scientist Pawan Bhartia presented this satellite-based image that revealed for the first time the size and magnitude of the Antarctic ozone hole. The discovery ultimately led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a landmark international treaty designed to phase out ozone-depleting substances. “First Space-Based View of the Ozone Hole” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fossil Fuels and Free Trade

After first moving into 24 Sussex Drive, Mulroney had quickly dismantled Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. Mulroney also moved to satisfy the Reagan administration’s desire for something more comprehensive and binding than the previous informal understandings that had characterized oil and gas relations. The way to do this was to include fossil fuels in the ongoing negotiations for a free trade treaty. Those talks became the basis for the energy chapter of the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (which paved the way for NAFTA after Mulroney left office).

The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, or CUFTA for short, represented the first formal and comprehensive continental energy agreement between Canada and the U.S., and it created a stable playing field for bilateral oil and gas relations.5 Neither country could impose price controls on oil and natural gas or impose import or export charges without doing the same domestically. Neither country could discriminate against the other or arbitrarily cut off exports; the controversial proportionality clause held that any reductions in energy exports had to be matched by reduced domestic consumption. Canada gained secure access to the American market and Alaskan oil; the United States got stable access to Canadian energy, entrenched within a rules-based system.6

The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, or CUFTA for short, represented the first formal and comprehensive continental energy agreement between Canada and the U.S., and it created a stable playing field for bilateral oil and gas relations.

The U.S. had imported over 1.3 million barrels of Canadian petroleum per day in 1973, but by the early 1980s, it was under half a million barrels per day. By the end of the Cold War, with free trade in place, the U.S. consistently imported more than one million barrels of petroleum a day from Canada. By the end of the millennium, that number had tripled because of the expansion of the western Canadian tar sands.

The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement had other environmental dimensions, both direct and indirect. As the name suggests, this agreement created free trade area arrangements between the United States and Canada for most industrial products as well as many services and types of foreign investment. It locked in the Auto Pact system while making some changes to it. Canada could not convince the United States to get rid of countervailing or anti-dumping duties. Binational dispute settlement panels were created. Agriculture, such as farm subsidies and import quotas, was so controversial that it was mostly exempted.

Non-discriminatory electricity trade was included in the CUFTA, as each country granted national treatment to foreign electricity. The CUFTA, and later the North American Free Trade Agreement, also promoted restructuring, deregulation, and “continental integration in the energy and electricity sector at an administrative level, thereby making it more difficult for future governments to backtrack.”7 The result was less federal control in both nations over the electricity trade. National Energy Board requirements to hold public hearings on electricity exports from Canada were reduced.

In 1990, electricity exports between the two countries were roughly equal. By the start of the twenty-first century, Canada sent south more than four times the electricity that it received from the United States. Overall, after the initiation of free trade, Canada became a net exporter of energy.

Greenest Prime Minister?

As I’ve already noted, Mulroney has been called Canada’s “greenest” prime minister. Furthermore, Elizabeth May contends that Mulroney’s environmental record is “unquestionably outstanding.”8 During his time in office, Mulroney did demonstrate a belief in environmental protection. A number of ecological initiatives came to fruition under his leadership, including the Montreal Protocol and the 1991 Air Quality Agreement.

But the extent to which the Air Quality Agreement was successful seems to have had more to do with U.S. domestic pollution regulations. Furthermore, the type of neoliberal policies and deregulation Mulroney advanced have ultimately led to unsustainable results that, in my opinion, likely outweigh the Progressive Conservative’s positive environmental achievements.

No national leader of Canada deserves to be called “green” in any meaningful sense of the term.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that, overall, the free trade agreements—of which Mulroney was a chief author—were anything but bad for North American environments. The ecological damage resulting from the sheer expansion and scaling up of cross border manufacturing and trade, heightened consumption, the increase in fossil fuel exports, and the outsourcing of economic activities to areas where environmental regulations are laxer, puts paid to any notion that the liberalization of trade regimes has increased environmental protections. Advocates claimed that the rising tide lifts all boats. But the only rising tide seems to have been literal rather than metaphorical, with all the additional economic activity spurring on sea level rise by pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

If Mulroney is the greenest prime minister in Canada’s history, it is only because it is a very low bar. Really, no national leader of Canada deserves to be called “green” in any meaningful sense of the term.

Feature Image: “Tillicum hugs Prime Minister Brian Mulroney” by City of Vancouver Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


1 CBC News, “Mulroney Honoured for Environmental Record” (April 20, 2006):

2 I’m emphasizing the international angle in part because this post draws heavily from my book Natural Allies. For more in-depth dives into Mulroney’s environmental legacy, see: Heather Smith, “Shades of Grey in Canada’s Greening during the Mulroney Era,” in Diplomatic Departures: The Conservative Era in Canadian Foreign Policy, 19841993, edited by Nelson Michaud and Kim Richard Nossal, 71-83 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001). Elizabeth May, “Brian Mulroney and the Environment,” in Transforming the Nation: Canada and Brian Mulroney, edited by Raymond B. Blake, 381-92 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).

3 Clarkson, Uncle Sam and Us, 193.

4 Azzi, Reconcilable Differences, 222–3; Smith, “Shades of Grey in Canada’s Greening during the Mulroney Era,” 75.

5 Nemeth, “From Conflict to Cooperation,” 150.

6 Nemeth, “Continental Drift: Energy Policy and Canadian-American Relations.”

7 Froschauer, White Gold, 48.

8 May, 381

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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