Canada’s Conservative Environmental Legacy

As the Canadian conservative movement enters a period of policy renewal, this creates an opportunity for conservative leaders to reconnect with their past, their traditions and their principles and to reaffirm themselves as a strong political party on the issue of the environment.

As noted by historians Dr. Sarah K. Gibson and Arthur Milnes in their best-selling collection of Sir John A. Macdonald’s speeches, Canada Transformed: The Speeches of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s Tory founding Prime Minister had a life-long interest in science and the environment. He was a constant and continuous supporter of the Geological Survey of Canada, an early member of the Botanical Society of Canada and was even on hand for the first-ever meeting of The Royal Society of Canada held on Parliament Hill. He also first began advocating for an experimental agriculture (or farm) program as early as the 1840s and these came into national existence under his Premiership. Sir John A. was also the founder of Canada’s world-famous National Parks system and his government created the first three National Parks, Banff, Yoho and Glacier. It is also important to note that unlike so many other Canadians of his day Sir John A. and his wife, Lady Agnes Macdonald, were inspired in this work by their own visit to the West on the new CPR. They traveled to the Pacific Ocean in 1886.

Distinguished academic Professor Patrice Dutil of Ryerson University recently praised Macdonald’s environmental leadership in Maclean’s Magazine online: “John A. says, there’s a place there, it’s not perfect, we can make it better, but there’s a place there that needs to be preserved. Again, he’s thinking ahead, he’s thinking generations ahead, and he says, using the rule of law, as you say, we’re going to set markers and we’re going to place this piece of God’s land away from anything that man can do or waste. It’s the rule of law, it’s the role of the state, and it’s with us today. It could have been different, and John A. did it. Again, showing once again how progressive this man could be.”

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker will be remembered for his compelling vision of Canada’s North with his policy of “Roads to Resources”. It may have been a romantic view of Canada’s future but no Canadian Prime Minister since, except for Stephen Harper, has come close to getting Northern Canada on our political agenda.

Legislating on environment week is a legacy of former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who proposed the idea to the House of Commons in 1970…

It was the Clark government that first took up the sensitive issue of SO2 emissions, better known as acid rain. The first Canadian Minister of the Environment to take up this issue was John Fraser. When Brian Mulroney became leader of the Opposition, he would chose to focus on this issue when invited to visit president Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1983.

Returning to the Clark government, it was at the G7 meeting in Tokyo in 1979 that German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, supported by president Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Joe Clark, lead the first ever consensus on stabilizing carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions.

The Mulroney government, in which I had the privilege of serving as Minister of the Environment, very proudly assumed the conservative legacy of this issue and went further than any other government had gone before.
Under the Mulroney government, came the Montreal protocol on CFC’S and HCFC’s that was ultimately supported by President Reagan! This international agreement is celebrated today as being one of the most, if not the most successful agreement on the environment ever done! Indeed, and according to the UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat, the Vienna Convention on Protection of the Ozone Layer and its Montreal Protocol became, on September 16th, 2009, the first and only treaties to reach universal ratification!

At the 1988 G7 summit in Toronto, chaired by Prime Minister Mulroney, the leaders expanded the climate agenda and called for the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Prime Minister Mulroney gave the opening address at the following summit, in which he declared:
“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war”.

In 1992, at the earth summit in Rio, Canada was the first country in the G7 to announce its decision to sign the framework convention on climate change and the framework convention on biodiversity.

When Prime Minister Mulroney left public office, he was subsequently recognized as being the “greenest” Prime Minister in the history of Canada.

Whether it’s about Northern Canada, the creation of National parks and protected spaces, acid rain, climate change, Canada’s first sustainable development plan called the Green Plan and our outstanding record in the forging of consensus and international treaties: conservatives have a proud record to stand on.

The time has come for the conservative movement to assume this legacy and to lead again.

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