Making Canada’s drinking water safe

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I write to you during a time of terrible insecurity. Since September 11th, we have had to confront our vulnerability on so many levels. We have feared for the safety of our communities. We have lost our casual confidence in the very air that we breathe. We have become painfully aware that much of our security rests upon a tissue of trust and cooperation – one that is delicate and, once torn, difficult to repair.

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Stopping subsidized lumber exports

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Our governments are paying forestry companies to tear down our Crown-owned forests and ship them to the U.S. and Asia. Here’s how our "forest management system" works, taking British Columbia’s rainforests as an example.

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The Walkerton Tragedy

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Last May, a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria contaminated the water system in Walkerton, Ontario. A testing lab informed the Public Utilities Commission of the contamination, but, inexplicably, the PUC withheld the information from both the public and the government for the following five days. Not until the medical officer of health, alarmed by the soaring cases of bloody diarrhea in the town, conducted independent tests did the PUC confess its dirty secret. The information came too late: The contaminated water killed six people and sickened 2,000.

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Protecting our wilderness

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This is an unusual appeal. I am writing to ask you to help environmental groups in your area rethink their approach to wilderness protection.

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Saving Canada’s endangered species

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I am writing to ask for your help in saving our endangered species. Over the last 200 years, we have lost at least 27 species or subspecies of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, molluscs, butterflies, and plants. The Queen Charlotte Islands no longer support a woodland caribou population; grizzly bears and black-footed ferrets no longer roam the Prairies; Ontario has lost the longjaw cisco and the blue walleye; the great auk and sea mink have disappeared from eastern Canada; and the Atlantic walrus and gray whale have abandoned the northwest Atlantic Ocean.

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Environment Probe’s tenth anniversary

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I’m feeling a little nostalgic. It’s the tenth anniversary of Environment Probe’s founding, and as I look back over my time here, I find my mind wanders less to the small victories we’ve had from time to time, and more to the rewarding comments I’ve received from supporters over the years, comments that touched and inspired me and led me to squirrel them away in a special file. I’d like to share several of them with you.

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Bring back our beaches

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The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth. That’s the title of a new book that describes the western world’s love affair with beaches. For over a century, we have flocked to sandy shores to escape summer’s heat, to seek spiritual and artistic inspiration, and above all, to have fun. Sadly, many of our beaches are anything but paradises these days. Contaminated by human sewage, they have become sources of sickness rather than delight.

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Depoliticizing Canada’s fisheries

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Politics – not science – drives far too many decisions at the government department in charge of Canada’s fisheries. The extent to which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has become politicized, and the tragic results, have been made frighteningly clear over the course of the past year.

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Preserving Canada’s fisheries

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This summer, we received a letter from an Australian lobster fisher. He had just met a Canadian fisher, who had given him a photocopy of an Environment Probe chapter from a book about the crisis in our Atlantic fisheries. Excited about our ideas, he invited us to speak at a conference of fishers, fisheries managers, and scientists from Australia and New Zealand.

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Making privatization work for the environment

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Canada’s sewage system is a disgrace. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians dump their sewage, untreated, into our coastal waters. Over a million more contaminate our lakes and rivers with raw sewage. Sewage treatment plants, in desperate need of repair and upgrading, regularly violate provincial and federal laws. In Nova Scotia and British Columbia, non-complying plants are the norm. Six dozen plants in Ontario, and over four dozen in Quebec, exceed their discharge limits. Across the country, sewage pollution contaminates beaches and harbours, puts shellfish grounds off limits to harvesters, and kills fish.

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Preserving Canada’s forests

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These are bad times for Canada’s forests. We are slowly losing our forested areas across the country, as new growth fails to keep up with increased harvests. And we are plagued by bitter conflicts over how forests should be managed. In Northeastern Ontario’s Temagami region, disputes over logging have resulted in demonstrations, blockades, arrests, court challenges, and even an explosion. The Ontario government has opened up vast areas in the region to logging and mining. But native people claim the area’s lands as their own and demand the right to manage them. Meanwhile, environmentalists insist that the provincial government close access roads and set up a wildland reserve to preserve some of our last remaining old-growth white pines.

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Capitalizing on free trade

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Back in 1989, Environment Probe campaigned to turn free trade to the environment’s advantage. Since then, the environmental impacts of free trade have been hotly debated. Critics have rightly pointed out that, in theory, governments may be hamstrung in imposing certain environmental standards. But other enterprising environmentalists have capitalized on free trade to reduce subsidies to—and raise standards in—our environmentally destructive resource sectors.

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Eliminating sewage pollution; reforming fisheries; siting controversial facilities

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Quebec’s bureaucrats don’t appreciate our findings. They complain that our recent study of sewage pollution in Quebec makes them look like they’re incompetent, or not doing their jobs. And no wonder. The study, by Environment Probe researcher Martin Nantel, points out that although Quebec has made considerable progress since the 1970s (when wastewater treatment facilities served less than two per cent of the population), 376 municipalities, representing 1.5 million people, still flush their sewage directly into lakes and rivers. When we released the study early this year, media interest created great consternation in government ranks. The Environment Minister is now demanding explanations from senior bureaucrats, who berate our uncompromising positions.

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Curbing sewage pollution

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Before world leaders gathered in Halifax for June’s G-7 summit, organizers fretted over an embarrassing problem: one of the city’s sewage pipes emptied just outside the meeting site, spewing raw sewage into the otherwise scenic harbour. Worried that foreign dignitaries and journalists would smell sewage and spot floating condoms, tampon applicators and toilet paper, politicians devised a plan. Their proposal? To extend a submerged pipe into the harbour, improving the view and sparing the visitors’ noses. The federal government ended up scrapping the plan, but not because merely hiding the sewage wouldn’t solve the problem. On the contrary, it simply deemed the $1 million project too expensive.

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Property rights in the defence of nature

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Over a century ago, in 1885, Antoine Ratté filed a lawsuit against several of Canada’s most notorious polluters. That suit and the government’s reaction to it established a shameful pattern that governs pollution across Canada to this day.

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Preventing massive water exports

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A new book from a conservative think-tank, the Fraser Institute, overflows with essays by prominent water experts promoting the sale of Canadian water to the United States. A recent cover story in Financial Post Magazine boldly declares "Why We Should Sell Our Water to America." The World Rivers Review last year stated that a "thirty year-old plan to send wild Canadian and Alaskan waters through a series of dams, reservoirs, and canals to the U.S. Southwest has gained new momentum." And Jeffrey Simpson, a prominent Globe and Mail columnist, predicts that early in the next century the U.S. and Canada will start debating the export of our fresh water in earnest.

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Privatizing natural resources

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Can you imagine a greater example of incompetence than the federal government’s stewardship of the east coast fishery, where the cod stocks have been recklessly depleted and entire communities are now on welfare, losing both their economic independence and their dignity? When the welfare runs out in several years, many of the communities will become ghost towns, emptied like the fisheries nearby.

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Reforming environmental assessments

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Environmental assessments and the public hearings that should scrutinize them were intended to empower the public to bring forward its concerns over projects that threatened their communities. Regrettably, environmental assessments—which are generally produced by promoters to justify their projects—often became cosy arrangements in which industry and government negotiated deals behind the public’s back, and circumvented public hearings. The result of those closed door arrangements were fiascos such as the Darlington nuclear power plant, which was never needed and which now threatens Ontario Hydro with bankruptcy, and the subsidized clear-cutting of old growth forests, which simultaneously ravaged our heritage and our economy.

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Property rights: the key to environmental protection

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In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a pulp and paper company in Espanola, Ontario, to stop polluting downstream waters, ruling that the property rights of the affected fishermen, farmers, and tourist operators must be respected. The Ontario government immediately passed new legislation allowing the pulp mill to continue releasing chemicals. For good measure, the government—anticipating that the court might rule against the company—had several months earlier also changed the Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act to encourage courts to allow pulp mill pollution.

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Free trade’s environmental benefits

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Earlier this year, the Quebec government, conceding that it was subsidizing Norsk Hydro, a multinational magnesium producer, agreed to stop subsidizing the company’s magnesium smelter, which is a major polluter. It did so following official trade protests by a U.S. industry group—the Non-Ferrous Producers Committee—over Norsk’s access to subsidized water and subsidized electricity. This industry lobby, for its part, decided to use trade remedy laws after being contacted by Environment Probe, who alerted it to the Free Trade Agreement and how it could be used to prevent the export of Canada’s resources at the expense of Canada’s environment.

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