How green was Brian Mulroney?

Jay Fitzsimmons
Published in Sept 2006 issue of The Windsor Scoop. Reposted here with permission.


On April 20 Brian Mulroney was proclaimed Canada’s greenest Prime Minister by Corporate Knights magazine. Environmentalists, lawyers, and politicians lined up to attend the ceremony, though it is unclear how many used public transit to get there. Perhaps a critical appraisal of his environmental record is in order. Here are some environmental successes and failures for which he should take some responsibility.

The good

  • The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987). A rare environmental success story. Nations agreed to reduce, and eventually halt, production of chemicals such as CFCs that break down the ozone layer. Thanks to this agreement and future refinements to it, CFC production is now minimal and ozone reduction has plateaued. Full ozone recovery may take centuries because CFCs stay in the stratosphere for a long time, but you can’t blame Mulroney for chemistry. This agreement prevented a potential catastrophe.
  • Acid rain (1980s). Remember how the life in our lakes was dying from the water becoming too acidic? Slowly but surely our lakes are now recovering. A lot of the acid emissions were blowing north from the USA. Not only do air currents take acidic pollution north to Canada, but our Ontario lakes are especially vulnerable to acid rain because of the geology of the Canadian Shield. So Mulroney convinced US President Reagan to clean up America’s air. I doubt Reagan was eager to comply, and Mulroney deserves credit for successful negotiation.
  • The cod moratorium (1992). This was violently unpopular among Newfoundland fishermen, which is why it deserves praise. How often does a Prime Minister do the right thing for the future of Canada despite being unpopular in the short-term? The cod stocks had been vanishing for decades. Halting much of their fishing was the right thing to do.

The bad

  • Cancellation of the National Energy Program (NEP) (1985). Trudeau enacted the NEP in the aftermath of the 1970s ‘energy crisis.’ There were two main reasons for the program. One was to increase government revenue from petroleum taxes. The other was to ensure Canadian self-sufficiency from Canadian resources, with oil-rich provinces in the west providing oil to energy-dependent provinces in the east at sub-international rates. The deal was unpopular in the west, especially in Alberta. Mulroney won support in the west by promising to scrap the NEP. The program may have been flawed, but its principles were environmentally-friendly: tax oil, and ensure Canadian resources benefit Canadians first.
  • Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (1989). The economics of free trade have produced winners and losers. The environment is a loser. I’ll give you two examples. The American PCB waste disposal company S.D. Myers successfully sued Canada because we banned the export of PCBs, a type of chemical hazardous to human health. According to NAFTA PCBs are a traded commodity and Canada was out of line to ban their trade. Canadian companies can be equally scrupulous. Methanex is a Canadian gas company that is currently suing the USA for $970US million. California outlawed a gas additive that polluted its well-water, which hurt Methanex since it sells an ingredient for that chemical. Although these cases fall under NAFTA, which is Chrétien’s free trade deal, Mulroney’s free trade agreement established the precedent: environmental interests are not a priority.

Brian Mulroney’s environmental record is not bad, but hardly worthy of high praise. If he is indeed Canada’s greenest Prime Minister, which he may be, then it speaks volumes about our other Prime Ministers. Mulroney won by default. Stephen Harper has already cut $1 billion in environmental programs to subsidize tax cuts. It’s enough to turn me green with nausea.