Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Sierra Club of/du Canada

by Jonathan Randall

Endangered Forests, Species Top Environmental Agenda for Sierra Club of Canada

An Interview with Executive Director Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May, the Sierra Club of Canada's executive director, first became heavily involved in environmental issues in the mid-'70s fighting insecticide spraying on forests near her home in Nova Scotia. She served as senior policy adviser to the federal environment minister in 1986, and was instrumental in the creation of several national parks, including South Moresby in British Columbia, and in drafting new legislation and pollution control measures. In 1988, she resigned in protest after the minister granted permits for dam construction in Saskatchewan as part of a political trade-off. A federal court later ruled that the permits were illegal.

May received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Sierra Club in 1989, the United Nations Global 500 Award in 1990 and the Ontario Society for Environmental Education's award for Outstanding Leadership in 1996. She has represented the Sierra Club of Canada since 1990 and was named executive director in 1993. The Club currently has 2,615 members in Canada.

Q: Canadians know all about America and Americans, but Americans know very little about Canada and Canadians. What are some of the biggest differences you see between the environmental movements there and here?

We're smaller and poorer. The Sierra Club of Canada is one of the strongest national environmental groups in Canada on a really tiny overall budget. Canada has a strong, rich base of grassroots groups across the country, many of which the Sierra Club of Canada works with on a regular basis. Louise Comeau of our Ottawa office, the most influential climate activist in Canada, works in the Climate Action Committee with over 200 environmental organizations across the country, big and small.

Q: How do the differences in the political systems of Canada and the United States affect the different approaches to environmental problems?

Two major differences. One is that the provinces here have far more clout than individual states in the U.S. The other is that we have parliamentary democracy, in which the prime minister, as leader of the party in power, can control the legislators in his or her party. Members of Parliament have to vote along party lines, otherwise they get thrown out of the party. This means our lobbying scenarios are very different from what Club activists do in the U.S. because we can't twist arms and change votes. What we can do is raise awareness and get that awareness mobilized in a way that the key decisionmakers can see it. We also have far less decisionmaking by legislators and more by key ministers. The number of bills that move through our House and Congress in any given session is probably a tenth of what the U.S. deals with.

Q: Nine out of 10 Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border. Does that affect the way they look at environmental issues within their own country?

The proximity to the U.S. has been a major help to us. Many of the Club activists who helped us defeat the James Bay Great Whale (Grande Baleine) project were from Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York. They made the difference in defeating those projects. The electric power to be generated was all for export. And almost all the forest being logged in Canada is for export. We're a small population and we're the world's largest exporter of forest products. Because U.S. policies affect us so profoundly, it makes sense to knit our campaigns together across political boundaries. We have a lot of shared environmental concerns - the Great Lakes, for one. And then there are a lot of issues that are truly international, like climate change and ozone depletion, that no one country can deal with just by itself.

Q: Does the jobs-vs.-the-environment debate get as much attention in Canada as it does in the U.S.?

It does, but I don't think it's as persuasive. In terms of the polling results we've seen, Canadians are stronger than Americans on questions like, "Would you accept reduced environmental regulations for economic growth?" Eighty to 90 percent of Canadians will say no. People will also say no to accepting reduced environmental quality for higher employment. The Sierra Club has done a lot of work pointing out that the positions we're advocating will create jobs. The public doesn't want the government to cut corners on the environment. They tend to be very environmentally conscious. In focus group testing around biodiversity, Canadians completely support the idea that every species has the right to exist, whereas I've heard that focus groups in the U.S. say, "Yeah, most species are valuable, but you can't say that every little tiny bug has the right to exist." The right to a clean environment is something that Canadians really believe in, even though we don't have it. But there's a lot of public support for getting there.

Q: Are you following our upcoming elections? What are the implications for Canada?

Implications for Canada with an anti-environmental Congress or anti-environmental White House are always disastrous. Bush was a disaster for Canada. He held back the Rio climate negotiations, which was a disaster for the whole planet, not just for the U.S. On the issue of climate change we clearly need a strong environmental presence. There's no question that Clinton's been a disappointment, but it's still important for us that he gets re-elected.

Q: How are volunteers at the local level making a difference?

Volunteers in the Ottawa area have been working very hard for years in a large, quite spectacular area of wetlands near the middle of the city. The Agassiz Group in Winnipeg has gotten started in fighting to protect wetlands. The Lower Mainland Group in B.C. is working to save important wilderness areas near them. We have good volunteer activists at the grassroots level. Many local groups have had significant successes all on their own. We just had a major victory this summer. We helped force the Nova Scotia government to back away from a plan to bury Canada's largest toxic waste dump containing 700,000 tons of toxic waste. The estuary in the town of Sydney is heavily contaminated by this toxic waste, is open to the sea and surrounded by residential areas. There's a Sierra Club group just starting up there in Cape Breton. We worked with them, 4-H, Catholic Nuns for the Earth and the local Mi'kmaq First Nation. The burial plan is now scrapped, and we're looking at a large community consultation process to pursue the very best cleanup plan for the site. And thanks to the Sierra Club campaign working on this issue with local groups, the federal minister to the environment went down to Sydney. He was the first federal minister to the environment to even look at this area in 10 years. There are local Sierra Club activists on the issue, but we worked with a lot of other groups. We're the voice that they have in Ottawa. They'd get publicity locally, but to get the federal minister of the environment engaged, you need some national presence - that's what we brought to it.

Q: Victories are understandably uplifting for environmental activists, but not always so frequent. What keeps you going in-between?

I've been doing environmental work in Canada for over 20 years. I don't know how I would live my life if I weren't engaged full-time in trying to stop what humans are doing to the planet. I really don't feel I have any choice. And the sense that I have to do this work because it's critical has only gotten stronger since I became a mother. Every time I read statistics and look at climate change models that show what's likely going to happen to the planet, I've gone beyond being outraged for myself. I'm moved to even more action because I don't want my daughter to have to deal with these things. It's like breathing. I don't know how I'd live if I didn't do this.

For more information: Sierra Club of Canada, 1 Nicholas Street, Suite 412, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B7, CANADA

  • Sierra Club Prairies Chapter, 63 Albert St., Suite 411, Winnepeg, Manitoba R3B 1G4, CANADA; (204) 444-2750; e-mail: <>
  • Sierra Club of Eastern Canada, 204-517 College St., Toronto, Ontario M6G 4A2, CANADA; (416) 960-9606; e-mail: <>
  • Sierra Club of British Columbia, 1525 Amelia, Victoria, B.C. V8W 2K1, CANADA; (604) 386-5255; e-mail: <>.

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