‘A crisis of unparalleled magnitude’: How environmental concerns did — and didn’t — shape the 1988 election

Acid rain. PCBs. Cleaning up the Great Lakes. In ’88, the major parties were talking about protecting the environment. But critics said they'd never walk the walk
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 01, 2021
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (left), Liberal leader John Turner (centre), and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent at the start of the French-language debate in Ottawa on October 24, 1988. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

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“The environment isn’t really a partisan issue, nor is it a question of right and left. It is a question of survival. If Canadians maintain the pressure, political leaders may one day realize that ecological health cannot be restored by embarking on a crash diet.” — editorial, Ottawa Citizen, October 24, 1988

Polling in the leadup to the 1988 federal election showed that Canadians wanted their elected officials to do something about the environment. While acid rain, PCBs, and cleaning up the Great Lakes received the most attention at the time, there was growing awareness that climate change, then viewed through the lens of controls on greenhouse gases, would be a future concern. In a July poll, Environics found that 84 per cent of Canadians wanted stronger federal action against pollution, while 77 per cent were willing to pay more for enviro-friendly products. Political strategists found that the public was ahead of politicians on these issues and that a party could benefit by addressing them.

Climate change and related topics had garnered Prime Minister Brian Mulroney international headlines throughout 1988. During the G7 meeting in Toronto that June, Mulroney, advised by Minister of the Environment Tom McMillan, helped convince the other leaders to produce a statement recommending global co-operation on environmental policy.

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illustration with the text "opening our eyes to pollution"
Illustration from the September 3, 1988, edition of the Globe and Mail.

Following the G7, Toronto hosted the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere. During his opening address, Mulroney called for “an international law of the atmosphere, or at least the elements of an agreement” in time for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the “Earth Summit”) in 1992. The conference resulted in a statement that asked nations to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions 20 per cent by 2005, a figure later endorsed by a House of Commons environmental standing committee.

On September 29, three days before the election was called, Mulroney gave a campaign-style speech at the United Nations. “The world is facing an environmental crisis of unparalleled magnitude,” Mulroney observed. “There is a growing awareness that the environment, the economy, and human health are inextricably linked.” He noted that “the greenhouse effect, the deterioration of the ozone layer, and the disposal of toxic wastes are cause for legitimate concern both here and around the world.” He also announced that a centre to promote environmentally sustainable development would be established in Winnipeg. (The International Institute for Sustainable Development was founded in 1990.) 

During the campaign, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives offered up few new promises, apart from a program to clean up the Great Lakes. The NDP, led by Ed Broadbent, offered $580 million in environmental initiatives, promising to improve municipal water infrastructure and impose heavy financial penalties on polluters. Most controversial was its proposal to raise $200 million to pay for environmental initiatives by collecting a 0.12 per cent surtax on business profits. 

The Liberals offered similar promises for half the cost but rejected the NDP’s idea for a pollution-tax levy, feeling it would serve only as a licence to pollute. As Liberal leader John Turner noted in a mid-October appearance in Quebec’s Beauce region, “The environment is too important an issue to be caught up in pointless doctrinaire polarizations.” The party charged that the Tories were hypocrites, and highlighted their apparently late conversion to environmental issues. It also pledged to seek a “law of the air” — which would promote tougher rules to protect the ozone layer and reduce international carbon-dioxide emissions — at the United Nations. 

two men in suits point fingers at each other
Liberal leader John Turner (left) and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney during a debate in the 1988 federal-election campaign. (Fred Chartrand/CP) 

Environmentalists were not convinced that such promises would lead to meaningful action. They were irritated by McMillan’s habit of reeling off agreements and programs established under his watch when concrete achievements were questioned. There were also concerns about the Tories’ coziness with United States president Ronald Reagan’s administration — which had failed to produce any imminent breakthroughs on the acid-rain file — and about how free trade would affect Canadian environmental policy. Environment Canada had been hit by budget and staff cuts over the previous four years and faced criticism for its support of such fossil-fuel projects as the Hibernia oil field and the Alberta oil sands. 

“I call all three leaders born-again environmentalists,” Canadian Wildlife Federation executive vice-president Ken Brynaert told the Financial Post. “Even though they’re saying the right things, I don’t think their money is where their mouth is.” Elizabeth May, who had just left an advisory role in the Ministry of the Environment, was also cautious. “I'm not against any and all development,” she told the Montreal Gazette. “But when the government expresses concern about the greenhouse effect and then subsidizes a marginal energy project that will only contribute to the problem, that's a contradiction." 

In an early campaign poll conducted by Gallup for the Toronto Star, 78 per cent of Metro Toronto residents said they were concerned about the environment; 67 per cent were concerned about free trade. “Whether the environment becomes the sleeper issue of this campaign depends on each party’s ability to develop a unique platform on this issue,” Gallup vice-president Lorne Bozinoff observed. 

Public figures including David Suzuki and Farley Mowat sent a letter to the three major party leaders demanding a debate dedicated solely to “the desperate environmental situation.” PC campaign manager Norm Atkins responded by indicating that, while Mulroney would be happy to answer any environmental questions during the debates, there were many requests that couldn’t be fulfilled. The NDP response was along the same lines. The Liberals believed that such an event would be impossible, given the PCs’ refusal to debate other issues. 

During the October 25 English leaders’ debate, Broadbent and Mulroney handled the environmental segment. They spent most of their time arguing over the merits of jailing polluters under the Criminal Code. In the end, Mulroney noted that, in terms of overall environmentalism, “perhaps we were a little late as a country and as a society in doing all of the things that we should have done and should be doing for the environment. But we are playing catch-up in a very serious and, I think, effective way.”

The debate had faced an unsuccessful court injunction filed by the Green Party, then running in its second federal campaign. Despite not having come close to winning any seats in 1984, the party demanded that leader Seymour Trieger be included, even though he’d told the press that he preferred free-time political broadcasts because “debates are kind of a stilted format.”

Shortly before the campaign, the Greens had held their first national meeting at Camp Kwomais, in British Columbia. “One delegate hoped aloud the party could gain some legitimacy by being infiltrated by a CSIS or RCMP agent,” the Toronto Star reported. “Alas, none was in sight.” When asked why supporters didn’t instead try to achieve their goals through a mainstream party, such as the NDP, Comox­–Alberni candidate Jim Bohlen told the Star that the NDP was unable “to do any substantial work in the area of correcting environmental disasters. They’re socialists; we’re not.” During the campaign, the Greens questioned Broadbent’s commitment to environmental policy, due to the proximity of his Oshawa riding to two nuclear reactors.

Agenda segment, April 4, 2011: Brian Mulroney: Past and present

Near the end of the campaign, a Southam News wire story indicated that environmental concerns — along with other issues such as child care and tax reform — had ended up being overshadowed by free trade. At a talk in Arnprior in early November, Suzuki told his audience that environmentalism had lost its momentum, as most cabinet ministers were businessmen or lawyers. He felt most politicians knew next to nothing about science and could not make informed decisions. “The born-again environmental concern expressed by our three major political parties is only tipping the hat to the issue,” he said.

While the Tories won a majority, McMillan lost his seat in P.E.I. The appointment of Lucien Bouchard as his successor was viewed as an upgrade in terms of the environment ministry’s profile. But whatever gains climate change and other environmental issues had made in 1988 faded thanks to the constitutional turmoil of the early 1990s and the realignment of the Canadian political landscape. A Green Plan introduced by the government in 1990 failed to use most of its initial budget.

Heading into the 1993 federal election, Kim Campbell’s short-lived government shifted most of the overall environmental budget elsewhere. The campaign saw no significant announcement from the major parties, and polling showed that environmentalism had fallen in importance among voters. Further demands for an environmentally focused debate were ignored. As Maclean’s Ottawa columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith observed, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives gave “a new sad twist to a very old joke: everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Sources: Energy and Environment, Volume 12, Number 3 (2001); Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy by Fen Osler Hampson (Toronto: Signal, 2018); Memoirs by Brian Mulroney (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007); the October 11, 1988, and October 18, 1988, editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 30, 1988, and October 20, 1988, editions of the Financial Post; the September 6, 1993, edition of Maclean’s; the October 29, 1988, edition of the Montreal Gazette; the October 24, 1988, and November 8, 1988, editions of the Ottawa Citizen; the September 6, 1988, October 11, 1988, October 14, 1988, October 26, 1988, and November 9, 1988, editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 19, 1988, October 21, 1988, and November 18, 1988, editions of the Windsor Star.

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