The real question is how can the public elect political leaders to power that can lead Canada to a sustainable future when public knowledge is so limited. The missing element is that sustainability depends on good science to create sustainable governance. There are other issues that are inherent in the Canadian political system that create barriers to achieving sustainability.
Similarly, within Canada, environmental degradation occurs across many of the multi-tiered political boundaries. The responsibility for governance of environmental issues is also multi-tiered in Canada. There is a significant overlap of jurisdictional responsibilities between the federal, provincial, and municipal duties of governance. "The federal and provincial governments have had legal regimes and administrative structure in place to protect the environment, but it is widely accepted that these legislative provisions and regulatory mechanisms are unsuitable for keeping up with the growing threat to the environment caused by population growth and unregulated development" (Thompson, 1993). Sustainability issues are inherently without territorial spatial boundaries between provinces and countries.
There is also the issue of scientific uncertainty about the dynamic and synergistic nature of the environment. This issue needs more sound scientific knowledge that should be communicated to stakeholders in simple language that identifies the issues and the possible options and solutions. Knowledge is a powerful instrument to motivate people to demand change. There must be a critical mass or threshold of people who desire sustainable development for it to occur across the vast spatial and temporal boundaries of the environmental issues.
Another issue is the need to achieve a common vision of sustainability for Canada and all her constituents. There must be consensus that this is our highest priority so that real change can occur. This common goal must be held by all of the stakeholders in our political system which includes elected officials, the members of the Prime Ministers Office (PMO), media, business and the public. This national vision was previously tried in Canada with the creation of the Green Plan in 1990 (Doern, 1994). This potential common vision for sustainability in Canada ultimately failed due to lack of support from all the players.
Furthermore, it is the inequitable balance between values of sustainability, economics, and human health that fire the power struggles that hinder progress to a common vision. At a superficial level, these are conflicting value systems even though they are inter-related because each affects the other. Perhaps it is time to call a truce to stop the fighting and look at the challenges that we face together as a country and try seeking to unify all of our forces.
Even with the election of factious parties, the Canadian democracy is an illusion. The real decisions are made by the ‘de facto’ leaders of Cabinet within the Prime Ministers Office (PMO). The members of this inner circle wield incredible power and yet are not accountable for the consequences of the decisions. "Environmental law has done little to change the operations of the Government of Canada and is unlikely to do so due to the high degree of control the political executive has over virtually every aspect of the policy decision-making process" (Schrecker, 1993). The primary objective of the PMO is to maintain control and power, and the ultimate result can be the abuse of that power.
Even the PMOs are vulnerable to the cutting edge of the media who have the power to color issues and sway public perception. The media thrives on adversarialism and emotionalism to increase ratings and profits. It is the power of the media and public opinion that causes political parties to metamorphose and alter their platforms on issues. The PMOs, the political parties, and the MPs will adopt principles that are popular to gain high press ratings.
Financial support from industry is another element that is essential to the survival of political parties and leaders. According to the very colorful politician, Moe Sihota, government is sleeping with industry (Sihota, 1997). The consequences for sustainability are both high levels of discharge and no real incentive for industry to change to pollution prevention because the majority of the existing legislation is neither precautionary nor heavily enforced. Business supports the Canadian democracy by donations to election campaigns, which can run up to seventy-thousand dollars for one election per party.
The final challenge that hinders sustainability in the Canadian democracy is the short term of office for the winning party; four years is a very short period time to develop and implement the agenda. This coupled with the factious and fragmented visions of the many parties creates a system of governance that is short term in both vision and accomplishments. Sustainability requires a long term vision and commitment to implement solutions to be achievable.
Canada has made long term international commitments to reduce environmental degradation. It is the responsibility of each succeeding political party to uphold Canada’s international agreements to work towards sustainability. Canadian governments have strengthened their commitment to environmental protection and sustainable development (Schrecker, 1993).
Perhaps the time is right to create a new cooperative federal department and provincial ministry that governs sustainable development. This is a multi-level top down strategy. This new body would be autonomous from the control of federal departments and provincial ministries and would oversee sustainable development in Canada that integrates socio-economic, environmental, and human health issues and solutions. Other benefits include the reduction of the overlap of multiple levels of government in Canada, create a common vision, and reduce the incessant inaction of governments tied up in making political points to win a point (Martin, 1998). It is also important that this group uses the best science available to make informed decisions. This group must support both new research and development and monitor programs of environmental issues.
Similarly, the public, which includes industry and media, needs to be more educated about environmental science. There needs to be more opportunity for an informed public to have a pro-active role in the environmental decision making process. There "must be a better way for good ideas to percolate upwards", both for the public and for the MP’s (Martin, 1998). This is a bottom up strategy. Martin feels very strongly that the only way that the current parliamentary structure will change is if an informed public gets angry enough to effect change, and furthermore, MPs have to revolt against the current system of blind agreement with the party leader.
Finally, the optimum solution is to bring the above two previous strategies, top down and bottom up, together. The political debate and policy formation in our Canadian democracy is too far removed from the real issues and solutions to achieve sustainability in Canada. The political players need some degree of expertise within their portfolio organizations to make healthy decisions for the environment, Canada, and Canada’s partners.
It’s time to lay down the sword and to pick up the torch; light the way to a sustainable future for all that live and are yet to be.
Doern, G.B., Conway, T. 1994. The Greening of Canada: Federal Institutions and Decisions. University of Toronto Press. Toronto, Ontario. 297 Pp.
Martin, Keith. July 27, 1998. Seminar. "Process of Government." ES411 Environmental Lecture Seminar Series. Royal Roads University. Victoria, BC.
Schrecker, T. 1993. "Environmental Law and the Greening of Government: A Cynical Guide." in Environmental Law and Business in Canada. Ed. by Thompson, G. Canada Law Books. Aurora, Ontario. Pp. 161 - 183.
Sihota, M. November 17, 1997. Seminar. "The Canadian Politician." ES401 Environmental Lecture Seminar Series. Royal Roads University. Victoria, BC.
Thompson, G. 1993. Environmental Law and Business in Canada. Canada Law Books. Aurora, Ontario. 599 Pp.