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It's World Environment Day and Canada's Not Doing so Hot

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Today is World Environment Day, an appropriate moment to reflect on the state of our nation's journey towards sustainability.

In a nutshell, we're not doing so hot.

Measured against other OECD nations, Canada continues to rank near the bottom of the barrel for environmental protection. Once viewed as a constructive, conscientious partner, Canada is now a sort of pariah on the international stage, uninterested or downright unwilling to work with other countries to tackle major global environmental challenges from desertification to over-fishing, deforestation to climate change.

So singularly focused is our current federal government on oil-fuelled growth, for example, the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. referred to our Natural Resource Minister, Joe Oliver, as Canada's "Minister of Oil."

Our reputation in disrepute abroad, environmental degradation continues at home. We can't solve everything all at once, so if we were to really focus, what is the most important thing threatening the Canadian environment? Is it the destructive power of climate change? The cancer-causing effect of unregulated toxic chemicals? The downward spiral of water quality across the country?

In my view all of these challenges are symptoms of a larger problem: the unrelenting, aggressive hostility of our country's Conservative parties to environmental progress.

I once participated on a panel for the magazine Corporate Knights that voted Brian Mulroney "the greenest Prime Minister in Canadian history." That seems like a long time ago now. And many of Mulroney's signature environmental accomplishments -- such as the creation of the respected National Round Table on Environment and Economy -- have since been killed by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

This is the same federal government that has recently questioned whether global warming is really as bad as everybody says it is, has used the Canada Revenue Agency to make life as difficult for Canada's environmental charities as possible, and presided over what is -- objectively -- the most significant rollback of environmental protections since Confederation.

At the provincial level, in a little-noticed speech during the last provincial election, Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak promised to abolish Conservation Authorities -- a creation of Tory governments dating back to the 1950s, and he has been uniformly hostile to environmental notions ever since. In Brad Wall's Saskatchewan, the David Suzuki Foundation has recently noted that "it is difficult to imagine any jurisdiction taking the threats of climate change less seriously."

And though some days it's hard to focus on his actual policies through the haze of circus-like shenanigans, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has targeted green initiatives with a laser-like precision, making it very clear that in his world "green" and "gravy" are synonymous and equally deserving of elimination.

There once was a proud Tory environmental record: Brian Mulroney's battles against Acid Rain, and Bill Davis's protection of the Niagara Escarpment come to mind. The Canadian Conservative circa 2013, however, has not only turned their back on this legacy, they are busily dismantling it.

Conservatives today are of a different ilk. They view the environment through a distorted and Manichean lens, one where environmental policy is inevitably at odds with sound economic policy.

Yes, there are voices -- like that of Preston Manning -- calling for a renewal of a Conservative green ethic. But these voices make little impact, drowned out as they are by the chorus of pro-industry voices, granted privileged access to lobby Conservative ministers for changes to environmental regulations. Meeting so often with oil and gas sector executives, it's little wonder "Environment" Minister Peter Kent focuses on promoting "Ethical Oil" rather than environmental stewardship.

A commitment to reconciling environmental and economic priorities is now without a doubt one of the single greatest differences between Conservatives and non-Conservatives in our country. For progressives, the task is to demonstrate to Canadians that there are alternatives to the ecologically destructive and economically uncertain path we are on.

Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.

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