06/02/2015 01:36 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT

We're Leaving Our Natural Security Undefended

Alain Limoges/Flickr

What are Canadians' biggest environmental concerns?

Asked this question in 1989, most of us said toxic chemicals, water quality, and air quality. Asked the same question two and a half decades later, the same concerns topped our responses.

Why haven't things gotten better? Or have they?

I spent many months recently going over the entire record of Canada's environmental maintenance and independent assessments of how effective it's been, for a novel undertaking in journalism by Vancouver's non-profit Tyee Solutions Society.

The bottom line is that by a few measures, our natural security as represented by safe water, clean air and healthy, uncontaminated ecosystems, has improved. A small handful of species have been pulled back from the brink. We're no longer as familiar with gross air pollution -- smog -- as we once were.

But scores of other indicators reveal that Canada's natural security is under attack, falling back, and in some places giving way entirely.

Pharmaceuticals float through every significant river system in southern Canada, even as cancers and other disorders of male and female reproductive organs are on the rise. Unsightly scums of toxic blue-green algae are expanding over larger areas of southern lakes, rivers and even oceans every summer.

City air is cleaner. But the invisible greenhouse gasses we've been releasing all this time, and are once again releasing more of every year, are bringing increasingly nasty, violent weather that's costing us billions. Calgary is still getting over the $4.8 billion blow that one extreme downpour delivered to its economic heart in 2013.

As our emissions continue to heat the atmosphere, we can expect more of those downpours, and more of the blizzards that struck eastern Canada later that year and again this past winter.

Meanwhile, our most iconic animals, from the polar bear and loon on our coins to the west coast's orca and northern caribou, are all at more risk now than a quarter century ago. The Atlantic's fabled cod, whose populations crashed just as the period I reviewed began, haven't come back.

Or let's make it even more personal: our boys are going away. For reasons possibly but not definitively linked to all those chemicals in the water, Canadian parents are experiencing an ongoing decline in the odds of having a baby boy -- and an increasing likelihood of having a girl. The difference compared to the normal ratio since roughly forever up to the mid-1970s has now reached several hundred statistical "missing" boys every year.

We've had five prime ministers from three political parties over the last quarter century. All, including the latest, have enacted impressive laws designed to protect species, penalize polluters and prevent foreseeable environmental harm. And according to the independent judgement of Canada's Environment Commissioner -- Parliament's official auditor of our natural security -- all have failed abysmally to implement or effectively enforce those laws.

The world has noticed.

In 2001, when the World Economic Forum and researchers at Yale designed the first performance rankings for countries, Canada's stewardship of its environment was ranked third among 122 nations. Two years ago, the Centre for Global Development put us dead last in our class: 27th in a field of 27 rich, educated nations.

So when we discuss our "security" over the next few months, let's not forget that it really doesn't matter how much the RCMP can find out about me at the push of a button, or how mad our foreign policy makes a regional band of over-armed zealots, if the natural security underwriting all of our health and wealth is left unguarded.

If you'd like to equip yourself with a little more intellectual and factual ammunition for that discussion, check out our Bottom Lines: A Quarter Century Report on Canada's Natural Security.


Canadian Eco-Inventions