Not a Proud Canadian

August 25, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Two countries, two different sets of priorities, and one world in desperate need of help.

As more than 40,000 people -- including heads of state, environmental lobbyists, and business leaders -- gather in Johannesburg, South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), I am astounded by Canada's mediocre contribution to this most important debate.

"Sustainable Development: A Canadian Perspective" (downloadable from, is 129 pages of fluffy navel gazing and does not make me proud to be a Canadian. Greenpeace and a number of environmental groups have mentioned recently that Canada has fallen off the perch as a world environmental leader. This report provides ample evidence to back up this statement.

Greenpeace's assessment of Canada's progress on various environmental agreements and Agenda 21 acceded to at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 is at

Environment Canada's on-line newsmagazine Envirozine ( has the facts right on its opening page:

 Over six billion people inhabit the earth, an increase of 140 per cent over the past 50 years. By 2050, the earth’s population is projected to rise to nine billion.  One fifth of the world’s people must survive on less than one dollar per day.  About 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Contaminated drinking water and an inadequate supply of water account for 10 per cent of all diseases in developing countries.  Infant mortality is 10 times higher in developing than in the industrialized world.

Each day we have been learning more about the environmental stresses these facts are putting on the third rock from the sun that we call home. On the eve of WSSD, even the World Bank has released a report ("World Development Report 2003" - warning that environmental disasters, income inequality, and social upheaval that have arisen from bad economic policies are threatening to derail the battle against poverty around the world.

"Sustainable Development: A Canadian Perspective" is compilation of consultation with 440 well-meaning Canadians, but it lacks a focus, spurns creativity, and generally is a "gee aren't we great" platter of platitudes. It outlines Canadian actions on sustainable development over the past 10 years and highlights remaining challenges and some of the current efforts to meet those challenges. But you have to get nine pages into the report (and past the glossy colour photographs) before it even begins to say anything. In its conclusion, it asks "Is Canada doing well enough?" but then cops out by saying the question cannot be answered in this report.

"Canada's National Report provides an accurate assessment of our national progress towards sustainable development over the past decade," said Environment Minister David Anderson when the report was released August 9. But while it is nice to say "we're doing alright," I was really hoping for a much broader approach, one that was more cognizant of the four facts mentioned above.

The report states "numerous studies have found that levels of certain organochlorines and heavy metals such as mercury are significantly higher in the breast milk of Inuit women than among women in southern Canada," but neglects to mention the Arctic Inuit are so concerned about the situation they are lobbying nations at the WSSD to sign the Stockholm Convention to eliminate the use of 12 persistent organic pollutants. As one of the countries that have already signed the convention, isn't this a job for the Canadian delegation?

Contrast Canada's priorities with those of Sweden ( found on the Swedish Ministry of Environment web site ( "Sweden will seek to promote a global alliance aimed at establishing a more equitable and just future based on renewed confidence between North and South, rich and poor," says Sweden. "The summit should draw up and adopt timetables, allocate tasks and responsibilities and adopt a follow-up programme. All this should be set out in an action plan, a plan on which coming generations can pin their hopes," it adds forcefully.

The Scandinavian country says it will be pursuing two initiatives at the summit:

1. An action plan for sustainable production and consumption patterns to be drawn up in 2004. The overall objective here will be more efficient resource utilization. Important components will include the abolition of environmentally damaging subsidies, the use of financial and economic policy levers, a vigorous chemicals policy, environmental labelling, the introduction of environmental standards in public procurement and capacity building in developing countries.

2. The establishment of an international working group on global public goods. Its tasks will be to formulate definitions, propose forms of cooperation and devise effective means of financing. Examples of global public goods include fresh air and clean water, financial stability, health and peace and security. An interim report should be submitted in 2004.

This is the type of language I would have preferred in the Canadian report. A realistic and impassioned understanding of the magnitude of the problem and a set of priorities with dates for achieving some goals. Canada instead chooses to blow its own horn as if forgetting we live in a global village.

Sweden is also only one of five countries to honour their Agenda 21 commitments to 0.7% of GDP going to foreign aid. Under the current government, Canada has steadily reduced its foreign aid and in 2001-02, Canada only spent 0.24% of GDP on foreign aid, less than half its Rio commitment. The Liberals’ stated objective is to reach 0.35% of GDP, a goal to which they have attached no timeline. The OECD ranks Canada 17th of 22 donor nations, down from sixth in 1995, which was Canada’s historical average for several decades.

The World Bank's report says the gulf between rich and poor nations has doubled in the past 40 years, air pollution is rising, fresh water has grown increasingly scarce, soil is being degraded, biodiversity is vanishing, and forests are being destroyed. From the collapse of U.S. energy giant Enron under the cloud of an accounting scandal to the drying out of the central Asian Aral Sea due to cotton production, unsustainable policies are at fault, the Washington-based lender said.

The bank admits that it, along with other institutions, has been guilty of supporting some of those "misguided" policies but said rather than apportioning blame, the world must strive to ensure policies can be adjusted to improve the situation. The gloomy assessment coincides with devastating floods in Europe and Asia that have heightened awareness of environmental policies. On top of this came a United Nations warning that a three-km-thick (1.9 miles) smog cloud shrouding southern Asia is threatening the lives of millions of people in the region.

While repeating its call for rich countries to open their markets, slash agricultural and energy subsidies, and boost aid, the bank blasts the United States and Europe for their whopping agricultural subsidies and measly aid budgets. The U.S. farm bill, signed earlier this year, boosted subsidies to farmers by $6.4 billion annually, a move that provoked outrage around the world, particularly in Africa.

Yes humanity has made great strides in many areas. That just goes to prove that we as a world can do it -- if we set our goals high enough. No one in the world should be satisfied with the status quo. We have many kilometres to drive before we sleep, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost. If Canada wants to be a leader both domestically and internationally on the sustainable development agenda, it won't achieve it sitting in the passenger seat.

RESOURCES - The Canadian Environmental Network's Forum on the WSSD website is Check out their report "Summit or Plummet? A Call for Canadian Leadership 10 Years After Rio" that concludes Canada has not done enough in the last ten years. The Danish 92 Group has published "Uncovering 'Greenwash': Challenging our Governments into Action" ( and it also gives Canada a failing grade. The United Nations website for the WSSD is Stakeholder Forum's Earth Summit 2002 website is at Logistical organization of the summit within South Africa is being managed by the Johannesburg World Summit Company (JOWSCO -, on behalf of the Government of South Africa. Greening the WSSD ( is the first attempt to reduce the environmental impacts of a major United Nations summit on the host city. The website of the WSSD Civil Society Global Forum is A CBC News backgrounder on the WSSD is at Instant news and comment from the WSSD is available at Winnipeg's International Institute for Sustainable Development is providing daily reporting and web coverage of the summit at Earthwire WSSD ( is a news portal sponsored in part by the South African Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and the Norwegian Ministry of Environment. The August 26, 2002 Vol. 160 No. 9 issue of Time magazine with the cover story "How to Save the Planet" is at Virtual Exhibition ( is an innovative multi-media showcase displaying a multitude of sustainable development projects being pursued around the world. It will also bring summit proceedings to a global audience - in real time, via the Internet. The Worldwatch Institute has a WSSD website at "Fairness in a Fragile World - A Memorandum for the World Summit on Sustainable Development" can be downloaded from, the WSSD website of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. A CNN in-depth special entitled "Global Balance" is at

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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