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While fires burn, environmentalists remain hopeful about Trudeau's team

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Photo credit: Jessica Pond/Jessica Saulnier- Breen

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The disastrous forest fires in northern Alberta, which forced the evacuation of the more than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, almost certainly have some connection to climate change.

Except for Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, however, Canadian politicians, from Justin Trudeau to Tom Mulcair to Rachel Notley, do not want to go there, right now.

Forest fires are an inevitable and necessary part of the life cycle of the boreal forest that covers much of Canada.

They help regenerate that vast forest, in fact.

And communities that are plopped in the midst of all those trees, without any buffer zone, are vulnerable to those inevitable, periodic fires.

That is the case with Fort McMurray, whose only economic raison d'être is the bitumen found nearby.

Fort McMurray is a distant outpost of industrial society, like so many northern and mid-northern communities in Canada, and the disaster it is suffering is as much a consequence of its remote location as of any other cause.

But the current climatic conditions in northern Alberta have not helped.

Although it can get hot in the Canadian boreal forest in mid-summer, 30 degree temperatures in early May are not normal.

In time, when the immediate human crisis has passed, we may be able to dispassionately examine the connection between this disaster and the environment.

When that happens, the current governing Liberals should be on solid ground.

They have come up with something resembling a climate-change strategy, after all, even if the details are still forthcoming.

And they signed the Paris agreement, something it is doubtful their climate-change-denying predecessors would have done.

Activists in the Canadian environmental movement may not have total and unqualified love for the new Trudeau government, but their feelings are pretty close to that, these days.

The need for wildlife corridors

You could see that on display earlier this week at a presentation in Ottawa by conservationist Harvey Locke, sponsored by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

Locke is the founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, which seeks to connect disparate and separate islands of wilderness.

As Locke pointed out in his compelling presentation, many species, such as the grizzly bear and woodland caribou, will not thrive if they cannot roam far and wide.

Confining them to parks and preserves is well intentioned, the conservationist argues, but it is not adequate for many large species.

What we need, Locke says, are protected corridors that link wild enclaves.

These would allow safe passage for the bears, elk, caribou, wolves and other wide-ranging species.

As a corollary, Locke told his audience that Canada is still a laggard, compared to many other countries, in setting aside and protecting sufficient land and marine habitats. 

He urged the current government to do more, much more, than its predecessors did.

The federal Minister of the Environment, Catherine McKenna, was in the house, and made a few comments after Locke's presentation.

While Locke spoke with a tone of urgency, McKenna was breezy, bordering on trite, in her comments.

In fairness, she was not delivering a prepared speech, only a few off-the-cuff remarks. And it would be foolhardy for any cabinet minister to improvise policy on the fly. The Trudeau team learned that lesson well while in opposition.

Still, McKenna did not even address the fundamental issues Locke had put on the table.

Instead, she talked about how the national parks file was her "sweet spot" as a minister -- with so many tougher challenges, notably climate change, on her plate.

And she talked about how great it was to spend time, as Minister of the Environment, visiting parks with her young family.

Park staff pulled out all stops, apparently, to make sure their boss and her young family had a great experience.

You bet they did.

Chrétien created new parks for political reasons

McKenna told her audience that since taking on her new job she has discovered that ministers responsible for parks often have a particular affection for that part of their job.

She recounted a meeting with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in which she asked him what he considered to be his proudest accomplishment.

Somewhat to McKenna's surprise, Chrétien answered: "Creating all those national parks."

Early in his career Chrétien was Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development. At the time, that department (now renamed) had responsibility for national parks.

But Chrétien's motives for creating those many new parks, many of them in Quebec, were not entirely environmental.

When the modern Quebec separatist movement was born, in the 1960s, one of its arguments was that Quebeckers paid taxes to the federal government but did not receive, in turn, all that was their due.

One example separatists would trot out was national parks. The federal government is in charge of those, they would say, but Quebec has none.

The Pierre Trudeau government of the day heard that argument and decided to take it away from the separatists. Chrétien got the job, and he did it with relish.

When she told her anecdote, the current environment minister did not seem aware of the highly political side of the story.

In any case, it did not matter a whit to her audience of professional and volunteer environmentalists.

Nor were they put off by her casual and not very profound remarks on parks, wilderness and preservation of threatened species.

The environmental movement's relationship with this government is so much better than with its predecessor that, at this stage, there is little Justin Trudeau and his ministers could say or do that would be wrong, in their eyes.

It is still early days, however. 

 

Photo credit: Jessica Pond/Jessica Saulnier- Breen

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