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Previously on this blog, we covered the basics of the conservationist movement. To recap, the goal of conservationism is to promote sustainable living and protect the natural world. While conservation may sound like a modern phenomenon, the movement as it exists in Canada started in the early 1900s. With the depletion of natural resources that came with colonization, people adopted the mindset of conservation out of necessity. Over the years, the environmental movement has changed with different focuses during different time periods, which scholars refer to as “waves.” 

First Wave

Canada’s first wave of environmentalism came in the late 1800s and early 1900s out of concern for the rapid exhaustion of natural resources. When the first European colonists arrived in North America, they perceived the boundless wilderness as inexhaustible, but the reality that resources were limited soon reared its ugly head. Early conservation efforts were spearheaded by those with ties to the logging industry, and these lumbermen advocated for controlled harvesting and reserved areas for future use. 

In comparison to its southern neighbour, Canada lagged behind the Americans in its conservationist goals. The United States by this time had a more extensive settlement, which demonstrated the harm that civilization could do. Meanwhile, in Canada, the pioneer mentality of unlimited wilderness and resources was able to persist longer. American President Theodore Roosevelt invited Canada and Mexico to join the United States at the North American Conservation Conference in 1909, leading to the creating of Canada’s Commission of Conservation. The commission’s recommendations included not overcutting forests, the use of organic agricultural fertilizers, and recycling foreshadowed the tenets of modern environmentalism. 

During this time, Canada saw the formation of its first national parks, starting with Banff in 1885. These parks started with an economic focus rather than a conservationist one and sought to produce revenue and promote tourism along the newly formed Canadian Pacific Railway. Eventually, more parks, both national and provincial,  were established in remote areas to serve as recreational escapes for city dwellers. 

Second Wave

Starting in the 1960s, the focus of environmentalism shifted from the conscious use of natural resources to the effects of human activity on the environment, namely pollution. Furthermore, conservationist attitudes were now adopted by a growing number of Canadians, not just among naturalist groups. Issues such as air pollution, water pollution, and hazardous wastes came to the forefront, and the preservation of the natural environment was seen not only as a question of recreation and preserving scenic beauty, but also as integral to human survival. 

The environmental interests of the 1960s lent momentum to the conservationist movement of this era.  This period centred on preserving wilderness and protecting ecosystems as ecological reserves. Provincial naturalist and conservation federations became increasingly active and vocal, as did local advocacy groups. Furthermore, federal and provincial governments took action through the establishment of ministries and departments of the environment, environmental protection acts, and environmental assessment legislation. Notably, Canada was well represented at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which brought the environmentalist concerns to the international stage. Within the global context, it became apparent that all people depended on clean air, water, and healthy ecosystems. 

Third Wave

By the end of the 20th century, environmentalists continued to focus on issues of global concern. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by the professionalization of environmental groups and an increased willingness to work with corporate culture in order to solve environmental problems. Non-governmental organizations stepped into a stronger role as Canadians grew dissatisfied with the leadership of governments when it came to environmental concerns. 

Successful campaigns include the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain (1987-91), a decade-long effort that obtained agreements between Canada and the United States to reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that lead to the formation of acid rain. The World Wildlife Fund Canada launched a 10-year national Endangered Spaces Campaign in 1989, and while the campaign did not meet its ecological goals by its close, it created more than 1,000 new parks, wilderness areas, and nature reserves that more than doubled the amount of protected area across the country. On the corporate front, environmental groups teamed up with companies such as Home Depot and Ikea to put pressure on logging companies. 

It was during the Third Wave of environmentalism that the movement formally entered politics with the founding of the Green Party of Canada in 1983, and the party has witnessed major growth since then. 

Fourth Wave

Climate change emerged as the overarching concern for both environmentalists and conservationists at the turn of the 21st century. The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by Canada in 2002, required nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount and drew international attention to the issue of climate change. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, Canada then withdrew from the agreement in 2011. Harper’s administration made it increasingly difficult for environmentalists and their organizations to operate by eliminating scientific institutions or reducing their federal funding, thus limiting the public’s access to scientific research. Furthermore, the administration also weakened environmental policy. 

While environmentalism certainly encountered setbacks on the national level, initiatives set in place during environmentalism’s third wave had taken hold in Canadian society. Eco-friendly products can be found at many grocery stores, and local food movements had gained traction among many communities. Positive change was taking place at the provincial level with Ontario closing its last coal-based power plant in 2014 and British Columbia being the first North American jurisdiction to issue a carbon tax.