This is Part 9 of a series by Toronto Life.

“You shoot the watchdog when you’re trying to do something without anyone noticing” 

By Dianne Saxe, former environmental commissioner of Ontario

After 40 years as an environmental and energy lawyer working all over the province for clients big and small, I gave up everything I had built to become the third (and, alas, last) Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. My job and my privilege was to tell truth to power. I was the guardian of the Environmental Bill of Rights, and, by law, I provided all Ontarians with a reliable, independent, non-partisan assessment of the provincial government’s energy, climate and environmental policies. 

There is no topic more important, because our home is on fire; people are cutting down the tree of life on which we all depend. My team’s 17 reports (still available on my SaxeFacts website) were designed and illustrated to make Ontario’s successes, failures and options clear and understandable. People across Ontario relied on them, and I crisscrossed Ontario making them accessible. I met with hundreds of groups, from community associations to farm leaders; real estate brokers, municipal councils, and chemists to Cabinet ministers. Our work inspired and strengthened policies and actions across Ontario, by documenting, for example, the disproportionate pollution of indigenous communities, the filth poured into our lakes and rivers, and the energy that we waste. In 15 languages, including three indigenous languages, I gave Ontarians the tools to exercise their environmental rights. And, publicly and privately, I coaxed, cajoled, trained and embarrassed the government into fulfilling its own obligations under the Environmental Bill of Rights.

I was always treated with respect until I delivered a report, in September 2018, documenting how well Ontario’s climate policies and programs had been working, until their destruction by the Ford government. Soon afterwards, the Ford government passed special legislation, part of the misleadingly-named “Act to restore Trust, Accountability and Transparency”, to abolish my office, to break the contract all MPPs had unanimously made with me, and to crush my employees’ union. How did I find out about all this? From the CBC… 

Twelve of us lost our jobs; several are still unemployed. But Ontario has lost much more. The Ford government has revoked our climate law, cancelled cap and trade, abandoned 2/3 of our climate pollution target, and done almost nothing to reach even that. They cut back flood protection in the midst of huge floods. They cancelled 752 contracts for clean renewable power that we will soon need, cut environmental and energy conservation, allowed endangered species to be killed for a modest price and handcuffed municipalities’ abilities to protect natural areas. They turbo-charged urban sprawl, the major driver of Ontario’s climate pollution. 

On almost every part of my energy, environment and climate mandate, the Ford government is making claims that fly in the face of the evidence, and taking actions that are worsening our future. No wonder they wanted to silence me.

The Auditor General now can, if she chooses, fulfill part of my old role, and I hope she will. One of her assistants has a title similar to mine, though he has no budget, staff or statutory role of his own, and does not make himself available to the public. My job was to put the environment first; the auditor general usually evaluates things in terms of money. We’re in a climate and ecological emergency precisely because of the habit of judging everything in terms of money; doing more of that won’t get us out of it.

Ontario was a climate leader until the Ford government was elected. We’ve since become an international embarrassment, and a place where no contract is safe. Despite the Nobel Prize for Economics given for proof that carbon pricing is the best and cheapest policy, they even continue to waste money fighting the federal carbon price, breaking Ford’s promise to drop that attack if Trudeau were re-elected.

Fortunately, my three grandchildren are too young to understand what’s happening yet, but I’m dreading the day when they’ll be old enough to know. When they look me in the face and ask, “Why did let this happen to us?”, what will I say?