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Political Environmental History of the Federal Government of Canada

The overarching purpose of this timeline is to highlight that climate change is a non-partisan issue and historically, there have been contributions towards environmental protection by both the federal Conservative and Liberal parties. However, this timeline is incomplete as it only documents the settler government’s conservation efforts starting from 1887, and does not encompass the historic conservation efforts of First Peoples on this land, that is currently known as Canada. It is essential to keep in mind the decolonized history of Canada and the government’s role in taking away land from Indigenous peoples. Indigenous issues should not be partisan and should be central to the discussion surrounding climate change as well as ownership and stewardship of the land in present day Canada. 


Additional references for reading on the decolonized history of Canada include: Unsettling Canada by Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ron Derrickson, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King and Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival by Bev Sellars.


The Government of Canada’s environmental action can be traced back to 1887, when Sir John A. MacDonald’s liberal-conservative government created the first federal bird sanctuary in North America, located in Saskatchewan (1).  The Canada parks branch was established in 1911, under Sir Robert Borden’s conservative government (1). In 1930, the Canadian National Parks Act states that the national parks “shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (8). Conservation efforts continued to grow alone until the 1960s, at which point the environment became a bigger priority to the government (1).

Liberal Government – Pierre Elliott Trudeau


Experimental Lakes Area, a designated area protected from forestry operations to perform long-term ecological research, is established in northern Ontario. (3)

Pierre Elliot Trudeau announces five new environmental laws in his throne speech. (4)

Most ambitious environmental agenda ever stated in a Throne Speech.

Canada attended the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. (1)

Federal government passed the Canada Water Act. (4)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is founded. It is considered a big and bureaucratic department, directly under parliamentary whim.(3)


Environmental Contaminants Act was passed to control chemicals (PCBs). (4)



Department of the Environment was created. (4 

Federal government passed the Clean Air Act. (4)




World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere hosted in Toronto, one of the first high-level conferences on climate change. (1)



The Canadian delegation including Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrat attended the Second World Climate Conference held in Geneva. (3)

Canada’s Green Plan for a healthy environment was created with the aim to stabilize emissions of CO2 and other GHGs at 1990 levels by the year 2000. (7)


The Acid Rain Accord is created between Canada and the US, with the aim to significantly reduce acid rain levels and sulfur dioxide emissions. (2)


Eight new national parks are created. (2)

2/3rd of the Experimental Lakes Area staff were cut. (3)


Progressive Conservative Government – Brian Mulroney (1984-1993)

Liberal Government – Jean Chrétien (1993-2003)


The Kyoto Protocol is adopted in Canada and in every industrialized country except for US, Australia and Monaco. The protocol seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions (a reduction of six percent below the 1990 levels to be achieved by 2012). (1)

Canadian Environmental Protection Act was established. (5)


Conservative Government – Stephen Harper



At the 12th “conference of parties” in Nairobi, the Canadian conservative delegation was viewed as “antagonistic and obstructionist” and lacked a commitment to meet existing obligations. (6)

The Office of the National Science Adviser, which is the link between the government and the scientific community, was passed out. (1)


Environmentally related spending was introduced by the federal government: Clean energy research, renovations and energy retrofits for housing and Artic research stations (4)


Canada withdraws from the Kyoto Protocol (1)


Liberal Government – Justin Trudeau (2015-)

The federal government bought the Trans Mountain oilsands pipeline from Kinder Morgan (9)


Federal carbon tax was introduced in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick since those provinces did not introduce their own carbon levy (10)


 Brian Mulroney is sometimes thought to be Canada’s greenest Prime Minister given the number of environmental laws and treaties made during the progressive conservative government’s time in office (4). Not to be overlooked, the Green Party of Canada was founded in 1983, which marked the environmental movement’s formal entry into politics (1).


There are some general trends seen across different governments as they approach federal environmental action. Regardless of the environmental stance stated, governments of both parties blamed previous governments for making emissions reduction commitments that could not be met (6).  There is also consistency from one government to the next to not genuinely tackle emissions reduction while giving ambitious targets to the international community (6).  


Moving forward beyond 2020, it is imperative that the federal government develop a  non-partisan approach to climate change that includes recognition of the country’s colonial past. 

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