In the political history of Manitoba, the late premier Duff Roblin towers over his peers, especially in the Progressive Conservative party. He was a progressive in more than name, as his governments led Manitoba into the second half of the 20th century with a long list of major achievements and changes.
His biggest legacy, however, was a hole in the ground — "Duff’s Ditch" — on which he expended a large amount of his political capital as well as provincial cash. Against the ridicule of colleagues and opponents alike, he personally insisted that Winnipeg needed the floodway to protect its citizens from environmental disaster the next time the Red River rose.
He did what common sense, as well as environmental science, told him that future Manitobans would need, overriding the objections that dismissed the flood of 1950 as a rare, once-in-300-years event.
That is the kind of political leadership on environmental issues we need in Manitoba today. But at the moment, our current premier’s legacy is falling far short.
Premier Brian Pallister’s first government began by dismantling Green Manitoba, the agency that co-ordinated environmental engagement with the public across all government departments. The new department of sustainable development was supposed to be able to do "more with less" — so he appointed a rookie MLA, Cathy Cox, as its first minister.
After 18 months, little enough time to get a handle on all her new responsibilities, she was replaced by Rochelle Squires. Of course, 18 months later, there was an early provincial election.
One might think that, if the right decisions had been made at the start, then Squires would continue — having learned what needed to be done on such an important file. Instead, another reorganization — stripping out a series of areas relating to natural resources (handed to agriculture) and a new ministry, conservation and climate — with another new minister, Sarah Guillemard. New to cabinet, having served her rookie MLA term as legislative assistant elsewhere, Guillemard is awaiting her new mandate letter from the premier.
As Pallister fiddles, the world burns. We need strong leadership, and instead get reorganization — leaving the clear impression that Pallister makes all the decisions, himself, for his own reasons.
So what will be his legacy? No one, even now, sees him as a hero for reducing the provincial sales tax — and on the environmental front, his legacy will make Duff’s Ditch look like a monumental achievement.
Unless something changes, and quickly, Pallister will be responsible for eliminating the non-governmental, not-for-profit, environmental advocacy and leadership organizations in Manitoba. And so far, no one has complained publicly, perhaps for fear of reprisal.
After multi-year funding agreements, environmental organizations have been waiting for responses to their applications for new grants under various government programs — and hearing nothing. These grants and agreements were supposed to begin April 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
It is now November, and organizations that depend on these grants — to do the work, cheaply and efficiently, that the government wants done — haven’t received a nickel, nor even been told if they are going to get any money at all.
You can choose your own rationale here. Incompetence? Indifference? Administrative confusion? Perhaps spite?
I don’t know what your household budget is like, but could you survive for eight months without a paycheque? Or your business — could you continue operations as usual for eight months without any revenue?
Somehow, these organizations — generating their own income, or getting some federal money to keep their doors open — have managed to continue until now.
They are more efficient than any government department, with staff committed to what they do, not just for the paycheque, but because they are dedicated to making a difference — and yet those efforts, right now, are apparently considered unimportant by Pallister’s government.
This past week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter saying that there will be untold suffering for millions, if serious and radical efforts are not made to change the way we live together.
In Manitoba, instead of climate action, we get restructuring and another rookie minister, who is trying to figure out what goes where in her own office, as the very organizations we depend on for community education and leadership on sustainable living quietly plan to lay off staff or close their doors.
Pallister could make things right tomorrow, if he wanted to.
Or, unlike Roblin, will Pallister be remembered by future generations as the premier who could have done something to make life in Manitoba better, but didn’t care enough to try?
Peter Denton completed two terms as a director of Manitoba’s Green Action Centre in June. These views here, as usual, are entirely his own.