This Earth Month, Environmental Defence celebrated its 40th Anniversary. Our Executive Director, Tim Gray, marked the occasion with a speech underscored with a message of hope—a message we’d like to share with all of you now. Four decades of creating meaningful change is no small feat and perseverance often requires hope. But, as you’ll read in Tim’s message below, there’s a certain type of hope that promises a better future, and it’s one rooted in grit, not blind optimism.

Hope is a gift that all of us share. We can tap into it to make our lives richer and more productive.

So how does the scale of the challenges that face our world mesh with our hope for a better future at Environmental Defence?

I like to think we take something from former Czech President Václav Havel who said: “Hope…is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence speaking at 40th Anniversary Gala
Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence speaking at our 40th Anniversary Gala

As a result, Environmental Defence focuses our efforts squarely on the key threats to our world and we design programs that target the root of identified problems. We do this because science and evidence tells us that is the right course.

Let’s start with the fight against toxic chemicals.

We have known for decades that novel toxic chemicals are introduced into our food and consumer products with almost no testing of their impacts. Our laws actually allow for this and so, as a society, we wait for bad things to happen to our bodies or in the environment before remedial action is taken.

This makes no sense and we have long sought to reform these laws.

We have also known that the chemical industry would grind us down with lobbyists and propaganda if we talked only about reforming the law. So we haven’t.

Instead we picked key high profile chemicals, such as BPA and phthalates, that have proven risks to our health.

And we worked to get them banned.

And that worked. BPA and phthalates are now known by most Canadians to be bad … and now they are mostly gone from baby bottles, toys and many other consumer products.

Oh and we got the law changed too, and after decades of fighting to strengthen it, we finally have a new and better Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

That is hope made tangible through fewer toxic chemicals in our world.

We have all seen that throw-away plastics clog and poison our oceans, rivers and cities. For decades, we have been told that the only way to fix this problem was to improve recycling. Unfortunately, evidence shows that recycling doesn’t work.  The plastics industry knew this long ago but have doubled down on pushing “better recycling” so people would feel the plastic mess was their fault…and not the very companies that produced more and more plastic every year.

So, we worked with experts to develop a plan to fix the plastic waste problem. And when the plastics industry pushed back, we decided to get key single use plastics banned outright. We did this because bans were easier for people to understand and made it clearer to the plastics industry the consequences of their continued efforts to block progress to fix the entire waste system.

Fast forward and now Canada has banned six single use plastics including plastic cutlery and take out containers. And, we are working to get more banned and the system fixed.

This is hope for naturally abundant ecosystems instead of abundant plastic trash.

Data tells us that a key way of solving climate change is to reduce pollution from our transportation systems. Fortunately, new electric cars can help with that problem, but only if they are available when people want to buy them. Evidence has long shown that car makers are not making enough of them available when people are ready to buy. So customers are choosing a new gas car instead.

So we worked hard with the federal government, our partners, and our supporters to land the adoption of a new Canada-wide Clean Car standard. It will require car companies to make more EVs available.

Now people will be able to find an electric vehicle when they need to buy a new car.

The success of that program has also brought new funding and program partners to our work and we have been able to launch a new multi-year effort with a goal of securing a fully funded public transit system across Canada.

This work shows hope pursued together leads to wins and more opportunities.

You have probably heard that the Canadian government has a long history of providing subsidies to oil and gas companies. These need to stop if we are to slow and reverse climate change.

Our team worked with others around the world to secure commitments to ending these subsidies and we won. Canada has stopped funding these projects and many new carbon spewing oil projects are no longer economically viable.

Our next target: ending subsidies within Canada and putting in place new rules that require financial institutions to disclose the climate risks associated with their investments.  We want to encourage pension funds, banks and others to move their money to projects that will help us reduce emissions and create a climate safe future.

That is hope mobilized and aimed at systems that can drive real change.

Many of you have likely been looking for ways to help reduce the climate pollution you create. One of the very best ways is to ditch the gas that heats your house, warms your water and cooks your food. That’s why Environmental Defence has been pushing for a cleaner electricity grid…one free of gas and coal. We are also challenging Enbridge’s plans to force gas furnaces on new homeowners at a time when heat pumps save you money, are safer, and pollute much much less.

This is hope for a better future, one that can save you money.

Many of us live within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region and we hope for a future with livable cities and healthy farms and forests.

That’s why 20 years ago, Environmental Defence worked with the people of Ontario to stop the sprawl and highways were eating farmland, forests, and wetlands at a glutinous rate. And we worked to do something about the gridlock and car dependency that were ruining communities and making people’s lives more expensive and unhealthy.

Together, we created the 2 million acre Greenbelt to be permanently protected forever.

Seventeen years later, on a day I will never forget, Premier Doug Ford announced he was breaking his promise to keep his hands off the Greenbelt by opening large areas of it to developers, many of which he called his friends.

And so began the largest exercise of hope in Ontario’s environmental history.

In this effort, we all faced an Ontario government with a large legislative majority. We also faced a government that had shown a shocking willingness to run roughshod over past promises, long standing legislation and even the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pursue its agenda.

Fighting back did not make any sense, and winning seemed impossible.

At Environmental Defence, we took about 30 seconds to decide what we would do. And in our first media interviews after the government’s shocking announcement we said the Greenbelt lands would never be developed.

That was both hope…. and a promise.

Ten months later, after over 110 public demonstrations and protests, scathing reports from the Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner, great investigative media coverage and the launch of an RCMP investigation (which is still ongoing) the Premier emerged from a government caucus retreat to stand in front of the cameras. There he apologized to us all and committed to put the lands back into the Greenbelt. Which he did.

The effort required to get that reversal was monumental and represented a complete leap of faith by everyone who participated. We all decided the consequences of the loss of the Greenbelt was too terrible to contemplate, so we decided to do whatever it took to win.

That is hope that could not be stopped.

And that is where we are building from today. We will build a movement that will stop the proposed mega Highway 413.

This once cancelled highway is emblematic of an approach to transportation, city building, and environmental protection that has failed dramatically for decades.

It would destroy thousands of acres of farmland and Greenbelt, pollute the headwaters of the Credit and Humber Rivers, obliterate countless wetlands, forested conservation areas and endangered species, and cost over $10 billion of our dollars that would be better spent elsewhere.

That is the hope that promises a better future.

I want to end this overview of recent successes and plans for the future with a quote from T.D. Williams. One, that to me, really summarizes the type of hope that infuses together our work at Environmental Defence:

“People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”

Thank you so much to those who have helped us achieve so much over the last four decades. We hope you will continue with us on our journey forward!

This blog is based on the speech given by Tim Gray, Executive Director at Environmental Defence’s 40th Anniversary Gala on April 4, 2024.