Julie Gelfand, Canada’s new environment commissioner, has ties to both environmental advocacy and industry.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Gelfand was a staunch advocate for environmental legislation. As executive director of the Canadian Nature Association and a founding member of Mining Watch Canada, she spoke out on issues of biodiversity, the future of national parks and endangered species legislation. While chairing of the Green Budget Coalition in 2006, Gelfand was unequivocal in her calls for ending tax subsidies to the oil and gas sector, nuclear power and mining exploration.
Then in November 2008, Gelfand was appointed as vice president of sustainable development for the Mining Association of Canada, a group that advocates for the mining sector. Its members are companies that engage in mineral exploration, mining smelting, refining and semi-fabrication.
"I am pleased to report that over 75 percent of companies and facilities have crisis management plans developed and reviewed under TSM" she noted in the 2010 Toward Sustainability Mining Progress Report. "Between 60 and 70 percent of Canadian facilities have now reached or exceeded good performance in dealing with their communities of interest."
She was then appointed as vice president of social responsibility and environment for Rio Tinto Alcan where, according to a video on the website, her job was to find “that spot where those three areas, the social, the economic and the environmental meet, that’s when you can say that we’re working toward sustainable development.”
In an interview with Postmedia, Gelfand said she sees her experience with industry as a boon to the position. “I really hope to add value to the auditor general’s office in whatever way I can because I’m not an auditor, per se, and I think I can bring in new perspectives, and as much balance as possible.”
Whatever her experience, the new commissioner will have a difficult road ahead, according to former commissioner Scott Vaughan.
Vaughan left the position in April 2013 after five years of calling out the federal government on its inability to meet environmental targets.
Though he never expressed frustration or anger, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said Vaughan experienced an extraordinary level of criticism while appearing before parliamentary committees. “I apologized to him once,” May told Postmedia. “I just thought it was so awful that I apologized on behalf of MPs.”
In November, interim minister Neil Maxwell continued offering a scathing report on biodiversity.
Under the auspices of the Office of the Auditor General, the job of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development is to provide “parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.”
The office collects data from a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations and then compares that information to other countries to gauge the effectiveness of federal environmental policy.
Given the complexity of the data involved, simply creating metrics for success is often a challenge. During his tenure, Vaughan made a point of paying attention to environmental NGOs, which he saw as having a much quieter voice than industry within federal politics.
Vaughan, who has always asserted complete political neutrality, believes the environment commissioner has become an even more crucial position of reason since the government’s recent attitude toward NGOs.
“It’s a really important role, particularly now given how this government has basically walked away from many longstanding relationships with environmental groups,” he says. “Not only walked away, but there’s been an openly hostile approach to many of them. It’s been quite unfortunate and it’s also been noticed around the world.”
“If the government has done a great job, then great job, but if the government is dropping the ball, for example on the 2020 climate targets — there’s no way they’re going to meet them — there’s somebody who has the objectivity and the perspective and access to all that information to be able to make those calls.”