Porcupine (00:00): Environmental lawyer and now Green Party politician, Dianne Saxe reveals how speaking truth to power sometimes comes at great personal cost and that when it comes to environment and reconciliation, hope combined with action is the only way forward.
Porcupine: How do porcupines hug? Very carefully—and such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine.
So, Diane, you come from an absolutely fascinating family, including being the daughter of Morton Shulman, who was a well-known physician and coroner in Ontario. He was also a columnist, broadcaster, businessman and politician. He had a long prolific career. And so, we’re wondering as a young girl growing up in Toronto, how do you end up becoming one of the best environmental lawyers? Was it a straight line or more of a journey? And how does your family background fit into that journey?
Dianne Saxe (01:13): Nothing’s a straight line growing up. My father was always an outstanding champion for trying to right the wrongs of the world. He was the chief coroner of Toronto when I was small and the Conservatives fired him when he called an inquest into the death of a man, a patient, who burned to death in a hospital that the Conservatives were bragging was fireproof. And so, it was a tremendous setback to be fired for doing his job because that’s what he was doing—exactly what his job was. But he then gathered himself up and ran for provincial parliament and became a member of the provincial parliament and for the next nine years that was his life.
Dianne’s father improved public safety by getting public attention in a memorable way:
One of the stories that I love to tell occurred in the early 1970s after we had our first nuclear plant in Ontario and in Pickering, just outside Toronto. We didn’t have an ombudsman at the time.
Dianne Saxe (02:22): And so people who were looking for a response from government and couldn’t get one would frequently turn to him. And in this case, he received basically a brown paper envelope that there was no security at the nuclear plant. So, my father went to a gun store and he bought a BB gun with no ammunition, all dressed up to look like a machine gun. It had all kinds of big plastics on it. And he put this big, scary plastic thing in a bag, put it over his shoulder, went to the nuclear plant and asked for a tour. And they happily toured him all the way through the nuclear plant. Nobody ever asking to look in the bag. So, the next day he went to the Legislature and took his seat and he was always trying to get a chance to ask the question. So eventually they let him ask a question and he stood up and asked the minister’s responsible.
Dianne Saxe (03:21): How could he dare to say to the people of Ontario that this new nuclear plant was safe when anybody could walk in with this, and then he pulled the gun out of his bag and leveled it at the Conservative back then, and they all hit the floor.
Porcupine: You know, what’s funny about your story about your father and the legislature coming in? We read the McLean’s article of the time it was written in, I don’t know, way back when, and it referred to the gun as he pulled out an assault rifle. He didn’t say it was a plastic pretend one. It was a critical fact missing. Anyway, security at the Pickering nuclear plant was dramatically increased in his renewed focus of attention ever since. So, he was able to do something important for public safety by getting public attention in a memorable way.
How did you get into environmental law?
Dianne Saxe (04:23): And he did that on hundreds of issues. So, I certainly learned from him many important things. One was that there is a central Jewish value called Tikkun Olam, which is the obligation of each person to do what they can to repair the world. And those who will have been lucky in life have a greater obligation. And I’ve been lucky in life. The second thing I was a downtown city kid, but I got to go to summer camp and learn a little bit about the woods and the trees and the lakes and canoeing and the wonders of the natural world. And I wanted to protect it. Now, admittedly, once I became a lawyer, there were essentially no jobs in environmental protection for lawyers. It took me 10 years to get an environmental law job, but I got one in 1985 and I never looked back.
Porcupine (05:21): The work you do focuses on climate energy, the environment. I was wanting to just add a couple of things. If you add in being a grandmother and reconciliation, how would that change the conversation about those other three areas and how, how would you link them together?
Dianne Saxe: Yes, I have four grandsons, one just born this fall. And so that adds a great deal of urgency to my work. And it’s one of the big reasons that I haven’t retired. And it’s going to be so much harder for them than it was for us because of the enormous destruction of the climate, of biodiversity of the natural systems in which our lives depend that has occurred during my working life. We, the boomers…Oh, the young people. This happened on our watch in many cases for our convenience.
We owe them to do whatever is in our power to try to fix what we’ve damaged, restore what we’ve broken, and give back what we’ve stolen.
Dianne Saxe (06:29): The reconciliation piece is one that I do not pretend to have any expertise on, but I know is important. When I was the environmental commissioner, I wanted to reach out towards reconciliation in whatever way I could given the limited budget and mandate of my office. I wrote in one of my reports, a specific examination of the disproportionate impact of pollution on First Nations. The outrageous way in which we have allowed the most toxic of our wastes to be directed at First Nations and the way that the regulatory system has systematically failed First Nations. Knowing that that article was coming at that chapter was part of why Glen Murray was able to get government approval for the $85 million for Grassy Narrows. And the other thing that I did was in every report that we issued, and I issued 17, I asked ‘is there an Indigenous perspective?’
Dianne Saxe (07:38): Is there something we can say about this, that we learn from Indigenous Peoples or can pay attention to how it affects Indigenous Peoples? I was the third environmental commissioner. The office had been in place nearly 25 years before I got there. And I don’t think this had ever happened before. I guess the third thing was I had published our guide to the environmental bill of rights in 15 languages, including three Indigenous languages, which also had never happened before. So, looking for a way to learn from Indigenous perspectives, looking for a way to start healing some of the areas of conflict and oppression that were within my bailiwick seemed to me to be useful. You made a comment about fixing what’s been broken and given back what’s been stolen. And I was sitting there thinking that could be actually part of the reconciliation process.
How important do you think it is that Canadians finally come to grips with their difficult history with Indigenous Peoples?
Dianne Saxe (08:37): It is a very painful history. And I was quite surprised when I started to learn about residential schools, because I grew up in a very literate well-educated family. I went to public schools, I went to university, I’ve got multiple degrees, and no one had ever told me about them before. So, we do have a lot to come to grips with. I think it is much better now than it was when I was a student or a young lawyer. And I hope that will help. What we do with that knowledge is less clear, but at least we have to start by knowing the truth. What I always say in my climate talks, almost always, I end with asking people ‘who would like to have some hope’ and I put my hand up and usually everybody else puts their hand up.
And they say the only formula that I know for hope starts with knowledge, though, the facts on climate and environmental collapse are pretty grim.
Dianne Saxe (09:38): And then to move to action with others. That’s the only formula now. And I suspect it’s the same with reconciliation—that first we have to know the facts, horrible as they are, about the way Canada came to be. And First Nations were deliberately oppressed and displaced in order to make space for the millions, which include my family. And then we have to find a way to take action.
Porcupine: Do you think environmental law can be a tool that can be used to make progress in reconciliation to try to deal with some of these injustices?
Dianne Saxe: The first thing we have to recognize about law is that it’s made largely by elected governments. So, the laws can protect land and water.
Dianne Saxe (10:40): And it’s there, for those of us who depend on it to some extent. But we’ve also learned that the laws are stunningly vulnerable to being damaged, undercut, or evaporated as the Ford government has been doing. So, the story of Aamjiwnaang in Sarnia, which I studied in, in depth in my 2017 report was really an embarrassing opportunity. They need to look at the weaknesses of environmental law as it has been practiced over the half century, since essentially it was developed in North America. I could go into the details of the regulatory failures there, but when there are regulatory failures, if the structure is still there, if the willingness is still there, then they can be fixed. We have seen environmental laws over the last 50 years force industries and municipalities to dramatically clean up many forms of local pollution. So, we do know that environmental law can be significantly effective.
Dianne Saxe (11:50): If the powers that be, the decision-makers, are willing for it. So, what we did show is that regulation is necessary and can be effective to dramatically reduce point source pollution.
Green Climate Heroes podcast:
Porcupine: You as well, have a podcast, Green Climate Heroes, climate podcast. And I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about that.
Dianne Saxe: Well, thank you for asking you about that, Michael. Yes, I spend so much of my time giving people bad news about biodiversity collapse, about government, outrage about climate collapse. Now I find that most of the audiences that I’m reaching are already frightened. They already know we’re in bad trouble. Now I find that people feel helpless and alone and often don’t see a way forward. So, the reason that I started this podcast, I want to interview people who are making a living building the low-carbon economy. And I’m specifically focusing on businesses because as commissioner, I came to understand better, a very large fraction of the province is very interested in what business can do and make a profit from.
Dianne Saxe (13:16): And I became aware in the course of crisscrossing the province, and to some extent the country, how many people are running businesses that are reducing our collective carbon footprint. And so I thought interviewing those folks, talking about their businesses, how their businesses provide a partial answer to the climate crisis, how they got there, and how they sustain it with all the difficulties that go with being an entrepreneur in a new area, that this might inspire other people to find a way to get themselves in the green economy. It might inform policy makers on the tremendous range of businesses that they should be encouraging and supporting. And it might point potential customers to these businesses and give them a hand.
The green economy is a really good fit for reconciliation.
Porcupine: So, could I ask you a follow up question then talking about the impact and your investment in this being part of your personal path of reconciliation?
Dianne Saxe (14:22): There’s some episodes that clearly resonated. For sure. I’ve got an upcoming episode on First Nations communities. But one of the ones that really struck home for me was Shaun Loney and Aki. I was just blown away by this story. So the way Shaun explained it to me, Aki Energy has installed $12 million of geothermal heating and electricity systems on reserves with no government grants. And even more critical, all of the skilled staff who’ve installed this are people from reserves who had major barriers to employment. So, the normal way to install geothermal, the first step is you get a government grant. The second step is you bring up some people from the South and they install it and go away again. Well, this doesn’t work very well—the community isn’t invested in it and nobody there knows how to really use it or fix it.
Dianne Saxe (15:31): And the people in the community don’t end off a lot better off. And so, what he did was he managed to persuade some foundations, not to grant them money, but to invest in these training programs. So, he set up a program whereby people on reserve would get two weeks of classroom training and then an entire summer of supervised on the job experience before they took their tests. And then they did it with flying colours. So that now more than half of the certified geothermal installers in Manitoba are First Nations people who have graduated from his program. And it’s all paid for itself without any government grants by reducing the cost of emergency services, reducing the cost of social services, plus the energy savings. He’s hoping to hit a hundred million. He told me these folks would…from zeros, they became heroes in the local community because now they’re bringing in a paycheck.
Dianne Saxe (16:35): So he had a great line that stuck in my mind. When I listened to the podcast, he said, ‘the secret is to make the government a customer, not a funder, and make their money go towards buying good services that they can get elsewhere, that they built, just giving money away to people.’ It’s a brilliant insight. We can use it in so many different places. So, as a way of reconciliation, that seemed to me to be really powerful and Shaun’s point, which I thought was very useful was that the green economy was a really good fit for reconciliation.
Porcupine (17:22): Yeah. Your podcast is wonderful and I hope others listened to it. You can get a perspective if you just listened to the news that it’s an impossible task and no one’s doing anything, or it’s all irrelevant. Like it’s just too big of a challenge. And I think your episodes are just so hopeful for showing how much is happening. And I certainly hope you have the time to continue with it.
You mentioned this earlier in our conversation today, you talked about a principle or teachings from a Jewish person.
Do you think that being Jewish gives you a greater understanding and empathy for the struggles of Indigenous Peoples or the issue of reconciliation?
Dianne Saxe: I do see a connection Jews have essentially been outsiders wherever we are for more than 2,000 years. And so, when my father went to medical school, there were still signs on the beaches in Toronto ‘no Jews or dogs,’ there was still a quota for who could get an internship in Toronto. So, it’s not very long ago. It’s not far away when my husband and I bought my first house, there was still a covenant on the title of the house saying ‘do not sell the Jews.’ So, goodness, in another stance, we have exactly the opposite experience from First Nations. And that First Nations have a deep, deep, deep, deep attachment to a land that has been there for forever. Well close enough to forever, right? For thousands of years. Whereas my people have been chased from place to place to place for thousands of years. It’s just a different end of the same telescope. So, well it is different, we still have the connection to the land of Israel, which was our Homeland in the beginning. So long ago.
Porcupine: I wanted to just ask you a bit more about your role as environmental commissioner, from 2015 to 2019, as you and the Conservative government parted company. You said they had to actually pass a bill to get rid of you. And how difficult was it to live through that and readjust and keep moving and carry on and look at other opportunities?
It’s disaster capitalism and a wholesale attack on environmental protections.
Dianne Saxe: I’m still outraged and heartbroken about that. I spent 40 years building my practice and my professional relationships, the boards I was on, I wrote a commentary to interiors, environmental laws. And everything I had built for 40 years I had to give up to become commissioner. And in exchange, I was given a five-year contract that was protected by legislation and a reasonable prospect of having it renewed. I am outraged and heartbroken at the savaging of the environmental bill of rights, which this government doesn’t comply with. Anyway, it was bad for me, but it was more bad for the province as a whole, not so much just because of us, but because this was just one piece of a wholesale attack on environmental laws, environmental protections, and environmental institutions across Ontario. And this week’s attack on the conservation authorities being just another piece of that. It really is Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism, where the very rich and powerful use their wealth to buy political power, which is then used to change the laws, to enable them to get richer. And that’s heartbreaking to see, but that is what’s happening.
Porcupine (21:17): I know you grew up with it at your table with your dad, watching him being a real proactive advocate. But your own decision to personally get involved in politics. What triggered that specifically? Or was it a combination?
So many of us suffer with climate grief, climate despair, climate anxiety. We have to have a way to turn the despair and the anxiety into energy.
Dianne Saxe: Well, Michael, I didn’t want to do this almost literally every single day that I was commissioner. I gave thanks that my job was good public policy and serving the public, not politics, but I feel, as I said earlier, that we owe, I owe my grandchildren to do everything that I can. And I’m tired at this point, but I still have useful things I can do. What is the best way to make an influence in the world? You start with personal action. You move on to social action, community action, but running for office was near the top of most of the lists as to how to have the largest influence.
Dianne Saxe (22:27): And I finally decided that, well, I needed to do my best on a really hard thing and see if it would help. Well, the election will come when the election comes. And from what I hear a year and a half is not that long to prepare for an election. I’m not the incumbent, I’ve never run before. I’ve never run for anything before. I didn’t even run for high school president. My key insight here, I think, is that so many of us suffer with climate grief, climate despair, climate anxiety. They say we have to start with knowledge, but when we just have the knowledge…the knowledge is so frightening. They have to have a way to turn that into action with others. We have to have a way to turn the despair and the anxiety into energy. And we can’t do that alone.
Porcupine (23:17): What are your top three political priorities? What are you going to run on?
Dianne Saxe: Well, I am of course, running on environmental and climate integrity. I’m still thinking about what can make the Green party a good place to work together to bring climate despair and anxiety and turn it into action.
Porcupine: We just finished an interview with one of our other guests who was a guest on season one, Stan McKay, who was an Elder from Fisher River Cree Nation acoustic attack. And he was the previous, the only, Indigenous moderator of the United Church of Canada. He’s a theologian. And he is of the view that fundamentally reconciliation, whether you’re spiritual or religious or not, has to be about a renewed covenant between people—the most inclusive interpretation you can take about community and people and the earth. And so, it just might be an interesting opportunity because at some fundamental level, I think potentially some attributes of what the Green party is interested in could resonate widely if framed and co-developed with some Indigenous folks.
Dianne Saxe (24:39): I mean, that’s interesting. I know that some people are worried that reconciliation means losing what they have—losing their land, their home, their cottage, something that’s important to them. And I don’t know what the way forward is on that. Other than we’re going to have to talk about it. There’s a lot of darkness we’ve talked about here today. Climate, environment, to difficult history with Indigenous Peoples in the long road for reconciliation. And in that darkness, the light that many of us, I think all of us, look at is our children and grandchildren and what we hope will be our descendants.
Porcupine (25:43): I just want to know your sense of hope and how great is that you could just have a new grandchild. Your grandson who came into the world is going to inherit a different world than you ever thought was possible. Could you just summarize for us the hopeful part of your message?
Dianne Saxe: As I say: the only formula for hope that I know is knowledge plus action. I have come to accept that we could think about hope as a probability. Hope is an expectation. Everything’s going to be fine.
That hope I no longer have, but there’s a kind of hope that is the courage to keep going.
The kind of hope that, you know, as the Leonard Cohen saying, ‘the crack is how the light gets in.’ If we do nothing, the prospects are terrible, but if we work together, there’s still so many opportunities for healing, for making the world that we share richer and more beautiful—more bounteous makes our lives better, but there’ll be different. So, I guess I’d sum it up by saying there’s no planet B, so we have to do everything we can. And that’s, that’s what I’m doing.
Porcupine: The final question we ask:
Would you rather, every shirt you ever wear be kind of itchy or only be able to use one ply toilet paper?
Dianne Saxe (27:16): Toilet paper. Thanks very much. That’s to say, we could have a very long discussion. Oh, I don’t know. I’ve had to go into the woods without toilet paper, many, many, many, many times. The worst trip I’ve ever had: the only toilet paper we were allowed was ice.
Porcupine: Oh goodness. Okay. So, there you go. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Dianne Saxe: Thank you very much.