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Tribute to Charles Caccia (1930-2008)

CELA celebrates the life and work of Charles Caccia

Each of us is engaged in law-making. In fact, our particular pursuit of environmental law is as much about law reform as it is about implementing the existing framework of law.

While many of us make law, at a local level in our respective corners of Canada, we have all looked to Ottawa at one time or another for action on the broader scale – for national standards, for a vision not corrupted by parochial interests – on the only scale that can (in theory) make linkages between local and global issues in an integrated way. If we want to achieve Canada’s environmental priorities, we need ways to engage those other law-makers. This is particularly true for those of us who still see a central role for the state and for the rule of law.

            It was my privilege to enter Centre Block on Parliament Hill in 1997 and work with someone who understood more than the expected roles of the parliamentarian: not just to represent, but to take initiative; not just to sing from the common hymnbook, but to question the very religion; not only to help an individual in the riding, but also to make connections at the transnational level. Someone who also knew the importance of protecting the very foundation of our economy and our society and who had made environmental protection a priority both in word, and in deed.

            I suspect each of us understands very well both the ethical and the very practical need of respecting our natural legacies. It is an understanding that is disappointingly rare in Ottawa.

            In any mentorship, a most important lesson for the apprentice is about patience and timing. A mantra that Charles Caccia recited often is “in politics, as in life, timing is everything.”

            Just as important, and particularly in our field, where we seem always to be fighting against the tide, I learned the politics of the possible. The first and last lesson is that no matter how often some ministerial assistant tells you “you’ll never achieve X” or “you’ll never change Y,” you’ll certainly never get it, nor will you change it, if you don’t push for it, press for it, demand it.

            Some of Charles’ efforts as a city councillor in Toronto from 1964 to 1968 tell us about the nature and depth of his convictions. The Toronto Globe and Mail cited a lonely city councillor pushing such radical ideas as greater urban density, a “walking park” from Bloor Street to the new City Hall, a comprehensive day care program in Metro Toronto in 1966 (with strong opposition from those who, calling the proponent a communist, extolled the rights and responsibilities of stay-at-home-Moms) and (Charles having grown up in Milan under Mussolini) free speech in city parks.

            In the decades that followed, he continued to push, press and demand but above all, he demonstrated his mastery of timing, of gauging the winds and tides and knowing the time to march and just as important, the time to wait.

            Beyond “timing is everything,” Charles Caccia had few mantras or credos let alone (heaven forbid) a business plan or “mission statement.” One’s waking hours, other than those spent in the canoe, on the ski trail or in his beloved forest, were for environmental, social, and economic policy: the three pillars of sustainable development.

            There was little time for war stories, only time for leading by example.

            Occasionally, however, we need to reflect on what we’ve learned. And so sometimes, at the end of the day, with the World at Six playing quietly on a radio on the desk, I had the opportunity of discussing the day’s events with Charles. This reflective time would sometimes result in a decision to take a new direction (or perhaps, write another new letter – and there were many letters.)

            What can be learned from the frequent setbacks, and occasional small victories, of the law-maker in Parliament?  I witnessed only a moment of his career, but some of the things I saw served to stiffen my resolve and to persevere. If you are often dismayed at obstacles in society to progressive thinking, imagine them in politics, even (if not especially) within your own party.

            Certain examples come to mind: there was the question whether to support the United States in a planned attack on Iraq in 1998, about which the late Dalton Camp wrote in his regular column:

The parliamentary debate over the issue of Iraq, its obstinacy and what to do about it, was not among the best the House has seen but it did have its moments. The most arresting speech was made by Charles Caccia, the Liberal backbencher, who urged caution and patience rather than the ready-aye-ready posture that his government seems to have adopted.[1]

        I remember helping Charles and Clifford Lincoln, the MP for Lac-St-Louis, in mounting a lonely campaign of opposition to the Government’s decision not only to repeal its ban on the importation and inter-provincial trade of the fuel additive MMT, but also to pay Ethyl Corporation $19 million for its trouble.

            I remember cobbling together a substantial private member’s bill on the subject of endangered species protection, in order to set a benchmark for the government’s next version of the draft legislation, which seemed to be in indefinite slumber in some Canadian Wildlife Service cupboard.

            Probably best of all, I remember the environment committee’s painstaking work in making incremental improvements (based on the sound recommendations of CELA and CIELAP) to the new Canadian Environmental Protection bill, only to see the Cabinet cave in to what several MPs said was the most aggressive industry lobby campaign they had ever seen.

            But on reflection, the cut and thrust of clause-by-clause amendments to bills in committee, over which I watched Mr. Caccia preside three times over seven years, is just a small slice of law-making that goes on.

            Law-making requires, if nothing else, engagement in public policy matters. Only as engaged citizens do we change the rules under which society operates. One might expect such engagement in Parliament, above all, but it only happens when someone is willing to ask the difficult questions.

            It’s the cultivation of that awareness, sowing the seeds of that engagement, that must occur before we can hope to realize our priorities.

            Charles Caccia was elected to Canada’s Parliament ten consecutive times. He went from backbencher, to cabinet minister, to the opposition benches for a decade, and had an 11-year run as chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development.

            I quickly observed the difference between him and the vast majority of other Parliamentarians was that the fundamental starting assumptions familiar to us about ecosystems, about carrying capacity, about what sustains us – were rarely familiar, let alone commonplace, among other MPs.

            Under his chairmanship of the Standing Committee, members could be seen over the weeks and months to take on a new appreciation for ecological considerations. This may be the most important result of Charles’ service in Parliament: the conversion of quite a few other MPs to an ecological way of thinking, characteristically achieved by deed as much as by word. We need to cultivate change and engage within our own communities, and we need to do it in that great kindergarten that is Parliament.

            That engagement was exemplified by Charles Caccia even after he left the House of Commons. In the past month alone he participated with CELA and others on a conference call involving the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and gave evidence to a public review of the Ontario Drinking Water Guideline for tritium. He continued to show leadership on a wide range of other matters, rather than to sit back or to “retire.”

            He will be greatly missed as a colleague, comrade and friend.


Hugh Benevides is CELA counsel. From 1997 to 1999, he was Legislative Assistant to Charles Caccia in the House of Commons.


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[1] Dalton Camp, “Good reasons why so many oppose attack” in the Toronto Star, February 11, 1998.