"It's not easy being green," chirp the Kermit-topped invitations summoning guests to come and play at the self-professed eco-shindig of the season. According to all the stationery, Pollution Probe's annual fundraising gala at the Royal York last Thursday, November 13, was to be a celebration of environmental leadership. But with so many earth-loving heavyweights within, why were nearly 50 protestors picketing and flyering outside? Turns out activists and residents living in the shadow of one the nation's greatest polluters took offence at having the CEO of Canadian mining giant Inco brought in as the sole speaker at the eco-celebration.
"Those two words (eco-leadership and Inco) don't belong together," says Diana Wiggins, a member of Neighbours Helping Neighbours, a Port Colborne residents group pushing the company to stop dragging its feet and clean up contaminated homes around the area's 85-year-old metal refinery. Wiggins was outraged when she found out Inco's chief, Scott Hand, would be the keynote speaker at the event. "I was furious. I was confused. Given Inco's history, it's very odd that Hand would be asked to come and speak at such an event."
Reactions were similar when the invitation arrived at MiningWatch's Ottawa headquarters. The watchdog's national coordinator, Joan Kuyek, says, "We were disturbed that (Pollution Probe) would feel it had to give air time to Inco, which is so clearly one of Canada's worst polluters and still trampling on indigenous rights in other parts of the world." Last month, MiningWatch participated in an international day of protest against the company, as did citizens across the globe, from Indonesia and Guatemala to Sudbury.
Pollution Probe itself doesn't deny its guest speaker's record, though the group does insist that Inco was in no way being honoured. "We all know that Inco is a big polluter," says Probe executive director Ken Ogilvie. "We (chose it) because it's a big polluter."
Ogilvie explains that his group has been working with the nickel giant for the past year and half, trying to get it to reduce sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions at its Sudbury plant. Having Hand speak at the gala, he insists, was just part of Pollution Probe's master plan.
"We've been trying to get the company to go public on its willingness to (reduce SO2 emissions by) 75 per cent by 2015. And the gala was an opportunity for the CEO to stand in front of 400-odd people, including ministers, deputy ministers and NGOs, and say it will work toward this target."
And in a roundabout way Hand did. He said Inco would try anyway. "You don't say things like that unless you have a pretty good sense you can do it," says Ogilvie. "I'm satisfied."
Certainly, Pollution Probe's recent dealings with Inco speak volumes about the group's strategy of working within the system. Ogilvie himself steered the org to a more centrist style after exiting his role as policy manager at the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy. "The way you get policy makers to move is to bring them support from different sectors - health, environment, industry leaders," says Ogilvie. "And if (companies) are willing to take a leadership role on an issue, then we're willing to work with them."
Like the rest of the mining industry, Inco seems to have adopted a self-deprecating approach to public relations. "We didn't say we were environmental leaders," says Inco's director of media relations, Bruce Drysdale. "We can't claim to (be green), but it's something we aspire to."
In the meantime, Kuyek isn't convinced that pandering to the eco-violator's PR dreams will achieve anything besides increased funding for Pollution Probe. "I can understand the pressure that any environmental organization is under these days to raise money," says Kuyek. "But sometimes the price is not one that you should be paying."