Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Jim MacNeill, seen with his daughter Cathy, played a major role in bringing the world together to save the environment, from Stockholm in 1972 to the first Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992.
Jim MacNeill, seen with his daughter Cathy, played a major role in bringing the world together to save the environment, from Stockholm in 1972 to the first Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992.

Environmentalist Jim MacNeill was an early warrior against climate change Add to ...

By most accounts, James William MacNeill was best known for his unwavering dedication to bettering the world’s environment. But there is a group of scientists somewhere in Japan who will remember him for his distant connection to a very Canadian red-headed icon.

After giving the keynote address at an international environmental conference in Kyoto in 1981, Mr. MacNeill casually asked his host what Anne of Green Gables, which was playing in town, was called in Japanese. Anne’s creator, Lucy Maude Montgomery, was his cousin, Mr. MacNeill explained.

His host beamed at this revelation, excitedly passing it on to colleagues as he vigorously shook Mr. MacNeill’s hand. Suddenly, several Japanese scientists surrounded him, basking in his presence.

It was one of the few times in his life when his eloquence and passion for the environment were overshadowed – in this case, by a certain mythical character from Prince Edward Island.

Mr. MacNeill died March 5 in Ottawa after a brief battle with pneumonia. He was 87.

A lifelong bureaucrat, Mr. MacNeill played a major role in bringing the world together to save the environment, from Stockholm in 1972 and Habitat ’76 in Vancouver, to the first Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 and the World Bank Inspection Panel. He and Maurice Strong, who died in November, were among the first architects of sustainable development before that notion became mainstream.

The only child of William Leslie MacNeill, who grew up in PEI, and Helga Ingeborg Nohlgren, from Filipstad, Sweden, Mr. MacNeill was born April 22, 1928, in a two-room schoolhouse near Mazenod, Sask. Years later, that date would, appropriately, be declared Earth Day.

When the first Earth Day was launched in 1970, Mr. MacNeill was a constitutional adviser in Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Privy Council Office and writing the first Canadian book on environmental management.

“I boasted to my colleagues that my parents must have been exceptionally prescient,” Mr. MacNeill wrote in his unfinished memoir.

At the age of 23, his mother immigrated to Sturgis, Sask., where his father had moved to teach. The two met five years later at a community dance, and married in 1927.

“It was an awful place to live at the best of times and April, 1928 was the worst of times. The never-ending cold of winter was followed by the ceaseless wind and unforgiving dust of summer,” Mr. MacNeill wrote.

The family moved from the dust bowl north to the Saskatchewan parklands, and while his childhood was a happy one, it was marred by polio, which left his left shoulder and arm weak all his life. Following a severe leg fracture at age 12, he was required to wear a raised shoe for life to bring his left leg equal to the right.

Mr. MacNeill worked throughout his childhood as a farmhand, a carpenter’s assistant and a delivery boy for the Regina Leader-Post. He was a proud graduate of the Sturgis Public School’s class of 1946.

He studied at the University of Saskatchewan on scholarship, and got involved in both debating and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which formed the first social-democratic government in North America, with Tommy Douglas as its premier.

Mr. MacNeill got a taste for the international life travelling Europe for two years and studying in his mother’s native Sweden. His close friend David Runnalls recalls Mr. MacNeill using a string of Swedish swear words while the two of them played golf.

“They may not have been words at all,” Mr. Runnalls said. Due to Mr. MacNeill’s partial paralysis, “he had the ugliest golf swing I’d ever seen but he always won.”

He returned to Canada in 1952, met Phyllis Ferguson – to whom he would be married for 62 years – and held senior positions in the Saskatchewan civil service under Tommy Douglas. In 1964, he moved his family to Ottawa, where he held senior positions in Energy Mines and Resources, the Department of the Environment and finally, Urban Affairs.

As secretary-general of the Brundtland Commission, Mr. MacNeill was central to the report issued in 1987, called Our Common Future, that became the bible of the sustainable development movement and raised the urgent alarm to address climate change.

The chair of that commission and former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, remembers Mr. MacNeill sharing her view that their recommendations had to be based on evidence.

“He was unwavering in his dedication and commitment to the cause,” she wrote in an e-mail.

She said his hard work also paid off last year at the climate change conferences in New York and Paris.

Those closest to Mr. MacNeill describe him as tenacious, rigorously honest, and with a healthy dose of cynicism.

“Jim was like a junkyard dog,” Mr. Runnalls said. “He was one of the last of a breed of great Canadian public servants who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

“He would be the first to say something if things were going morally or legally wrong.”

He was also a mentor to many, including Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, who was devastated at the news of Mr. MacNeill’s death.

“I was certain that if anyone could survive pneumonia, it would be him,” Ms. May said, adding she felt she was embraced as Mr. MacNeill’s unofficial third daughter.

“One of the greatest honours of my life is that he supported me when I was first running [for office],” Ms May said in an interview. “He left the NDP to become a Green Party member.”

Ann Dale, a professor of sustainable community development at Royal Roads University, said Mr. MacNeill had integrity, was authentic and didn’t pull his punches.

“He made us question how we were developing, for who and for what, even when he knew he wasn’t going to be the most popular one at the table,” she said, adding that she credits her mentor for where she is today.

In the late 1970s, Mr. MacNeill was head of the OECD Environment Directorate in Paris, where he succeeded in bringing together, for the first time, environmentalists and economists in order to make links between the two.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he chaired the World Bank Inspection Panel, which investigated complaints about the bank’s projects in developing countries. In one case, he investigated complaints of prison labour being used on a project in China.

“Jim was perfect for that job,” his friend Mr. Runnalls said. “You could throw Jim into these situations and he would amass evidence and ask a lot of questions and find out what the truth was.

“He made the World Bank into a more effective enterprise.”

Ms. May agrees, pointing out that her long-time friend was courageous and could never be intimidated.

“He took that on and made it credible,” Ms. May said. “He took real risks with his own safety to protect indigenous rights.”

Mr. MacNeill and his wife had three children, daughters Cathy and Robin and a son, Ward, who died in 1968 at the age of 13. Friends say Mr. MacNeill weathered that pain with stoicism, as he did when faced with other challenges in his life.

His eldest daughter, Catherine MacNeill Hodgins, notes her father had a sign beside his desk that read “Retirement=Death.”

“Dad hoped to live a long time yet,” she said. “He was not done with his work.”

Just three weeks before he died, Mr. MacNeill was travelling with his wife in Guadeloupe.

“There was not a lot of moss growing on him,” she says.

Among the many honours he received, Mr. MacNeill was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1995.

In the end, while in hospital, Mr. MacNeill was only able to communicate through a squeeze of the hand and the “raising of those amazing eyebrows,” Ms. Hodgins says.

“I truly thought the world would stop spinning when my dad died but I have been proven wrong,” she says. “Life does, in fact, go on, as it should.

“Dad would want us all to embrace its joy as he did.”

Mr. MacNeill is survived by his wife, Phyllis; daughters, Catherine and Robin; and six grandchildren.

Environmentalists in Canada and abroad considered Mr. MacNeill a quiet hero with vision, Ms. Dale said. “Some people when they are on Earth occupy only the space of a tree, but when they leave, they leave the space of a forest.”

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

Next story

loading

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular