Peter Underwood was an environmentalist and senior civil servant in Nova Scotia and the longest serving deputy minister in the history of the province. Over his long career he monitored the Georges Bank fishing agreement and helped resolve the boundary dispute over the French-owned islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
His entire work life involved oceans, either in research or the law. Even his off hours involved the sea, as he spent as much time as he could sailing.
He was born in Greensboro, N.C., on March 13, 1952, to Charles and Margaret Underwood, and died in Halifax on March 26 of brain cancer at the age of 60. After earning a bachelor of science at Dalhousie he went on to a masters degree in marine environmental studies from the State University of New York. One of his first research jobs was as the oceanographer on an environmental assessment of the health of plankton in Davis Strait, the body of water between Greenland and Baffin Island. The trips to the cold, stormy seas were sometimes on small fishing boats chartered for the job and his family says he remembered some of those voyages as pretty wild.
He helped pay his way through Dalhousie law school by working for the federal government as a monitor on foreign fishing vessels, making sure they obeyed Canadian laws. He practised law in Halifax for a short time, but his legal and scientific background made him an ideal candidate to work at the highest levels of government in the maritime province of Nova Scotia.
Among his many assignments, Underwood was particularly proud of representing Nova Scotia at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. He was involved in other international conferences and negotiations, always representing Nova Scotia’s interests.
“Peter was a multitalented person, and he had more varied interests that anyone I knew. He was always enthusiastic and never acquired the cynicism that long time government employees sometimes do,” said Phillip Saunders, a friend from university days and the former dean of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.
His friends and family say in spite of his idealism about the ocean and the environment, he lived in the real world and knew he had to find ways to protect the environment while promoting economic growth.
“He was committed to the environment and sustainability, but in a practical and realistic way,” said Saunders.
Underwood was a proponent of fish farming, tidal power and sensible but effective environmental rules set by government. He was the driving force behind the overhaul of Nova Scotia’s Environment Act.
He was one of the founders of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment in 1988. The Gulf of Maine, which includes the Bay of Fundy, is bordered by Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. It covers 93,000 square kilometres of ocean and 12,000 kilometres of coastline.
The council deals with issues such as water quality, habitat restoration and fisheries. For Underwood, working on the formation of the cross border council brought together both his scientific and legal background.
“He was a lawyer who had done research on the ocean environment earlier in his career so he was instrumental in drawing up the original agreement and continued to work on new plans for more than a decade,” said David Keeley, a former official with the state of Maine who also helped found the group.
He remembers Underwood as an outgoing man who after the official meetings were over would bring out his fiddle to entertain the group.
“He was musical on top of his other talents,” said Keeley. “He was energetic and committed to issues related to Nova Scotia’s environment.”
Underwood also represented the interests of Nova Scotia and Canada in other international agreements. One was the ongoing monitoring of the agreement on the boundaries of the Georges Bank fishing ground, an area of the ocean that straddled the Gulf of Maine.
He went to Paris in the early 1990s to help negotiate fishing boundaries around Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. There was a long simmering dispute between Canada and France over the extent of the offshore boundaries and fishing rights belonging to the tiny islands near Newfoundland, ceded to France as part of the Treaty of Paris of 1763. The dispute was settled in Canada’s favour.
When he wasn’t working on laws dealing with the ocean, he was sailing in the Atlantic in his 30-foot sloop. For many years he could sail right from his own dock on the Northwest Arm of Halifax. His boat was a classic Roué, built in Lunenburg and named for William Roué, designer of the famous Bluenose. Underwood sailed for six to seven months of the year and spent many hours maintaining his 60-year-old wooden sailboat.
“He was happiest on the water,” said his wife, Mary Jane McGinty.
Until he became ill at the start of this year, Underwood was working on a merger of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College with his alma mater, Dalhousie.
Although a man of strong opinions, he worked under Liberal, Conservative and NDP governments, knowing that in the Canadian political system the minister is the elected head of the department and the deputy minister is the permanent civil servant running that department.
“He absolutely refused to be partisan and he refused to bend to a partisan issue,” said his wife. “His job was to remind the ministers to respect the needs of all their stakeholders, not just their constituents.”
That didn’t stop one of his former ministers, Conservative MLA Chris d’Entremont, from criticizing Underwood in May of 2010. At the time the former minister of Agriculture and Fisheries said while Underwood was highly qualified he didn’t have a defined role in a new post. It was a partisan controversy that quickly blew over.
Underwood leaves his wife and sons Jonathan and Charles.
Special to The Globe and Mail