When Sherry Brydson published a three-part series in The Varsity on pollution in the winter of 1969, she had no idea her work would generate such a strong response.
“Pollution: Is there a future for our generation?” blared the headline of a February 24th article. Maybe it was the rousing message in bold text. Or maybe the contagious political zeal that was alive on campus: students discussed the war in Vietnam, debated the merits of Leninism versus Maoism, and continued to push the university administration for more say in the decision-making process. But nothing got them as riled as the thought of pollution in their own backyards: the story gripped students and hundreds of letters poured into The Varsity offices at 91 St. George Street.
As the letters streamed in, Brydson was unaware that she was witnessing the birth of the Canadian environmental movement. Her articles would lead U of T students to establish Pollution Probe, Canada’s first major environmental organization. With little more than a cramped office and the enthusiasm of several hundred students, the crew of activists hoped to lift environmental issues onto the public agenda with dramatic stunts. They succeeded: the group they founded has had a lasting impact on this country’s landscape and just marked its 30th anniversary.
Brydson, who was news editor of The Varsity, was in her fourth year studying political science and economics and dreaming of a career in journalism when she wrote about fluoride poisoning in Dunville, Ontario. Two CBC journalists, Stanley Burke and Larry Gosnell, had screened on campus a widely shown and controversial documentary called Air of Death about fertilizer plants at Electric Reduction Company (ERCO) puffing fluoride into the air. In her attention-grabbing story, Brydson picked up the issue. The picture she painted was bleak: farmers described their plight as their crops failed and their cows foundered, tainted by alarmingly high fluoride levels. What brought the Dunville issue close to home for U of T students was the fact that their chancellor, Omond Solandt, was a director of ERCO. He denied the connection between fluoride contamination and ill health.
“We used to get our usual dozen letters a week,” remembers Brydson. “All of a sudden we got 200 letters on the pollution issue.” The students realized that she was writing about their air, their water, their lives. “A lot of the letters asked, ‘where do I volunteer? I have some money to donate, where do I send it?'” she recalls. It was then, with encouragement from Burke and Gosnell, that she booked a room in the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories and called a meeting.
Just down the street from The Varsity, zoology department chair Donald Chant was working away at his own environmental research, at first unaware of the ruckus Brydson’s articles had caused. He had recently returned to Toronto from the University of California where he had headed the department of biological control, a team of experts researching natural alternatives to pesticides. When Brydson and a handful of other students approached Chant to help them lobby for a cleaner environment, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I was delighted because I thought the issue of air pollution was an important one and here young people were prepared to take action,” he says. Having witnessed the student riots in California, he was impressed by the constructive U of T response to the pollution issue. But he was particularly struck by the fact that the students emerged from various departments across the campus.
Tony Barrett, a fourth-year commerce student, was one of many drawn to the group. Barrett was spending the final year of his program researching a topic that was considered unusual, at best, in his department: the corporate ethics of pollution. So when he heard about what was going on in Dunville, his curiosity was piqued. “When I saw the Dunville case I said, ‘holy mackerel this is a case in point,'” says Barrett.
He and more than 200 others packed that first lively meeting in March. Certain students believed in radical tactics (some thought the best solution was to knock off the polluters, remembers Brydson); others felt that letter-writing was more appropriate. The only consensus was that pollution was bad and something had to be done. They agreed to meet again.
Just as many people showed up at the second Pollution Probe meeting, remembers Brydson, who came up with the name. And they were just as keen. Towards the end of the school year, after just four meetings, they struck an ad hoc committee and the organization began to take shape. She offered the new group space in the advertising room of The Varsity offices. Barrett became the first staff member and the ball started to roll. It seemed as if everyone wanted to do something to help fight pollution: the first membership list had more than 300 names.
Chant was chair of the first board of directors of the new organization and acted as the focal point for the university faculty. He was motivated to lend a hand because he was thrilled that students were following through on their original plans. He was equally surprised to find that his colleagues and other faculty – including President Claude Bissell – stood behind him. They were happy to see students undertaking productive action, Chant remembers.
A few months after graduation, Brydson left for England to pursue her career. Barrett had spent his summer in the first Pollution Probe office, which consisted of a desk, a window, a couple of tables, a borrowed phone line and borrowed Varsity typists. At the end of the summer, he continued to work for free in the name of the environment, having decided at graduation not to pursue a big corporate job.
“I was full of excitement but full of doubts and anxiety, too,” says Barrett. He felt a tension between his youthful optimism and the hard facts he had learned while researching his paper on pollution and corporate ethics. “I knew from my work that we didn’t have a business world that cared about the environment,” he says. “At times I felt we were up against insurmountable odds.”
Nevertheless, the first years were filled with triumphs. One afternoon in the fall of 1969, armed with nothing more than brazen confidence, Barrett and another founding member, Rob Mills, strolled into the office of John Bassett, publisher of The Telegram, and convinced him to run a series of free full-page ads that tore into polluters. The organization was also central in the effort to ban DDT – a pesticide that crept into the food chain and was suspected of killing wildlife. But it was the inquiry into the death of ducks on the Toronto Islands that epitomized the drama and creativity of Pollution Probe’s early tactics.
Chant believed a pesticide manufactured by Shell Corporation and used by the city was causing the demise of the ducks. After the city refused to investigate, the group organized its own inquiry at City Hall. “The death of the ducks became a lightning rod for action,” Barrett remembers. “How do you crystallize [pollution] in people’s minds? You need some dead animals, you need some footage, you need some action.”
And so they put on a show. There were days of testimony, witnesses were called and prominent figures, including Marshall McLuhan, Ernest Sirluck, dean of the graduate school, and Robert McClure, moderator of the United Church, juggled the role of judge. The students caused such a stir that even Shell hired a lawyer to represent its interests. (Later, it was discovered that the ducks had actually been killed by a researcher at the University of Guelph who was trying to tranquillize them for his work.)
It was this passionate drive to personalize the issues that was Pollution Probe’s trademark. From the ads to the inquiry to a funeral for the Don River, their commitment to the cause motivated them to push the envelope. “It’s the theatre of politics, the capturing of people’s attention,” says Barrett. And it worked. “People said: ‘Those kids have got something to say.’ ”
Where are “those kids” today? After working for Pollution Probe for six years, Tony Barrett embarked on a career in venture capital and investment banking. Now based in Vancouver, he maintains his environmental interest as director and fund-raiser of the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Donald Chant is a professor emeritus of zoology at U of T and co-editor of the recently published book, Special Places: The Changing Ecosystems of the Toronto Region. Sherry Brydson, the woman who is credited with starting the movement, lives in Victoria and owns several businesses, including the Bangkok Garden restaurant in Toronto.
Pollution Probe has also matured over the years. The group moved away from the crowded university space in the mid-1980s, filling a newly bought house nearby with approximately 15 staff. A registered charity, it is no longer involved in the activist eco-theatre of the past. Today it co-operates with government and the private sector to find workable solutions to urgent environmental issues. The organization has stayed true to its university roots by relying on “sound science” to back itself up. “We’re not so much standing on top of the toxic dump site waving our hands any more,” says Ken Ogilvie, Pollution Probe’s current executive director. “But it’s still a hugely exciting place to be.”
Sarah Elton (BA 1998 UC, MA 1999) is a Toronto writer.