Prebble pushes for environmental action in Sask. for nearly 50 years

With his political career behind him, the former Saskatoon MLA and cabinet minister focuses on change in Saskatchewan environmental policy.

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If Peter Prebble views his role as an environmental activist in Saskatchewan as the equivalent of the coyote’s endless, fruitless pursuit of the roadrunner, he never lets on.

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Prebble has been waging a campaign to prioritize the environment since he first moved to the Land of the Living Skies in 1975 — a time when environmental activism was far less fashionable than it has become today.

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The former NDP MLA and cabinet minister acknowledges he’s one of the better known voices for environmental protection in a province where action to address climate change appears less urgent than elsewhere.

But he’s quick to share any credit for his accomplishments, including the rare feat of winning elections in three separate Saskatoon seats and staging two political comebacks after defeats.

“Without my friends and without New Democrat volunteers helping, I would never have been elected,” the soft-spoken Prebble says in a recent interview at the office of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society in Saskatoon.

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A political force

That first victory came just three years after Prebble moved to Saskatchewan when he won the Saskatoon Sutherland constituency for the NDP, beating the Progressive Conservative incumbent by 285 votes.

Prebble aligned with the NDP government of Allan Blakeney, except for one major issue; he strongly opposed the party’s position in favour of uranium mining.

In 1979, just a year into his first term, Prebble was the lone MLA to vote against uranium mining during a debate because of its use in manufacturing nuclear weapons.

The NDP adopted a policy opposing new uranium mines after its defeat in 1982 but reversed it a decade later once the party returned to power.

Prebble still sees the support for uranium mining as a missed opportunity to curtail the nuclear arms race, citing how, back in the 1970s, Canada and Australia accounted for about 80 per cent of global uranium mining.

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When Grant Devine’s PCs swept to power in 1982, Prebble was among the casualties, running this time in Saskatoon University after changes to electoral boundaries.

Prebble lost to curler and eventual PC cabinet minister Rick Folk, but staged his first comeback in 1986 by defeating Folk.

Boundary changes again prompted Prebble to run in the newly created Saskatoon Greystone constituency in 1991, but he lost to former Liberal leader Linda Haverstock in the election that returned the NDP, this time under Premier Roy Romanow, to power.

Prebble then won Saskatoon Greystone in 1999, following Haverstock’s retirement from politics, beating Kevin Waugh of the newly formed Saskatchewan Party. He served two terms and was elevated to cabinet under Premier Lorne Calvert.

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“Boundary changes are actually a very challenging thing,” Prebble reflects. “I very much relied in terms of my political ward on contact with my constituents, and I would go around my riding and visit a lot.

“And the ridings that I ran in were largely swing ridings that would go back and forth.”

While serving under Calvert, Prebble spearheaded environmental initiatives like a net metering program and a new energy conservation office. The office operated for six years before closing after the Saskatchewan Party government won the 2007 election.

Peter Prebble signs in as the minister of Corrections as Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert announced his 2003 cabinet at Government House.
Peter Prebble signs in as the minister of Corrections as Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert announced his 2003 cabinet at Government House. Bryan Schlosser

Prebble retired from politics in 2007 — “mostly because I’d just run out of steam” — but attempted a comeback in 2011 because of the reversal of environmental policy under the Saskatchewan Party.

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However, Prebble lost Saskatoon Greystone to Saskatchewan Party incumbent Rob Norris. That loss capped 33 years of triumph and defeat in provincial politics with 17 years as an MLA.

He offers gratitude to his first wife, Christine Smillie, with whom he has three sons, and his current wife, Louise Gagne, for supporting his sporadic political career.

The gaps between his terms as an MLA put financial pressure on his family. But he’s happy with his life’s path.

“I’m grateful for my time in politics,” Prebble says. “I was very privileged to serve with three different NDP leaders.”

Even though he differed with the Blakeney government on uranium mining, he praises the former premier’s 11-year NDP government for its focus on income equality and social justice issues.

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He offers similar praises for Romanow and Calvert, anointing the latter as “the most environmentally conscious premier we’ve ever had in the province.”

Prebble credits Calvert’s support for his achievements in government on the environmental front.

And, despite his stark differences on environmental policy, Prebble also acknowledges the achievements of current Premier Scott Moe.

“Premier Moe has been very successful politically, and I respect that. And I respect the decisions that Saskatchewan people have made.”

Prebble pauses.

“But I still feel strongly about the fact that there’s certain areas where we very much need to change course in Saskatchewan, and environmental policy is one of those,” he says.

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An environmental voice

Prebble began working with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, formerly the Saskatoon Environmental Society, in the 1970s when he first arrived in the province.

He took the scenic path to Saskatchewan. Prebble was born in Essex, England in 1950, the son of Reg, a newspaper reporter, and Trudy.

In 1961, his parents settled in Salmon Arm, B.C., where they ran a small dairy farm. The family then relocated to Prince Edward Island, where they owned and operated a motel and cottages.

Prebble earned a degree in business administration and started a career in PEI as a community development worker.

When the agency for which he was working folded, Prebble opted to move to Saskatchewan, where his parents had settled and where he had begun work on a master’s in education degree at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Following his time in politics, Prebble took on positions with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, including director of energy and water policy and then director of environmental policy.

He continues in volunteer roles on the society’s board and as president of the SES Solar Co-operative Ltd., which has now accumulated more solar power capacity than city hall and the U of S combined.

“He’s really been instrumental in SES being able to be that voice for environmental protection in this province,” says Megan Van Buskirk, acting executive director of the society. “I don’t think that SES would be the same organization without him.”

Van Buskirk calls Prebble “the kindest person I’ve met” in addition to being an ongoing force for change.

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Peter Prebble standing near a solar panel project on the roof of the Two Twenty building in 2017 with Jason Praski, an engineer and board member for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society Solar Co-Op.
Peter Prebble standing near a solar panel project on the roof of the Two Twenty building in 2017 with Jason Praski, an engineer and board member for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society Solar Co-Op. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

A shift is happening

While the environmental movement may sometimes seem irrelevant in a province where the oil industry, factory farming and mining occupy prominent economic roles, Prebble sees a shift in conversation that might not have happened 25 years ago.

Even the Saskatchewan Party government, which offers nearly unconditional support for the fossil fuel industry, recently launched an initiative called Sustainable Saskatchewan.

While Prebble may be retired from earning a salary, he maintains goals such as better climate policy and more protected lands.

He points out the province is already experiencing the negative impact of climate change, citing the 2015 forest fire season and the 2021 drought that devastated the province’s farming sector and affected much of western North America.

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Prebble cites familiar statistics that Saskatchewan produces 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, despite being home to only three per cent of the population. The province’s 2020 emissions of 66 million tonnes topped that of British Columbia, which has more than four times as many people.

“On the climate change file, we need to be mindful that the United Nations is urging countries to try to achieve a 45-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,” Prebble says. “The provincial government has no target for greenhouse gas reduction in this province.”

Saskatchewan also ranks last among provinces in the energy efficiency rankings by Efficiency Canada, a non-profit agency.

Prebble asserts that if Saskatchewan adopted similar energy policies to those in California and Vermont, 300 to 400 megawatts of electricity conservation could be achieved — about the same production as a small modular nuclear reactor.

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Solutions not problems

Despite the dire warnings associated with environmental activism, the cheerful Prebble hardly exudes the vibe of a prophet of doom. He focuses just as much on solutions as problems.

He believes the province should accelerate replacing coal-fired power plants with hydro power from Manitoba and invest more heavily in wind, solar energy and energy storage.

Prebble laments the province’s lack of urgency in expanding protected areas with a target of less than half of the 30 per cent that Canada and other countries have adopted.

But he also points to initiatives with which he has been involved — from both inside and outside government — setting up ecological reserves in Saskatchewan, pointing to Caribou Flats (nearly 100 square kilometres) and the northern half of the Great Sand Hills.

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As always, he shares the credit with others for these accomplishments.

Aside from his focus on the environment, the now-grandfather of six has devoted efforts to improving the lives of children.

But the cause that continues to occupy his time is clear.

“I want to spend a lot of effort in the years ahead to try to shift Saskatchewan’s climate change policy and to see Saskatchewan really develop an ambitious program in terms of protected areas.”

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Former NDP MLA and long-time environmental activist Peter Prebble, stands for a photo at the Saskatchewan Environmental Society office in Saskatoon on March 31, 2023.
Former NDP MLA and long-time environmental activist Peter Prebble, stands for a photo at the Saskatchewan Environmental Society office in Saskatoon on March 31, 2023. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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