On P.E.I., a 'different breed' of conservative government — are they 'green Tories?'

While conservative governments in Alberta and Ontario resist definitive action to reduce emissions and the federal Conservatives seek new leadership and direction, P.E.I.'s new PC government offers an alternative approach.

In their response to climate change, Island PCs stand apart from other conservatives in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets P.E.I. Premier Dennis King in his Parliament Hill office on Nov. 7. Under King, the Progressive Conservatives have set a long-term emissions target similar to Trudeau's target for the rest of the country — to be carbon neutral by 2050. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In Alberta in 2019, the new United Conservative government under Jason Kenney created a $30-million "energy war room" to battle the environmental movement.

In Ontario, Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford said he was "proud" to tear up hundreds of green energy contracts after coming to power, at an estimated cost to provincial taxpayers of $230 million.

And while those two provinces and Saskatchewan continue to challenge the federal carbon tax in court, another conservative provincial government is headed in a completely different direction when it comes to climate change and the environment.

Dennis King led the Progressive Conservatives back to power in Prince Edward Island in 2019 after 12 years in opposition. Leading a minority government with the Greens as the Official Opposition, King has called climate change "the seminal issue of our time."

"I believe that as a responsible citizen we have to be concerned about our environment," said King "We have to work to chart a different course. Does that make me a 'green Tory' or whatever the label could be? I don't know."

P.E.I.'s green shift

As the term 'red Tory' has come to define conservative politicians who champion socially progressive policies, consider the growing evidence of 'green Toryism' in P.E.I.:

  • In mandate letters, King instructed all his cabinet ministers to consider the climate impact of their portfolios, while his government created climate change co-ordinators to find ways to reduce government emissions in each department.

  • Inspired by an island in Denmark that produces all its electricity from sustainable sources, the province is partnering with Ottawa on a program to fund the development of solar and biomass energy projects in rural P.E.I. communities.

  • While most of his caucus voted against it, King himself supported legislation put forward by the opposition Greens to set a more ambitious 2030 emissions target for P.E.I. That bill passed with support from the third-party Liberals.

  • When the King government's first throne speech included a mention of its new "long-term vision" to make P.E.I. carbon neutral, the Greens pushed until King put a date on that vision — 2050, the same year the Trudeau Liberals have set as the target to bring the rest of the country to net-zero emissions.

Long tradition of environmental conservatives, says former minister

Tom McMillan, a former P.E.I. MP who served as environment minister under Brian Mulroney, said there's nothing new in a conservative administration in Canada championing the environment.

"There is a tradition of concern [for the environment] in the party, it's just that it had lost its way with Stephen Harper and the Harperites and now with certain provincial governments, notably Alberta and ... in the Ford administration in Ontario," said McMillan.

"In many ways, those are the outliers."

McMillan was environment minister when the Mulroney government helped broker a multilateral deal to restrict the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). 

He said it makes practical and political sense for the Island PCs to show what he described as a "green ethos," and that in doing so they're being true "to their very nature as Islanders."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, left, met P.E.I. Premier Dennis King soon after King was elected. King has made it clear he's not joining the so-called conservative "resistance" movement in Canadian politics. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"It's in our DNA to be environmentalists," McMillan said of Islanders' reliance on the environment to support their three primary industries of fishing, farming and tourism.

"The Island is more vulnerable to climate change than any other part of Canada. That's just a fact. We are a low-lying sandbar in the North Atlantic."

Time for Conservatives to take climate change seriously, says King

King said as a PC, there's no "natural home" for him on the federal political stage and he no longer carries a membership in the Conservative Party of Canada.

He said it is time for other conservatives — particularly the federal party, now that it's in search of a new leader — to take environmental issues more seriously.

"I am a Progressive Conservative. I'm very much aware coming from an island province what the environment and the changing environment mean.

"I just think that the electorate nationwide is much more astute and into those ideas than what perhaps the federal party has paid enough attention to."

Talk is cheap, say Greens...

King says there's no question the rise of the Green Party on P.E.I., from a lone member in 2015 to Official Opposition four years later, has shaped Island politics and his own view on environmental issues.

P.E.I.'s Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker, right, and Premier Dennis King have become known for their cordial working relationship and for sharing the occasional hug. Both say the rise of the Green Party has shifted Island politics. (CBC)

But Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker isn't ready to affix the term "green" to the PCs just yet.

"I think that it is a different brand, a different breed of Tory government that we have here on Prince Edward Island. I don't know if I'd go as far to call them 'green Tories'," said Bevan-Baker.

He points to the PCs continuing with the carbon tax plan laid out by the previous P.E.I. Liberals, which has the province reducing its provincial gas tax to offset increases in the carbon tax. Bevan-Baker and other critics have said that makes the carbon tax useless as a tool to reduce emissions.

"The Tories are pretty good at talking a good game on climate change, but words, as they say, are cheap," said Bevan-Baker.

But he said the Island PCs are a reflection of the changing priorities of Island voters, who themselves, he says, reflect a shift happening around the world.

"I think the public is already there, saying we need to do better, we have to be serious" about the climate crisis, he said.

What the Tories under King have realized, he suggested, is "that perhaps the political peril associated with being bold on this climate crisis is not a political impediment at all. In fact it's something that most Islanders will be cheering them on for."


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.