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50 years later: how one of Canada's first environmental groups has changed and grown

Pollution Probe ⁠— one of Canada's first environmental groups ⁠— is celebrating a milestone. Five decades after it was formed, the current CEO and a former member reflect on how the movement has changed.

Pollution Probe was established in 1969 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary

This photo from 1972 shows a couple of Pollution Probe's early members at a recycling depot. The group was formed in 1969. (Pollution Probe/Submitted)

Back in 1969 when a group of Toronto students decided to form Pollution Probe, Peter Love says they had to explain the word "environment" to reporters.

"In '69 there was no Environment Canada, there was no Ontario Ministry of the Environment," Love told CBC's Our Toronto.

"Environment was pretty much an unknown word. No one knew what pollution was."

A lot has changed since the Canadian environmental organization first formed. This year, it's celebrating a milestone as it turns 50 years old.

The charitable group has been defining and addressing environmental problems through research and education since the late 60s. According to its website, Pollution Probe played an integral role in policies involving limiting phosphate levels in detergents, reducing emissions that cause acid rain and removing lead from gasoline, among others.

Peter Love, front, participates in Paddle the Don back in May. Love was one of Pollution Probe's first members. (©2019 Clifton Li. All Rights Reserved. )

Love says when the group was looking at waste management in the 70s, they came up with a phrase that is well-known today: "reduce, re-use, recycle."

"We wanted to come up with a simple way for people to say what is it we should do about garbage," he said, adding that the motto was eventually picked up by the City of Toronto and the province.

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Another early event put on by the group was a mock funeral for the Don River. The group declared the river "dead" due to the amount of pollution in it.

"We had no idea how it would turn out, but it was covered nationally."

A poster from 1969 invites residents to a 'funeral' for the Don River. (Pollution Probe/Submitted)

The event featured mourners dressed in black, and a woman reading about the beauty of the river from the diary of Lady Simcoe — the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. Love said his 1952 Chevy station wagon was used as the hearse.

"The good news is, the Don really has improved," he said.

"It's not perfect, but it's a far cry from where it was 50 years ago."

Then and now 

Christopher Hilkene, current CEO of Pollution Probe, says the group started with one professor and 20 volunteer students. Today, it consists of around 20 staff members and thousands of supporters.

He says when the group was in its infancy, the aim was to bring attention to issues, and now the focus is more on solutions to the problems and mobilizing people to influence policy.

"The issues are far more complicated; they require bringing in a lot more people together to come up with solutions that work," he said.

Christopher Hilkene, the current CEO of Pollution Probe, and says they're trying to engage and educate young people about current issues. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Hilkene adds that staff members don't shy away from talking to industry, and they also work closely with a lot of other environmental groups as well as the government.

The group is pushing for electrification of transportation and looking at how to move toward a clean energy economy. Hilkene says one of their recently released studies on pharmaceuticals in the Great Lakes was very well received.

"A lot more needs to be done," he said.

He says the group is using data and artificial intelligence to inform residents how to make better environmental decisions and to avoid problems in the future, adding that the group has always had a strong foundation in science.

A few of Pollution Probe's early members pose by a tree. (Pollution Probe/Submitted)

For Love, he's happy to have witnessed the growth of the organization — from having to explain what the word environment means, to climate change being a big topic in the upcoming federal election.

"I think that's the amazing thing that we've seen now, is a level of interest in the environment," he said.

Reflecting on the early days of the group and the importance of caring for the planet, he says "change starts from a small group of people."


Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.


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