International

Orange and Smoky Skies Over a Province That Rolled Back Climate Measures


This was a week when residents of the three largest cities in Eastern Canada — Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal — experienced a phenomenon that has become all too familiar to anyone who lives in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

[Read:How Could This Happen?’: Canadian Fires Burning Where They Rarely Have Before]

At the time of writing, it was still unclear when the eye-stinging, throat-tightening, event-canceling smoke, and the fires generating it, would be over. But a train trip to Toronto from Ottawa earlier this week provided a dramatic demonstration of its effect. When I left for the station, Ottawa smelled as if it was ablaze. And for most of the ride, the sun was just a penny high up in a largely gray world. But about 45 minutes from Toronto Union Station, bright sun and blue skies reappeared.

Toronto’s escape was short-lived, although, at least as of Friday, it had failed to reach Ottawa’s earlier intensity. At one point conditions in the capital were way off the scale Environment Canada uses to assess hazardous air quality. The effects of the smoke, of course, extended well into the United States.

[Read: Canada’s Ability to Prevent Forest Fires Lags Behind the Need]

[Read: Will Wildfires Like These Become the New Normal?]

[Read: How to Help Thousands of Canadians Displaced by Wildfires]

As was the case at the height of the fire that brought widespread destruction to Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016 or the one that incinerated Lytton, British Columbia, less than two years ago, there has been only a limited amount of discussion about how global warming significantly increases the chances of severe wildfires. That is something Somini Sengupta, The Times’s international climate correspondent, again explored in some detail this week.

[Read: Record Pollution and Heat Herald a Season of Climate Extremes]

In short, and as one would anticipate, increasingly dry and hot conditions turn forests and their undergrowth into easily ignited tinder.

While fires in Quebec have been the main source of the smoke, Ottawa was particularly plagued by wildfires to its west, including some in an Ontario provincial park.

As the Blue Jays closed their stadium dome for their game against the Houston Astros and school recesses were moved indoors while outdoor sporting events across the province were canceled, Marit Stiles, the opposition leader and head of the provincial New Democratic Party, and Mike Schreiner, leader of the province’s comparatively small Green Party, did try to link the noxious air to the climate policies of Doug Ford, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier.

One of the first things Mr. Ford did after taking office in 2018 was to spend 230 million Canadian dollars to cancel hundreds of renewable energy projects, arguing that they were too costly. “I’m so proud of that,” he boasted later.

His government is now looking at expanding gas-fired power plants to deal with periods of high demand for electricity.

Mr. Ford also scrapped the province’s carbon tax program, which was technically a cap-and-trade system, and spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful court fight against the federal government’s decision to move in and impose one on Ontario. That battle included a period in which Mr. Ford’s government required gas stations to place anti-carbon-tax stickers on their pumps. A court eventually ruled that illegal, and, in any case, the stickers had a tendency to fall off. (This year the province introduced a carbon pricing system, which it studiously avoids referring to as a tax, for industry.)

Now Mr. Ford is pushing ahead with a plan to turn portions of the greenbelt around the Toronto area that Ms. Stiles characterized as a “carbon sink” over to developers to be converted to housing, and to build an expressway through a large portion of it. Under Mr. Ford, Ontario also ended subsidies for purchases of electric vehicles.

[Read: ‘It’s Our Central Park’: Uproar Rises Over Location of New Toronto Homes]

When Ms. Stiles asked Mr. Ford in the legislature if he would “acknowledge that the climate emergency is making the fire season worse,” the premier said that she was “politicizing wildfires.” He went on to list all of the resources Ontario had committed to fighting wildfires.

When Ms. Stiles tried a second time, Mr. Ford again avoided any acknowledgment of climate change as a factor. But he did propose other potential causes.

“A report that I’ve heard, approximately 50 percent of the fires are started by lightning strikes,” he told the legislature. “Fifty percent are caused by people starting campfires and not putting campfires out properly.”


  • Norimitsu Onishi traveled up to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to see how Canada’s military is turning to the Inuit to learn Arctic survival strategies. Nasuna Stuart-Ulin, who is based in Montreal, also captured the trip with stunning photography.

  • Dan Bilefsky was in Castlegar, British Columbia, to tell the story of how the invasion of Ukraine has prompted soul searching among the Doukhobors, a pacifist religious group that emigrated to Canada from czarist Russia.

  • In his timely review of “Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World,” a book about the Fort McMurray blaze by John Vaillant, David Enrich writes that “the catastrophe that ravaged Fort McMurray is probably an omen of what lies ahead.”

  • Also in the Book Review, Gina Chua writes that “Pageboy: A Memoir” by Elliot Page, the actor from Nova Scotia, “doesn’t really delve into questions of masculinity, or what it means to be a man, but he brings to life the visceral sense of gender dysphoria, or at least one type of dysphoria: the sense that your body is betraying you.” Put simply, “It’s an utterly alien sensation for those who haven’t experienced it.”


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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