Enviro Heroes: Rick Smith

Photo: http://rwphotographic.com - Raina Kirn & Wilson Barry

Executive director, Environmental Defence

Rick Smith has been interested in environmental issues for as long as he can remember. "I was voted most likely to save the whales in my high-school yearbook," he says with a laugh. With a PhD in zoology and varied experience as everything from executive director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare to a brief foray as NDP Leader Jack Layton's chief of staff, Smith's expertise practically knows no bounds.

As executive director of Environmental Defence, a national, non-profit organization, and with more than 20 years' experience, Smith oversees a small group of dedicated employees and manages wide-ranging initiatives, involving animal, environmental and human welfare. Environmental Defence's recent major initiative tested for levels of toxic chemicals in Canadians across the country. The resulting two Toxic Nation reports made news across the country and spawned a bok (co-authored with Bruce Lourie from the Ivey Foundation), Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (May 2009).

For Smith, the public's increasing interest in environmental issues is both promising and cause for concern. "Awareness of and interest in environmental problems have never been higher among Canadians, and yet the level of governmental activity has never been lower," he says. "It's like a car without a clutch - something is missing between public concern and governmental action. It's time to get the clutch to engage."

But he has seen positive results from his dedication and persistence: in 2005, 1.8 million acres of green space, farmland and environmentally sensitive areas in southern Ontario became officially protected, under an initiative championed by Environmental Defence and involving more than 80 environmental, health and community groups. However, "As environmentalists, we have allowed the federal government to get away with promises," says Smith. "Let's see some action before congratulating or condemning the government. Promises are no longer good enough."

This is part of Enviro Heroes, a series spotlighting the efforts of individuals determined to make a difference. It was updated in April 2009.

Find out how Rick Smith would spend $1000 to save the planet in the Spring 2009 issue of Green Living magazine.