The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE): Expanded Decision-making for Sustainable Development

Dr. Ann Dale, Trudeau Fellow (2004), Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development, Royal Roads University

Carrie Spencer, Chief Information Officer, Royal Roads University

Dr. Chris Ling, Post-Doctoral Scholar, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development

Published June 8, 2007

Case Summary

The planning for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) began in 1988. Its originators were deeply committed to creating a new model for expanding decision-making by Government. The Roundtable, Canada’s first national multi-stakeholder process, has, however, evolved through a number of variations on its original vision from that time until the present as Government and national priorities have changed since the time of its original conception. This case study examines the creation of the NRTEE, the challenges it faced and its evolution over time. The original vision was to bring the best minds in the country around a critical public policy issue—the  implementation of sustainable development in Canada—to create strategies for its diffusion and implementation widely throughout Canadian society.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Sustainable development issues, such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable resource use are beyond any one sector, jurisdiction or community to solve in isolation ( They are inherently interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary in nature, are highly normative and thus demand new ways of bringing together experts and practitioners to identify the solutions, the possible partnerships and recommend policy directions. Multi-stakeholder processes are one such mechanism, by bringing together people who normally would not sit at a table together—Ministers of the Crown, business and environmental leaders, and public policy practitioners.

The key to success for the roundtable process, in terms of delivering concrete recommendations for action on sustainable development, is the degree of heterogeneity in the membership of the Roundtable, and the level of commitment these members had with each other and the process. The heterogeneity served a number of roles.

  1. By bringing as much and as varied experience to the table as possible more diverse options and integrative solutions to sustainable development challenges will be explored and considered.
  2. The broad-based membership acted as a democratic bellwether for revealing points of consensus and conflict in different sectors of society. If consensus could be achieved by the Roundtable around a recommendation then it is likely that a recommendation will have relevance and acceptability by society in general.
  3. The bringing together of different sectors into one common forum allowed for unusual networks and working partnerships that would not have otherwise developed.

Critical Success Factors

  1. Having a diverse membership from different sectors that was drawn from the highest level of senior decision-makers. This ensured there was a level of mutual respect between members, as well as a broad range of expertise and knowledge.
  2. Defensible and rigorously applied membership criteria and a policy for rotational membership that ensured evolving issues could be represented at the table as they emerged.
  3. Bringing the best minds in the country together in an apolitical neutral forum.
  4. Working in strategic alliances and partnerships across the country, strengthening existing network,s and avoiding duplicating the work of others.
  5. Lateral working relationships with provincial counterparts.
  6. Reporting directly to the Prime Minister integrated sustainable development into the highest level of Government, and allowed independence from any one departmental focus.

Community Contact Information

Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development
Royal Roads University
School of Environment and Sustainability
Faculty of Applied Art and Sciences
2005 Sooke Road
Victoria, B.C. V9B  5Y2
Tel: 250. 391-2600, x 4117

What Worked?

  1. Politically neutral appointments made by an independent advisory committee to the Privy Council Office, based on transparent and public selection criteria.
  2. Appointment of an apolitical academic chair.
  3. Representation at the most senior level of decision-making, both ministerial and private-public sectors during its first three years of operation.
  4. Two-year rotational membership depending upon the strategic issues of the day.
  5. Peer to peer dialogue, no political aides, departmental representatives were allowed into meetings during its first two years.
  6. External committee representation expanded its influence and outreach.
  7. Not operational, but situated at the leading-edge of policy development.
  8. Direct reporting relationship to the Prime Minister.
  9. Consensus-based decision-making.

What Didn’t Work?

  1. Unclear roles and responsibilities for Ministers of the Crown as members of the Cabinet.
  2. Disconnection from federal bureaucracy.
  3. Lack of support for its operations from senior levels of the public service.
  4. Lack of academic expertise directly at the Roundtable.
  5. Failure to widely diffuse the principles and practices of sustainable development throughout Canadian society.
  6. Opening the meetings to political, departmental assistants and external consultants.

Research Analysis

The current nature and role of the Roundtable has diverged substantially from the original vision for the organization. The main changes, those that have most influenced the role and functionality of the round table, have been the following.

  1. There are no longer any Federal Ministers of the Crown as members.
  2. The degree of political control, from being largely independent of Cabinet and prime ministerial control other than as contributors to the membership, to a membership nominated by the Prime Minister’s Office.
  3. The role of the Roundtable changing from a body charged with sifting through the evidence and presenting deliberative recommendations for policy, to one identifying major issues and presenting the evidence to the Prime Minister.
  4. Declining levels of seniority of appointment.
  5. The NRTEE now reports to the Minister for the Environment, rather than directly to the Prime Minister.

These changes have significant ramifications for the outcomes produced by the Roundtable. The original aim was to have a membership that could deliberate on leading-edge concerns at a high and holistic level, having membership that was selected based on sectoral diversity and relevance to the issues—free  from the current day political agenda. In addition to the decline in the seniority of the membership is the appointment of some members who do not reflect any particular constituency, for example, consultants.

While there is no evidence that the quality of material produced by the Roundtable has deteriorated due to increased political control, the focus, and type of material has changed. This, perhaps, reflects the alteration in composition, and a reflection of what is possible given the potential lack of integrated representation in the present composition of the Roundtable. In addition, as the Roundtable has developed, external expertise is tapped through the more traditional use of external research and consultation preparing reports for the consideration of the membership, rather than content determined by the membership through deliberation of peers or committees. Although the Roundtable still attempts to indicate where consensus lies, achieving consensus is not as important as during its first two years of operation.

The converse point is that the new model has greater acceptance by the political and public service levels, but no longer has any profile with the general public. This is contrary to the original vision for the Roundtable. A balance is needed between independence from and engagement with the political agenda and personnel. If the Roundtable is too independent then it will struggle to gain acceptance in the political establishment, if it is too controlled then its meaning as a roundtable connecting the establishment with the general public is lost.

The Roundtable process has contributed to the national discussion on sustainable development. This success has been largely due to the governance structures, or in the beginning, lack of structure, that supported it, leading to continued motivation and engagement of its membership. This process is a fragile one however, and the impact of the nature of the institution has certainly altered over time. The proof of success would perhaps be the degree to which it has influenced or informed public policy over this period, especially when compared with other influences. This is perhaps unquantifiable.

Another recent change that complicates the story is the resurgence in public support for environmental issues. The original pressure on the Roundtable was due to a waning in this interest. Has the time come for a return to the initial model of operation?

Detailed Background Case Description

Around the world, environmental governance is undergoing a transformation.  Canada has been among the world’s leaders in experimenting with alternate governance structures, most notably with the establishment of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) in March 1989, when its first meeting was held in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Formative Years, March 1989—September 1992

The NRTEE was created by Order in Council in 1988, on the heels of the Brundtland Commission and following the recommendation of the National Task Force on the Environment and the Economy in its concluding report in 1986. The Task Force had long debated qualifying the term sustainable development with either environmental sustainable development or economic sustainable development and in the end, reluctantly agreed upon the term, sustainable development. It also advised that round tables be established in every province and jurisdiction and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy be composed of one representative from each, for a total of 12 members and a Chair.

In October of 1988, its executive team, composed of the first Chair, Dr. David Johnston, Principal of McGill University; and two federal civil servants (Dorothy Richardson and Ann Dale) struck a planning committee composed of Jim MacNeill, former Secretary-General of the Brundtland Commission, Pierre Marc Johnson, former premier of Quebec, Roy Aitken, Vice-President, Inco Inc., Dave Buzzelli, President, Dow Chemical and Judge Barry Stuart from the Yukon Territories. Over the next six months, the planning team developed terms and conditions and criteria for appointment to the Roundtable, and identified possible candidates for recommendation to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). With only one to two exceptions, all appointments were accepted.

The following factors were developed concerning members’ terms of appointment.

  1. Initial terms of current members were to be for two years.
  2. Ministers are not appointed through Orders-in-Council, therefore, their terms are indeterminate. Portfolios are the basis for selection of Federal Ministers—Environment and Finance should always be represented, others will vary according to the priorities of NRTEE work.
  3. The only other pre-determined seat on the NRTEE is for the Chair of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). That Chairmanship rotates every year, therefore, the membership on NRTEE of any particular CCME Chair is for one year only.
  4. There are four general groupings into which membership is divided—political, business/industry, science/strategic policy and public interest/labour/professional.
  5. The Chair of the NRTEE is considered neutral and outside of these four groupings.
  6. Members, with the exception of Ministers of the Crown, do not currently have any mandate to “officially” represent their sector, any national association, or a particular region, but rather, are invited to the NRTEE in their personal capacity as influential people with certain skills and/or access to a variety of networks and resources.
  7. In addition to these factors, decisions on members’ appointments and renewals should take into account the need for:  representation of the provincial/territorial political level being through the Chair of CCME only; the mix of businesses/industries varying over time; ENGO representation being drawn progressively more from national organizations with greater support capacity; a reasonable distribution of new members across the three non-political groupings of the NRTEE each year; membership distribution across the categories of male/female, anglophone/francophone, minorities, and regional representation being reasonably balanced; membership from provinces/territories that have not yet had representation on the NRTEE; and, membership that reflects the priorities of the NRTEE’s working committees.

A roundtable was defined as a multipartite body, that reflected diverse backgrounds and experiences, different perspectives and insights, as well as divergent values and beliefs of Canadian society. Its memberships are drawn from the political level of governments, the corporate sector, academe and research institutes, the scientific community, and a variety of public interest and professional groups. A roundtable by definition, therefore, is composed of senior levels of decision-making from government, business, environment and strategic public policy experts. As operationalized by the planning committee:

They operate in the context of common imperatives - those being the challenge of integrating environment and economy in our institutions and forums of decision-making, and the need to share across sectors the responsibility for bringing about that change. They are not designed to develop or deliver programs of their own. They have no legislative authority to set government policy or enforce compliance with laws or regulations. And they do not purport to be the major source of expertise on the complex technical aspects of economic or ecological systems. Through their members and their respective spheres of influence, they act as catalysts to forge new strategic partnerships, to stimulate the search for viable solutions, and to build a broad consensus on what must change, who should bear the costs, and how and when those costs should be borne. Their impact depends significantly on their independence from vested interests, their access to the views of key sectors of society, and the credibility of their members individually and collectively.

Since its mandate was to bring the best minds in the country together to bear on the implementation of sustainable development in the country, appointments in the first three years of its existence were at the highest level of decision-making in the country—executives and CEOs from industry, Cabinet ministers, environmental leaders and strategic public policy experts. The planning committee deviated significantly from the recommendation of the National Task Force to follow the traditional federal/provincial representation, and decided instead to position itself as a ‘sister’ roundtable to the others, and not follow the traditional hierarchical federal-provincial relationships. Instead of having provincial appointees, their strategy was to identify people who represented critical networks that should be at the table and that could then take their experience back to their respective constituencies. For example, the Minister responsible for the Canadian Council of Environment Ministers (CCME) had a seat at the table and rotated when his or her term ended. Regional, gender and ethnic diversity were also important considerations, and in its first appointments, nine of its twenty three members were women, a significant accomplishment at this time.

Given its overall catalytic and advisory framework, any issue identified by the NRTEE had to satisfy the following criteria: strategic, rather than operational; multipartite and cross-disciplinary; inter-jurisdictional or interdepartmental; longer-term; focused on the means and not the ends; and, of federal, national or international scope.

During its first year of operation, its meetings were closed to members only, since the original planners believed it was critical to ensuring peer-to-peer frank and open dialogue, particularly between the Federal Ministers of the Crown—Minister of the Environment, Finance, Industry, Science and Technology Canada, and Energy, Mines and Resources—and the private and public sectors represented at the table. Since most Canadian interest groups have influence because they have access (Stander 1986), there was intense lobbying to open the meetings by both the business and environmental representatives (albeit for different reasons) and share the potential direct access to Cabinet Ministers.

In its next year of operation, members had the right the bring one resource person with them to meetings, and the twenty-five member table expanded to an audience of over forty resource people, somewhat akin to an inner and outer cabinet. As well, Cabinet Ministerial staff lobbied and obtained the right to have resource people from both their political and bureaucratic staffs at the quarterly meetings held across the country. Meetings became a combination of open and closed sessions, with a trend towards more and more open sessions, and a corresponding shrinking of frank and open dialogue, until after the second year, all meetings were open. Ministers became more and more uncomfortable with this more open and expanded process, with issues of confidentiality and discretion becoming increasing concerns.

Another key operational decision was a ‘no substitutes’ policy, given that the dialogue between the members was the most important product of the roundtable process, members were not allowed to substitute if they were unable to attend. Ultimately, resource people began to substitute for their members at the meetings, especially the Cabinet Ministers.

A question that was unresolved from this first period was that of the relationship of multi-stakeholder processes and shared decision-making, within a Cabinet Committee system. The question of how to integrate the decisions of duly constituted multi-stakeholder bodies, especially when convened by governments with constitutional decision-making processes, has yet to be resolved and remains an outstanding public policy question. In addition, the original Executive firmly believed that legislation was crucial to its own sustainability, and this was not granted until 1994.

These initial challenges meant it is difficult to evaluate the success or otherwise of the Roundtable. However, hindsight allows us to observe that the Roundtable succeeded in the sense that the process was continued, and set the stage for a more robust position in the wider national debate and government, it also succeeded in that it demonstrated that a diverse group of people can be bought together around complex public policy issues and come up with solutions and recommendations for consideration by governments. One explanation offered as to why this process was successful with such a diverse group of people was that:

“I support the concept of Roundtables in a complicated world where it is necessary to fight for common solutions.  I mean fight, not just diagnosis, but actually provide ideas.  Our (the NRTEE’s) success is somewhat unique to the Canadian experience.  We are a people used to compromise, and to living by the rule of law; wealthy enough not to need to find desperate solutions, and small enough to get along with two languages and a wide cultural diversity.  We are a pragmatic people.”

The 1990s

In 1994, an Act of Parliament institutionalized the NRTEE as a departmental corporation reporting directly to the Prime Minister.  It now had a stated purpose: “to play the role of catalyst in identifying, explaining and promoting, in all sectors of Canadian society and in all regions of Canada, principles and practices of sustainable development” (excerpt NRTEE Act).  The NRTEE is charged with the following responsibilities in respect to sustainable development:

  1. undertaking research and gathering information;
  2. advising government and communities;
  3. promoting public awareness; and,
  4. facilitating and assisting cooperative efforts in Canada.

In terms of structure, the Act allows for a maximum of 24 Roundtable members plus a chairperson who must be appointed by the Prime Minister (Governor in Council) and serve for a maximum of three years.  Although appointments are limited to three years, they are eligible for reappointment at the end of each term.  The Chairperson presides at meetings and performs any imposed duties or powers conferred by by-laws or resolutions of the Roundtable.  The Executive Committee of the Roundtable consists of the Chair, the Executive Director and five to seven Roundtable members. 

Ironically, since 1993, and in spite of achieving legislative success, the Roundtable has not had any Federal Cabinet Ministers participate in its meetings, including the Minister of the Environment, and its appointments no longer reflect the seniority of decision-making as in its first three years of operations. Consequently, its relationships with government reflect more the structure and modus operandi of the more traditional advisory bodies such as the former Economic and Social Councils of Canada.

The ‘90s were a time of change in Canadian public opinion. For example, in 1988, 13 to 17% of the Canadian public viewed the environment as the most important issue, but by 1995 only 1 to 3% of Canadians offered the same response (Cappe, 1995).  While the federal government was trying to maintain its traditional G7 leadership in the areas of the environment and sustainability, the Canadian public was focused on the economy and organizations like the NRTEE had increasing pressure put on them to justify their existence by producing “results”.

According to Eugene Nyberg, Corporate Secretary and Direction of Operations of the NRTEE, the biggest challenge facing the NRTEE by the end of the 1990s was sustaining the energy and engagement of senior members, as well as continuing to strive for consensus recommendations:

the NRTEE is now finding it useful to analyze the ‘state of the debate’ – to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, without the pressure to find consensus” – from proceedings of the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America, Detroit, Michigan, 1999.

The New Century

This “state of the debate” has been the focus of the National Roundtable in recent years – moving away from the original concept of an inter-sectoral high level multi-stakeholder process offering solutions to sustainable development challenges. In the 2003-2004 report on Plans and Priorities for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, President and CEO David McGuinty indicates an intention to move away from the broad, integrative approach to a narrower more focused agenda focusing on national sustainability issues. 

Since the NRTEE was created nine years ago, we have evolved and matured. In the early years, we were examining issues in up to 12 different areas at the same time. Today, we take a more strategic approach in our work, using an environmental scanning process to select a much smaller number of issues.

The NRTEE organizes itself into programs, each overseen by a task force of NRTEE members and others. These groups commission research, conduct national consultations, report on agreements and disagreements, and make recommendations for the promotion of sustainability.  In addition, they hire strategic consultancy firms to provide additional research, strategic insights and recommendations for change on specific issues. These recommendations are submitted to the Prime Minster, normally presented in “state of the debate” reports, where differences are made clear, but where consensus is also stressed, where it exists. This seeking of consensus constitutes a preliminary exercise for the normal democratic process, and therefore seems to be a good way to proceed.

The current recruitment process is seen by the current Chair as having both strengths and weaknesses. The membership of the Roundtable including the Chair and the CEO are selected by the Prime Minister. Consequently there is no internal control of the membership, meaning no guarantee the membership is compatible, or provides the broad cross section of interests required for a holistic approach to sustainable development challenges. The Chair is very much a neutral position, a facilitator who recognises that the membership has been selected based on their potential contribution to the discussion. However, as the membership have not been involved in the appointment, it is up to the leadership and facilitation skills of the Chair to achieve that position and respect required for such a role to succeed. It is not up to the Chair to set goals and objectives, and the Chair’s involvement is not published or acknowledged in any report or publication coming from the Roundtable.

The operational structure of the Roundtable is fixed, as it would require an Act of Parliament to change it; consequently little time is spent internally in worrying about the structure or recruitment process, while trying to influence government policy directions. Its current administration believes that the Roundtable is at its best when there is a high degree of participation by the membership in its agenda and processes. There is a perception that the level of engagement by the membership (as opposed to the permanent staff) is high, and therefore the process is still working. The use of task forces also widens participation beyond that of the membership directly at the table.

Strategic Questions

  1. Are there any known precedents for shared decision-making in North America?
  2. Can the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy still be considered a national round table without any federal government representation?
  3. Did the legislation achieve any great benefits for the structure and operations of the NRTEE?
  4. Does administrative reporting through the Department of Environment rather than through the Privy Council Office affect the positioning of the NRTEE across government departments?
  5. What kind of horizontal mechanisms could be put in place to embed the Roundtable in departmental relationships?
  6. Are there ways to develop qualitative indicators for ‘soft’ processes such as multi-stakeholder round tables?

Membership of the NRTEE in 2008


Position / Organization



Glen Murray

Partner: Navigator Ltd
Visiting scholar: University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario


David Kerr


Toronto, Ontario

Acting President and CEO

Alexander Wood




Janet L.R. Benjamin

Management Consultant

North Vancouver, BC

Hon. Pauline Browes, P.C.

Former Federal Cabinet Minister

Tribunal, Ontario

Angus Bruneau

Chairman: Fortis Inc

St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

David Chernushenko

Owner: Green & Gold Inc.

Ottawa, Ontario

Richard Drouin

Counsel at McCarthy Tétrault

Montreal, Québec

Timothy R. Haig

President and CEO: BIOX Corporation Vice-Chair: Canadian Renewable Fuels Association

Oakville, Ontario

Christopher Hilkene

President: Clean Water Foundation

Toronto, Ontario

Mark Jaccard

Professor: School of Resource and Environmental Management Simon Fraser University

Vancouver, BC

Stephen Kakfwi

Premier: 14th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Kerry Morash

Former Minister of Environment and Labour, Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia

Ken McKinnon

President: McKinnon and Associates General Consulting

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Robert Page

TransAlta Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability: Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy University of Calgary

Calgary, Alberta

Robert Slater

President: Coleman, Bright and Associates

Ottawa, Ontario

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Chair: Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 2002

Iqaluit, Nunavut

Steve Williams

Chief Operating Officer:Suncor Energy Inc

Calgary, Alberta

Membership of the NRTEE in 1989


Position / Organization



David L Johnston

Principal and Vice-Chancellor: McGill University

Montréal, Québec


W.R.O. Aitken

Executive Vice-President: Inco Ltd

Toronto, Ontario

R.C. Basken

President: Energy and Chemical Workers Union

Edmonton, Alberta

Guy Bertrand

Président et Directeur Général: Centre de recherche industrielle du Québec

Sainte-Foy, Québec

David T Buzzelli

President and Chief Executive Officer: Dow Chemical Canada Inc

Sarnia, Ontario

Honourable J. Glen Cummings

Chair Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Hélène Connor-Lajambe

Directrice Général: Centre d’analyse des politiques énergétiques

Saint-Bruno de Montarville, Québec

Honourable Jake Epp


Minister, Energy, Mines and Resource


Pat Delbridge

President: Pat Delbridge Associates Inc.

Toronto, Ontario

Honourable Lucien Bouchard

Minister of Environment

Government of Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

Honourable Michael Wilson

Minister of Finance

Government of Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

Jean Gaulin

Chief Executive Officer: Ultramar Group

Tarrytown, USA

Josefina Gonzalez

Research Scientist: Forintek Canada Corp

Vancouver, BC

Diane Griffin

Executive Director: Island Nature Trust

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Susan Holtz

Senior Researcher: Ecology Action Centre

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Honourable Harvie Andre

Minister of Science and Technology

Government of Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

Pierre-Marc Johnson

Directeur de la recherché: Centre de médecine, d’éthique et de droit, l’Université McGill

Montréal, Québec

Geraldine A. Kenney-Wallace

Chair: Science Council of Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

Margaret G. Kerr

Vice-President: Environment, Health and Safety, Northern Telecom Ltd.

Mississauga, Ontario

Lester Lafond

President: Lafond Enterprises Ltd.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Jack M. MacLeod

President and Chief Executive Officer, Shell Canada Ltd

Calgary, Alberta

Jim MacNeill

Director: Sustainable Development Institute for Research on Public Policy

Ottawa, Ontario

Lise Ouellette

Directrice Général: Fedération des agriculteurs et des agricultrices francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick

Edmundstown, New Brunswick

Leone Pippard

President and Executive Director: Canadian Ecology Advocates

Ste-Pétronille, Quebec

Barry D. Stuart

Chief Negotiator: Land Claims Sectretariat, Yukon Territorial Government

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory