P.E.I. loses beloved politician and environmentalist

Gilbert Clements dies surrounded by family and friends in his hometown of Montague

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on November 27, 2012
Gilbert Clements toasts The Guardian during a 125th anniversary open house the newspaper held this summer in Montague. The former P.E.I. lieutenant-governor has died.
Guardian photo by Steve Sharratt

MONTAGUE — P.E.I.’s most prolific politician who became the first environment minister in Canada has died. 

Gilbert Clements, who won seven provincial elections before becoming the province’s 25th lieutenant-governor since Confederation, died surrounded by family and friends early this morning.

“He certainly will be missed, most people don’t know how many times he often helped people in a quiet way across this province,’’ said former town mayor and close friend Pat McGowan. “He was true giant of a person.”

Clements, 84, died in his sleep. 

A few years ago he was stricken with a bout of cancer but fought back and survived and was always given a honk or a wave as he made his way from his Riverside Drive home along the Montague River to the local coffee shop for some daily chit chat in the town he loved.

“He and Wilma (his wife) stood for us when we got married over 30 years ago,’’ said McGowan, who spent the last few days with the family at the home.

Clements, who had a passion for nature and photography, was the first provincial environment minister in Canada and had a long list of greening achievements.

In his lengthy career of politics from the late 1970s to early 1990s, Clements got rid of lead solder in plumbing pipes, heard the outcry over a tax put on glass pop bottles to keep them out of ditches, and was dubbed the ‘Minister of Car Bodies’.

“Our Island was covered in old rusted cars,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “I was also minister of tourism at the time so it was a big push to clean up old cars. People would just dump them right in the yard and it looked terrible.”

The controversy over car bodies lead to his political defeat in 1978, but he was back again in the 1980s when the late former premier, Joe Ghiz, asked him to be finance minister. Clements agreed to the job if he could be environment minister as well.

He was a big supporter of the P.E.I. Rural Beautification Society back in the 1960s, was a founder of the Garden of the Gulf museum in Montague, initiated the construction of a new pool in the town, and helped bring a liquor store as close to the town as possible. In those days, he had to plant the building on the edge of his former Kings 4th riding outside the town.

Clements initiated a program years ago to locate every hand-dug well (left open) and bury it as a safety precaution after incidents of children falling through were rampant in the news. He stopped gravel washing operations in watersheds, supported Ducks Unlimited, was instrumental in providing tax relief to the Island Nature Trust for property tax exemptions on protected lands and kicked off the plan to remove or replace underground fuel tanks.

He attended the Earth Summit on the Environment in 1992 in Rio De Janeiro and was made official patron of the P.E.I. Wildlife Federation while lieutenant-governor of the province.

He was presented a P.E.I. Environmental Award, which honours people involved in the protection and promotion of the landscape and resources.

“I’ve always invited people to look around and see how beautiful our Island is,” he says. “Why would we want to scar it?”

He was born Sept. 11, 1928 and first elected to the legislative assembly in 1970, then re-elected in 1974, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1989, and 1993.

Always a passion for photography, Clements delighted in capturing people on film whether it be a classic photo of well-known Island character Francis Runaghan carrying a tree over his shoulder or a flag girl working for the Department of Highways falling asleep on the job.

The funeral arrangements have not been completed.