I sat across the table from Chris Hilkene, Pollution Probe’s current Executive Director, and smiled — finally, an environmental story with some romance! Environmentalists, and the environmental movement, are often viewed as serious if not down right dour — an unfair portrait but one that is often reflected in the media because, when environmentalists are interviewed, it is their perspectives on sober issues like climate change that are sought out. When I asked Chris how he first got involved with Probe he told me he had volunteered in the late 1980’s because of a girl. Now, that’s more like it! Old fashion romance: impress the environmentally-conscious girl with your love of the ecosystem and your commitment to actually doing something about it.

So, alright, that relationship didn’t work out and Chris had an interest in the environment before chasing after that particular girl. And the truth is the real romantic story is about how he met his wife, Agnes. I had met Chris for lunch to interview him about the Profile I was doing on Pollution Probe but by the time we were finishing up, after hearing about these romances, the relationship he forged with his wife’s uncle, George Vari, the alternative-funk band he fronted, along with his views on Probe and the environment, I knew I needed to write a stand-alone Profile of Chris. Let’s step back, then, and follow the sound advice that the Good Witch gave to Dorothy: it’s always best to start at the beginning.

Born in Toronto in 1965, Chris began his extensive university studies in 1984 by staying in Toronto and studying International Studies at Glendon College, York University, though he did not finish, taking a year off in 1986. He started fresh, attending the University of Western Ontario from 1987-9, achieving a dual Honours BA in English and Philosophy. Still, later, he returned to university in 1994/95 to obtain a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies. During the 1980s, while he was studying, two passions emerged, one regarding community involvement and action on protecting the environment, and the other for music.

Chris with some of his bandmates from 52 Division

Though a classically trained pianist, he followed a love for alternative music, especially alternative-funk, and formed a band with friends where he moved out front as singer. He sang in front of an audience for the first time at 14 with his band Phoenix and then played in another called Fifth Business (Robertson Davies and the Deptford Trilogy, anyone?). He occasionally played keyboards or bass though mostly for writing songs rather than performing. Over time they grew into an eleven piece band, playing alternative-funk, and called themselves 52 Division (after the Toronto police station on Dundas West near the Art Gallery of Ontario). If you’re wondering about the tag alternative-funk take a look at Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk), primarily from the late ’60s and ’70s, although they have continued to periodically tour, still lead by bandleader George Clinton. A great number of musicians came in and out of P-Funk over the years including the horn section who called themselves the Horny Horns with players such as trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker. Chris talked enthusiastically about a night after a gig in Toronto when he spent a good part of the night talking with Fred Wesley who now tours with his own band and, back in the day, had been James Brown’s bandleader. As much as I love music, my meagre knowledge doesn’t compare to the breadth and depth of musicians like Chris, but I at least got to name drop as he warmly recounted his discussions with Fred Wesley — in Santa Monica I have become friends with Fred’s daughter, Joya, who manages her father’s band. But that was all I had to offer and I again sat back to hear Chris talk about how his love of music led to a difficult decision.

52 Division became such a successful live band that Sony Music came calling with a recording and touring offer. No small offer, either. As Chris told me about turning down the offer, I couldn’t help reflect on my Profile of Hunter Payne who, in the early ’70s, walked about from legendary record producer John Hammond. In Chris’s case, economic and family reality became the deciding points. A bucket load of money might sound great but when you consider that money spread over an eleven piece band, and the prospects of everyone giving up their day jobs and leaving their partners behind for long stretches while they hit the road, the prospects change colour in a different light.

By the time the music contract offer came along, his interest in environmental protection had become a career path, particularly focused on water. While attending UWO, Chris had spent summers back home in Toronto and volunteered with the Friends of the Don River — the Don River had been the focal point of activity for Pollution Probe when they launched in 1969. During that time he met a girl who was active in Probe so he did the obvious: he volunteered with Probe as well. The relationship with the girl didn’t last; the relationship with Probe has carried on for more than 30 years. Their approach to understanding and protecting the environment is what committed Chris to Probe: their evidence-based approach and focus on policy. That and the fact, as he says, “they were not all doom and gloom, people involved in Probe liked to have fun”. Though his first full time job after graduating was not in environment it was certainly community involvement. He joined Metro Toronto Housing and his work centred on outreach at Regent Park, the public housing project first built back in the late 1940s and early 50s in the neighbourhood known as Cabbagetown.

During this time an unexpected turn came in Chris’s life in 1992. His Hungarian-Canadian godmother played bridge with another Hungarian-Canadian woman who said her niece was coming to visit from Budapest. The two women took it upon themselves to set up a blind date. Chris was told the young woman, Agnes, spoke English while Agnes was told that Chris spoke Hungarian: neither of which was remotely true. Over dinner they managed with hand signs and some type of verbal communication akin to speaking-in-tongues. An evening that had all the makings of an extraordinarily awkward first date actually continued on to wandering Ontario Place and, later, playing billiards on Queen West through to four in the morning. You know how it all turned out, right? Yes, Chris and Agnes were married in 1993.

Chris and George Vari on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario

Marriage certainly had an impact on Chris’s life — Agnes was a major consideration in his decision to turn down that record contract. Beyond that, Agnes’s uncle, George Vari, (who died in 2010) became a significant influence. Vari had escaped the failed Hungarian revolution against the Soviet-backed communists in 1956. He was among the one-hundred thousand who sought refuge in Canada in 56/57. At the time, a young Quebec student who attended Saint Francis Xavier University in Halifax, Brian Mulroney, had started a campus organization to raise money to provide direct assistance to those refugees landing at the Port of Montreal. One winter’s day, when Mulroney was in Montreal to assist in dispensing money to the Hungarian refugees, George Vari was in line without a winter coat. As Vari related to Chris, Mulroney provided an act of kindness that he never forgot — he removed his own winter coat and gave it to the cold refugee. A little over twenty-five years later, Mulroney became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and shortly after, Prime Minister, counting among his supporters George Vari, who by then had become a successful developer and much respected philanthropist. The legacy of George Vari’s philanthropy, especially toward education, is evidenced by scholarships and bursaries at numerous universities including Ontario Tech, Ryerson, Trent, York, Toronto and Waterloo, as well as the naming of Vari Hall at York University and The George W. Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at Ryerson University.

Of the many influences Vari had as a mentor on Chris, one has been the example of being involved politically without being particularly partisan. As Chris says, Uncle George may have supported Brian Mulroney but he also had a good friendship with Jean Chretien who became the Liberal Prime Minister of Canada not long after Mulroney resigned. If you read the last Profile, on the history of Pollution Probe, you will know that I touched on the issue of political involvement for the organization. To be honest, I am one person you can point to who has had life-long concerns about the lack of conservative political attention to the environment. Yet as Chris points out, a number of environmental groups have aligned themselves with the political left which skews perceptions about the environment. Non-partisan, political engagement invigorates Chris. His pride in Pollution Probe, beyond their various accomplishments, is that they are a NGO that takes a systems approach to environment issues. Because they are well-known to be non-idealogical, non-partisan, evidence-based system thinkers, their perspective is valued both by governments and the private sector. Even when they disagree with Pollution Probe they recognize that the NGO has “clean hands” because of the way they come to their positions.

This approach can be attributed to another mentor, Ken Ogilvie, the Executive Director of Pollution Probe from 1995 – 2007, who I’ve also featured in a Profile. Shortly after Ken became Executive Director, Chris met him at a Green Breakfast Club gathering, a Toronto environmental networking institution which began as the Green Lunch Club thirty years ago. In Chris’s words, not only did Ken become one of his mentors but “remains a close friend, supporter and confidante to this day.”

Chris with his wife, Agnes, and their daughter, Alexandra, in Barcelona, Spain

Returning to school again, Chris obtained a Masters in Environmental Studies, combining his previous studies in communication and his volunteer activities around the Don River by writing his thesis on policy and media as it related to the Don watershed. He went to work in watershed management at the Ontario Ministry of Environment, and then to Thompson Gow & Associates, dealing with public policy and consultation. In a federal government meeting, he caught the eye of the Liberal government’s Minister of Environment, Christine Stewart. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember his name and her call went out to those who might know “the guy with the ponytail” (obviously he hadn’t abandoned his rock/funk roots).  He found himself, once more, in government, this time a Liberal federal government, working as Special Assistant in Minister Stewarts’ office during 1998-99. Later still, he spent some time back in an Ontario Progressive Conservative government, working for Elizabeth Witmer, the Minister of the Environment. Somewhere, during all of this, Chris actually found the time to create his own firm, Hilkene International Policy with, unsurprisingly, an eye on issues of water management. Through this company he created the Clean Water Foundation, a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to engaging individuals in actions that preserve, protect and improve water.

The relationship Chris had with Ken at Probe led to the foundation doing considerable consulting work and eventually brought Chris to be appointed to the board in 2010. All of these environmental activities, primarily focused on clean water, reconnected Chris with the Mulroney family. The first time he met the Mulroneys was when he and Agnes were on their honeymoon in Paris, France. Brian and Mila Mulroney were there to witness Helen Vari, George’s wife, being named to the Order of the Legion of Honour. Years later, their son, Ben Mulroney, was part of a two week trip to Tanzania, along with Chris, for Wateraid Canada’s support in Africa. As a side trip to the work, Chris joined Ben Mulroney and several others to climb that country’s most famous landmark, Mount Kilimanjaro. Those connections came full circle when Pollution Probe awarded the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney their Leadership Award and the former Prime Minister accepted Chris’s invitation to be the keynote speaker at Pollution Probe’s 50th Anniversary Gala, in November 2019.

Chris presiding over Pollution Probe’s Gala, November, 2019

For Chris, that circle extends all the way back to the former Prime Minister offering his own winter coat to Agnes’s uncle over sixty years before, when he arrived as a young Hungarian refugee. A refugee who went on to make a difference through philanthropy focused on education. Education, along with communication, is what Chris sees as most vital to Probe going forward. Of course, the evidence-based approach to create policy alternative is, really, a given; it is the life-blood of Probe’s 50 years. Chris put it to me this way: “I basically have a three pronged approach to Probe’s work. Thought leadership for long-term, sustainable solutions. Immediate and medium-term actions so we are making continual progress. And engage the public so they can contribute to the solutions and there is visible public support for the changes we think need to happen”. With that approach, Chris embarks on leading Pollution Probe as they chart course for the next half-century, and beyond.

I’m charting another course myself with the next Profile, starting a seven-part series on my father’s birthplace, Newfoundland, by profiling the lives of my five Sharpe cousins, Bill, Marie, Joan, Doug and Bob. They all resisted the out-migration from Newfoundland and have lived wonderful, creative lives on “The Rock”.

I hope you come back.