Éric St-Pierre is Executive Director of the Trottier Family Foundation in Montreal. He recently coordinated an opinion piece from a dozen Canadian philanthropic foundations that set expectations for the Throne Speech and a green recovery. In this interview, he talks about the highlights and gaps in the speech, the next steps for the government, and the hard work ahead for the climate community.
The Energy Mix: In a Throne Speech where the government clearly tried to balance pandemic preparedness and response with a green recovery, what were you hoping to see?
St-Pierre: Throne speeches are about setting the government’s vision. So there was a lot of mention of “building back better”, but the detailed programs and the specific policies and projects usually come later. But we did get the sense that now is the time to address the climate crisis. I was expecting the Throne Speech to address COVID-19, as it should—we have to be aware that we’re still in the emergency phase of the pandemic, and this week we’re entering the second wave here in Quebec, and in other parts of the country. So there are many pieces to this puzzle.
The speech wasn’t perfect—it was quite vague in certain ways—but it did reinforce building back better and a green economy, with a hybrid of past climate announcements and some new commitments. At first, it felt like climate change would be an afterthought. But as the speech progressed, maybe half-way through, I started to get a sense of urgency and boldness in Canada’s approach to climate, and I sensed that from the Prime Minister, as well.
There is inspiration following the European Union’s commitment to a 55% emissions reduction by 2030 and some of the specific actions going on globally, in countries like France, Germany, and South Korea. The Throne Speech gave me the sense that Canada is there, too, that there’s ambition. Now, obviously, we’ll have to see the details to be able to analyse how we compare to other countries, and where we stand compared to the science-based targets from the IPCC that we’re all working with.
I’d hoped to see some very practical, specific examples of the climate solutions the government would use to accelerate decarbonization—things like housing retrofits, public transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, green hydrogen, supporting the cleantech sector, Indigenous guardian programs, natural climate solutions, and natural infrastructure projects. I was happy to see many of those concrete solutions addressed throughout the speech.
The Energy Mix: How well do you think the government struck the balance? Where do you see highlights and gaps?
St-Pierre: It was a good balance. Building back better and climate are mentioned on multiple occasions, there was discussion of climate-friendly investments, and it was interesting that the speech linked the green recovery to the government’s promise to create a million new jobs.
There was a strong focus on electrifying transportation. The speech talked about making electric vehicles more affordable. We’ll have to read the ministerial mandate letters to get the details, but that seemed to me to indicate that they’ll be continuing the $5,000 federal electric vehicle incentive or perhaps expanding it. That would answer the concerns recently that the program had already spent 75% of its $300-million budget.
The speech specifically mentioned investing in more EV charging stations across the country. We have a fairly advanced EV infrastructure network in Quebec, but in other parts of Canada—Atlantic provinces, Saskatchewan, and especially rural areas—those networks aren’t as developed. Solving that will be a great job creator, and it’ll help them build up the electric mobility supply chains the speech talked about.
I was intrigued by the commitment on supply chains. Canada could play a major role in EV supply with the production of nickel, cobalt, and other minerals, and it will be interesting to see how the government positions the country as a global leader in EV production. I’m also wondering whether this would apply to industrial decarbonization, linking sectors like steel to green hydrogen to ensure EVs are as low-carbon as possible.
The corporate tax cuts for electric vehicle producers show leadership, indicating that Canada plans to encourage its own domestic EV industry. We’re currently a global leader in electric buses, with Lion Bus in Quebec producing electric school buses and New Flyer in Winnipeg making electric buses for municipalities, and I think the government realizes the potential for job creation in going further.
The speech mentioned energy-efficient retrofits quite a few times. Again, the speech was short on details, but we know energy retrofits are the best way to create jobs, and they’ll help the government achieve its million-job target. We’ll need a huge work force to retrofit homes and buildings, save consumers money, and reduce emissions, and it was exciting to see the references not only to homes, but to commercial building retrofits.
I’m also particularly interested in the Atlantic Loop and the Clean Power Fund the government announced. The Atlantic Loop was just a quick line item, but the potential to decarbonize the energy grid in Eastern Canada and accelerate the coal phaseout is significant. Energy decarbonization projects tend to be massive. So while this was just a quick reference, I thought it could be a multi-billion-dollar undertaking that creates lots of jobs, and I’m looking forward to seeing the details.
The Throne Speech didn’t capture everything. There was no mention of zero-emission vehicle mandates, not much mention of electric buses, no mention of phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies or training programs for a just transition. I didn’t notice anything on green hydrogen or industrial decarbonization, and there wasn’t much on climate accountability.
But to their credit, they’re tackling a lot of issues like long-term care, employment insurance, the wage subsidy, and it’s important for us to be mindful of that.
The Energy Mix: What are the next steps to get the country fully on track for a green recovery and a rapid decarbonization agenda?
St-Pierre: The devil is in the details. If Canada wants to meet its 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets, we have to be bold and treat climate change as the emergency that it is. I would expect an immediate announcement on what Canada’s 2030 targets will look like, and that will require further analysis.
Once again, it’ll also be important to review the ministerial mandate letters when they become public. Then we’ll need to see the financial mechanisms like the EV subsidies when the fiscal update is published in the fall. We need to see if there’s any meat on the bone.
After that, announcements are not enough. There’s certainly going to be pushback from special interest lobby groups. There will be attempts to water this down. So implementation is really key, and shouldn’t be overlooked. We’ll need to dig more deeply into how we roll out a national energy retrofit program or the Atlantic Loop, how we actually decarbonize the electricity grid in Eastern Canada. There’s a lot of work to be done, and there will be a huge role for the environmental sector to help the government through the implementation phase.
The Energy Mix: Are there techniques the government and the climate community can adopt to listen and communicate outside the “bubble” of climate concern, to detoxify the politics around climate action and build wider public demand for faster, deeper carbon cuts?
St-Pierre: We have to keep making the strong link between climate, health, jobs, and the economy. For example, it’s important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from school buses, but we should frame that as protecting our children’s health, eliminating diesel pollution and delivering better air for the students and teachers in our schools. With energy retrofits, we’re creating jobs, and selling heat pumps creates a lot of employment while reducing home energy costs.
And we need to do a better job of bringing younger people and a more diverse community into the discussion. Canada is a very diverse country, but the environmental sector tends to be primarily white. We have a lot more work to do on that.
The Energy Mix: What do you see as the best strategies for getting those various elements in place, and how can philanthropy drive that agenda?
St-Pierre: We had 500,000 people in the streets of Montreal last year when Greta Thunberg visited and we need to continue mobilizing. There are special interest groups that really want this watered down, and we have to make sure the policies are well crafted, that the programs are fair and include communities across Canada. We need to hold the government accountable, and the environmental sector can continue doing that.
A number of environmental charities are involved in nature-based solutions right now, and they need to continue that work. Others are more active on the mitigation side, supporting bold, new initiatives like the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery. We need to continue that work and discover how we can provide resources that help governments reduce emissions.
The Energy Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?
St-Pierre: The federal government has set the tone, but the provinces also need to step up and address the green recovery. We’ve seen municipalities pass climate emergency declarations, but we also need bold, local action on climate mitigation.
As for Canadian philanthropic foundations, our grant funds are so small. We can play a role, but we need all hands on deck.. We need to see companies across the country get involved and show leadership. We need citizens and civil society to step up. This is the moment for all of us, not just the federal government.