Veteran climate advocate Steven Guilbeault is Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change and former environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson is becoming Natural Resources Minister after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled the new federal Cabinet Tuesday morning.
Guilbeault, the former Greenpeace climate campaigner and Équiterre co-founder once dubbed the “Green Jesus of Montreal” by La Presse, takes over a department at the centre of the effort to sharpen federal climate policy and deliver the rapid greenhouse gas reductions Trudeau promised on the campaign trail.
“After 30 years of fighting climate change outside of government, I am humbled and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to accelerate our fight against climate change as Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change,” Guilbeault tweeted after the swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall.
“Canadians gave us a clear mandate to go further and faster on climate action, job creation, and nature protection,” he added. “My priority is to work with Canadians in all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy to get the job done.”
That work will begin with a high-stakes global climate conference that begins less than a week away.
“My first trip as Minister of Environment and Climate Change will be to Glasgow for #COP26 where I’ll be pushing for climate ambition around the world with—and on behalf—of Canadians,” Guilbeault wrote. “While this is my 19th COP, I know there’s a lot of work ahead so I’m getting straight to work to prepare, and to deliver. On y va!”
While Guilbeault’s appointment received much of the attention from the climate and environment community, a flurry of releases and social media activity also stressed the whole-of-government approach that will be needed to tackle the climate emergency.
“Minister Guilbeault knows the file, he knows the key players, and he understands just how much is at stake,” Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart said in a release. “He’s also a practical person who knows the rules, which is important because implementing and raising the Liberal government’s climate commitments is going to take the whole government pulling hard in the same direction. The sheer scale of the threat posed by the climate crisis demands that we continue to increase our climate ambition and action, while protecting workers and communities through the transition.”
Stewart also expressed his hope that Wilkinson’s move to NRCan will lead to “greater cooperation on climate action across departments, as the minister of Natural Resources has in the past acted as the chief advocate for the oil industry at the Cabinet table.”
“Hoping my old friend @s_guilbeault will remain true to his roots—and lead Canada in upping its climate ambition and more importantly its actions,” tweeted Stand.earth Climate Finance Director Richard Brooks. “No time to waste. Actions speak louder than words.”
Brooks tweeted a 2001 video of Guilbeault, then a 31-year-old Greenpeace campaigner, climbing the CN Tower (on the outside wall, it must be said, not using the stairs) to unfurl a banner branding Canada and then-United States president George W. Bush as “climate killers”. Nearly two decades later, after stepping down from Équiterre in 2018 to write a book on artificial intelligence and climate change, Guilbeault worked with then-Vancity Credit Union CEO Tamara Vrooman to advise the Trudeau government on short-term “wins” in climate policy, landing on building retrofits and a zero-emission vehicle mandate as two immediate opportunities for action.
He first ran for the Liberals in the federal riding of Laurier-Ste. Marie in 2019, maintaining that he could do so and still retain his public opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
“Congratulations to all the ministers that were appointed to Cabinet,” tweeted Équiterre Executive Director Colleen Thorpe. “In the face of the climate crisis and the collapse of biodiversity, our communities, our infrastructure, our agriculture, our security, and our health are seriously threatened. It is important to remember that all government ministers will have a role to play in bringing about the unprecedented changes that must occur.”
Clean Energy Canada Executive Director Merran Smith said the recent federal election showed Canadians “want a government that will show real and effective climate leadership.” And while “the Liberal Party put forward a strong climate plan” during the campaign, “the window to make the plan a reality is short.” She cited Wilkinson’s past background as a cleantech executive as “key to ensuring a strong future for Canada’s natural resources,” while welcoming Guilbeault’s “strong history of climate leadership into the role of environment and climate change minister.”
In an email to supporters, 350 Canada digital organizer Chris Gusen pointed to the mandate letters Trudeau will issue to all his ministers as the next step in building a government-wide commitment on climate.
“Beyond the Environment and Natural Resources moves, today’s Cabinet shuffle was a good reminder that the scale of the climate crisis demands action from all areas of government,” Gusen wrote. “Seamus O’Regan is moving from Natural Resources to Labour, but if the Trudeau government is serious about tackling the climate crisis, delivering green jobs and a just transition for fossil fuel workers will be a huge component of O’Regan’s new job. Likewise, we’ll be watching closely to see if Trudeau backs up his climate talk by directing his new Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc to massively increase green projects.”
That same sense of immediacy showed up in some of the news coverage of the Cabinet announcement, with CBC’s Aaron Wherry saying the appointments reflect a “PM in a hurry” to get things done.
“According to a senior Liberal source, the speed and urgency with which the government was able to operate while responding to the pandemic crisis led the prime minister to wonder whether the government could move faster and more ambitiously to deal with challenges like climate change and the housing shortage,” Wherry writes. And in a minority Parliament, “the government also may now assume it has two years to run before another election—which is both a decent amount of time to do some things and not a lot of time if you want or need to do a lot.”
But a different sense of urgency quickly emerged from the fossil industry and its political allies, with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declaring Guilbeault’s appointment “very problematic” and NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley agreeing that it was “certainly troubling”.
“I certainly hope that the new minister, Minister Guilbeault, will quickly demonstrate to Alberta and other resource-producing provinces a desire to work together constructively on practical solutions that don’t end up killing hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Kenney told media. “But his own personal background and track record on these issues suggests somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist when it comes to finding solutions. I hope that I’m wrong about that.”
[Just a reminder that the comments section is open for anyone who has thoughts on who’s been an “absolutist”, who’s been a “pragmatist”, and which provincial politician is most often wrong in Canadian fossil politics. Or, of course, anything else you want to comment on—Ed.]
The Globe and Mail says Trudeau defended Guilbeault’s appointment to the environment and climate portfolio.
“There is not much of a debate anymore about whether or not climate change is real,” the PM said. “We have a number of strong ministers, including Minister Guilbeault, Minister Wilkinson, and others [who are] dedicated to the fight against climate change and dedicated to making sure that all Canadians have a brighter future because of it. We will be committed to working with Albertans, to working with people in the energy sector across the country, as we build the kind of future everyone wants for their kids and grandkids.”
Earlier this year, two-thirds of fossil fuel workers told an Iron & Earth survey that retraining for that future is precisely what they want. The latest national opinion poll on the subject showed the majority of Canadians across almost all geographies and political persuasions calling for faster climate action.
But Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told the Financial Post he still expected to see “heads exploding” in response to Guilbeault’s appointment. “They’ve just flown a huge red flag in front of the Kenney government and some elements of the oil patch,” he said.
“This will be very concerning and frustrating for everyone who’s part of the natural resource economy in Canada,” said Macdonald-Laurier Institute Fellow Heather Exner-Pirot, adding that Guilbeault “will have significant influence on how we go forward with our resource development.” (Just as he has in the recent past, the Globe might add.)
“The background is concerning,” Raymond James stock analyst Jeremy McCrea told the Post. “It’s the perception that that’s the kind of person that will have more of a voice in the Trudeau cabinet,” creating “political headwinds for a [fossil] investor that’s worried about the political landscape here.”