The reaction was mixed when the former climate activist nicknamed the “green Jesus of Montreal” announced he would run for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the federal election this fall. But in an interview last week, Équiterre co-founder Steven Guilbeault was clear about why he had jumped into the electoral fray.
“I had front row seats during the 10 years of the Harper government,” Guilbeault told National Observer Friday. “Myself and many of my colleagues were labelled terrorists by the Harper government because we disagreed with them on their policies,” he added. “And if Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives win the next election, then everything we’ve gained over the past four years is gone.”
Guilbeault “watched as Harper destroyed federal policies on climate change, renewable energy, and energy efficiency,” Observer reports. “At the same time, the former Harper government made inflammatory statements that described conservation groups as ‘radicals’ who were trying to shut down the Canadian economy. The former government also funded new Canada Revenue Agency audits to investigate Guilbeault’s former organization, Équiterre, and other environmental organizations.”
But “Guilbeault said all of that changed when the Liberals formed a government and started to develop a national strategy to fight climate change and start a transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Guilbeault may be joining Team Trudeau, but he said he isn’t walking back his opposition to the federal government’s purchase and subsequent re-approval of the C$9.3-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
“I felt it would have been hypocritical for me, having fought pipelines for many, many years, to now join a political party and then just shift, do a 180°. I felt it wouldn’t be good for me and it certainly wouldn’t have been good for the party,” he told Observer’s Mike De Souza. “I would have lost all credibility and I would be of no use to anybody, and it would just increase general cynicism towards politics.”
CBC recalls Guilbeault making the point to Trudeau rather more strongly three years ago, when he was invited to address the Liberal Party convention in Winnipeg.
“Prime Minister, large pipeline projects have failed to gain social licence from all across the continent, from Lincoln, Nebraska to Kitimat, B.C., to Montreal, Quebec. Communities don’t want them,” he said at the time. “The atmosphere and our climate certainly don’t need them. Many of us believe we cannot build pipelines and meet our international climate commitments at the same time. And with a world working around the clock to avoid the worst effects of climate change, it makes no sense from an ethical and a moral perspective to produce and ship more of a substance that is causing a problem that disrupts the future of our children and grandchildren.”
“I know this is hard for some of you to hear,” he added, “but I believe it to be the truth and I’m not the only one.”
Fast forward to last week, and Guilbeault said Trudeau was fine with him refusing to defend the project.
“He said it wouldn’t be authentic if I did so. I must salute the leadership of someone who’s willing to embrace a dissident (opinion) like mine on an important project. But I think we both agree that the government has done so many things, it could do even more, and I want to see if I can help to make that happen.”
Speaking to CBC’s Aaron Wherry, Guilbeault added that “I do fear that the Conservatives could win the next election and, if they do, everything we’ve worked for in those past four years will be gone and we will be back to what was happening under the Harper years. The only party that can stop the Conservatives…is the Liberal Party of Canada.”
“This, one imagines, is exactly what the Liberal Party will be saying to progressive swing voters this fall,” Wherry adds. “It’s not inconceivable that Guilbeault’s candidacy could be problematic for the Liberals. Jason Kenney or Andrew Scheer might try to use his presence on the ballot to bolster their argument that Trudeau is biased against the fossil fuel sector. But the voters most likely to agree with that criticism probably weren’t going to vote for the Liberals this fall anyway.”
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna was predictably thrilled with Guilbeault’s announcement. “Such incredible news that @S_Guilbeault is stepping up to join our team,” she tweeted. “As we continue building momentum, fighting climate change, and taking serious action for our environment, his experience and his voice would be great to have at the table.”
Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith, a former chief of staff to late NDP leader Jack Layton, tweeted to the contrary. “After spending his career defining environmental progress, he is now running for a political party that—historically, and today—has a weak environmental record he will be forced to defend,” he wrote. “And though he says he is running to prevent a (Conservative) government, he’s chosen a riding where the Conservatives don’t stand a hope in hell of winning. If he wants to defeat Conservatives—an objective I can get behind—he’s running in the wrong place.”
Green leader Elizabeth May said she was “shocked” by Guilbeault’s decision to run for the Liberals.