Following an election that trimmed the governing Liberals to a minority, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed no sign of dropping his government’s stated commitment to climate action when he unveiled a new cabinet Wednesday. But whether the government will act strongly enough to address the climate emergency remains to be seen.
Jonathan Wilkinson — former minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard — was sworn in as the minister of environment and climate change. But there is other climate clout in the cabinet. Several new ministers bring real-world experience from the environmental sector — including former Greenpeace activist Stephen Guilbeault and Toronto-area Greenbelt advocate Deb Schulte, who chairs the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.
The announcement was welcomed with cautious enthusiasm by environmental activists and academics. A cabinet that includes a “stronger field of notable environmental advocates” could shift the balance of internal debate, despite not being given direct oversight over climate-related files, said Dale Marshall, national program manager at Environmental Defense.
“Cabinet decisions are cabinet decisions and having people who both have the knowledge and an environmental ethic is useful,” he said.
That shift in the environmental debate will, most likely, start with the party campaign promises. The Liberals committed to a robust climate agenda during the election campaign, including a focus on clean-fuel standards, the phase-out of coal, support for green finance, energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind power. And the party promised to build out a zero-emission vehicle strategy, but that has not yet been fleshed out into policy.
Fulfilling campaign promises will be one thing. But what happened before parliament was dissolved for the election may be a bigger challenge for the new government’s climate plans.
Trudeau’s government nationalized the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in May last year. Buying a pipeline and its planned expansion sparked environmental protests across the country but it didn’t prevent growing resentment towards the Liberal government in the western oil-producing provinces, who have yet to benefit from any additional capacity on the link to the Pacific coast. (Legal challenges continue to dog the project)
Now the new minority Trudeau government needs to develop a plan to deal with alienation of those in Alberta and elsewhere in the country who rely on the oil and gas industry while following through with environmental promises like the one to implement “legally binding” targets of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
And the man at the front of it all is Jonathan Wilkinson.
Wilkinson told reporters outside Rideau Hall after the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday that “Canadians were pretty clear during the campaign that they want strong action on climate change”. To which reporters asked how, exactly, he was going to do it.
Wilkinson’s background gives some strong clues about how he might do it.
Wilkinson, who replaced Ottawa-area MP Catherine McKenna as environment minister, has a working relationship with B.C. Premier John Horgan, the most vocal opponent of the Trans Mountain expansion among provincial leaders. Wilkinson worked with Horgan on environmental initiatives, such as a joint federal-provincial initiative to protect wild salmon populations, back when he was fisheries minister. And he has more western cred. Wilkinson grew up in Saskatchewan, he went to university there and sowed his early political roots as an advisor to former premier Roy Romanow.
Wilkinson also understands the workings of the ministry. He was McKenna’s parliamentary secretary in the last Trudeau cabinet.
But what might be the real key to how Wilkinson will do was the thing he told reporters in response to the question: “I spent 20 years in cleantech before I got into politics”.
Wilkinson, who was first elected in his North Vancouver riding in 2015, was previously CEO of cleantech companies QuestAir Technologies and BioteQ Environmental Technologies (now BQE Water Inc.,which treats water for the mining industry) and an executive at renewable energy and fuel company Nexterra, as well as at management consultancy Bain & Company.
But Marshall and others warned Trudeau’s minority government could yet decide that their electoral losses in Alberta and Saskatchewan require actions that work against efforts to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“Whether the Liberals are willing to address production and emissions coming from the oil and gas sector will determine whether they are successful on climate change,” said Marshall.