Guilbeault to Heritage, McKenna to Infrastructure, Wilkinson to Environment as Climate Rises to Top of Federal Agenda
Veteran climate hawk and newly-minted Montreal MP Steven Guilbeault is expected to be named heritage minister, former environment minister Catherine McKenna takes over the infrastructure and communities portfolio, and climate action is set to emerge as a government-wide priority, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces his second-term cabinet this morning in a ceremony at Rideau Hall.
A CBC news report yesterday had former fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson moving to Environment, former Indigenous affairs minister Seamus O’Regan going to Natural Resources, and former infrastructure minister François-Philippe Champagne taking over at Foreign Affairs. The Globe and Mail reports this morning that former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland will take on the challenging intergovernmental affairs portfolio and become deputy prime minister. News reports consistently have Finance Minister Bill Morneau remaining in his current job.
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Freeland was born and raised in Alberta, while Wilkinson grew up and worked in Saskatchewan.
Cabinet assignments are a closely-guarded secret in Ottawa, and news commentaries over the last 48 hours have emphasized that Trudeau’s decisions could shift in the hours before ministers are sworn in. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation about a likely seat at the table for Guilbeault, or about a government that will devote the resources of seven federal departments to addressing the climate crisis.
“The Équiterre co-founder’s training and experience may not predispose him to take the helm of the Department of Heritage,” TVA News writes, citing unnamed sources. “But that’s still the role Prime Minister Trudeau has chosen to welcome his star candidate to the cabinet table.”
The Quebec TV outlet notes that Guilbeault, whose nomination in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Ste. Marie raised hackles in western provinces during the campaign, did not abandon his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion when he signed on as a Liberal candidate. “I’ll never stop being an environmentalist, just because I’ve joined a party,” he said in July, adding that he would never expect to agree with every decision a government makes.
“That never happens, for anyone in any party.”
If the pre-announcement speculation holds true, it will likely bring the number of GreenPAC endorsees in the federal cabinet to five—in addition to Guilbeault, the non-partisan PAC threw its support behind McKenna (Ottawa Centre), former science minister Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North), former treasury board president Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra), and Wilkinson (North Vancouver).
Trudeau’s announcement this morning will also include some strong hints at the minority government’s priorities, with the PM expected to publish his formal mandate letters to individual ministers as he did in 2015. Speculation over the last couple of weeks has centred on green economy and climate action as key focal points.
“A senior government official who was not authorized to speak publicly about cabinet decision-making said there is a large consensus in the country about the importance of fighting climate change and diversifying the economy,” the Globe and Mail reported November 4. “The Greens and the NDP have similar environmental policies as the Liberals, and the Bloc Québécois would likely support some of the environmental agenda.”
Citing the Liberals’ campaign commitments to “act on clean fuel standards, the phaseout of coal, electric vehicles, green finance, energy efficiency, and renewable energy,” the paper listed seven departments with major roles in delivering on the promise: Finance; Global Affairs; Innovation, Science and Economic Development; Environment; Natural Resources; Intergovernmental Affairs; and Justice.
More recent analysis has pointed in a similar direction.
CBC Parliamentary Bureau reporter Aaron Wherry explores a host of concerns, from relations with the Trump administration to Western alienation to the need for a steady, serious presence for the new minority government, that will factor into the cabinet announcement. “But the issue that came to the fore during this fall’s election campaign was climate change, along with the transition to a low-carbon future and all that entails,” he writes. “This is the defining issue in federal politics now; nearly everything the government does now is affected by it in some way.”
Though the Liberals’ share of the popular vote declined between the 2015 and 2019 elections, “Trudeau has latched on to the fact that nearly two-thirds of voters cast ballots for candidates whose parties promised a price on carbon and a concerted effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds, noting that climate is also the “major policy fault line” between the Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservative opposition.
But Trudeau’s is also only the second government in Canadian history, after British Columbia’s Liberals under then-premier Gordon Campbell, to be re-elected after promising a price on carbon. “Trudeau’s reward is a chance to keep pushing the transition, with all the tension and pressure that entails,” Wherry writes.
Veteran Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom takes a similar tack, arguing that the challenging math of a minority parliament “gives the Liberals both an incentive and an opportunity to be unusually bold”.
To be sure, a minority government forces Trudeau to depend on at least the tacit support of the three major opposition parties to pass legislation and remain in power, Walkom writes. But “if Trudeau is able to seize the moment, as the leaders of previous Liberal minority governments have done, he can increase his chance of winning a majority of Commons seats the next time Canadians go to the polls. That is the incentive.”
And “if he can skillfully manage his relations with the New Democrats and Bloc Québécois, he will be able to stickhandle a bold left-of-centre agenda through the Commons that includes universal pharmacare and meaningful moves to combat climate change. That is the opportunity.”
Walkom cites Trudeau’s dad’s experience with minority government from 1972 to 1974 as one of the precedents to watch. “With the backing of the NDP and in an effort to reduce U.S. control over the Canadian economy, he established the Foreign Investment Review Agency. Under NDP pressure, he also set up a national oil company, Petro-Canada, to confront the major, foreign-owned energy giants,” Walkom recalls. “Both moves were overwhelmingly popular and helped the Liberals win back a majority in the 1974 election.”
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson sounds like he has a less rosy view of the new government’s likely emphasis, but seems to see it as inevitable.
“Do you favour activist progressive government? Well you’re about to get one whether you like it or not,” Ibbitson writes. After meeting with the Bloc and NDP leaders last week, Trudeau “clearly has a green light to move on an agenda centred on fighting climate change, spending heavily on infrastructure, and implementing pharmacare.”
With projected annual deficits above $20 billion, Ibbitson cites pharmacare, not climate response, as the item most likely to raise flags about future federal budgets. But he still singles out the climate crisis as a big-ticket item.
“This will include a C$3-billion annual increase in funding for public transit; a program to plant two billion trees over 10 years; thousands of new charging stations for electric vehicles; increased financial incentives to purchase such vehicles; loans and grants to make homes more energy efficient; and a national flood insurance program.”
In the lead-up to this morning’s announcement, national climate and environment organizations argued that Trudeau should include expectations for climate action in every single cabinet minister’s mandate letter. “They also want him to give prominent attention to reducing the anxieties of workers whose jobs are disappearing, possibly even with a new cabinet portfolio dedicated to helping reshape the economy with this transition in mind,” The Canadian Press reports.
“We need to see a very holistic and ambitious approach to tackling our challenges,” said Isabelle Turcotte, Ottawa-based federal policy director at the Pembina Institute. “The environment cannot just sit on the environment minister’s desk.”
“It’s clear at this point we need a serious conversation about the future of work in this country,” agreed Climate Action Network-Canada Executive Director Catherine Abreu.
CP points to a C$60-billion just transition package that Germany recently adopted, aimed at cushioning workers affected by the country’s 2038 deadline to phase out its coal sector. In Canada, Abreu “said climate action gets blamed by a lot of folks for their job anxieties,” the news agency adds. “But the blame can be laid as much on technology and the rise of the ‘gig economy’, where people are paid by the job or hired with short-term contracts rather than with permanent employment.”
Just transition is one of five items Toronto Star columnist Heather Scoffield covers in her version of the mandate letter Trudeau should issue to his new natural resources minister, along with transparency on the fossil industry’s exposure to climate risk, a multi-billion-dollar investment in electrification, technology innovation, and building investor confidence in the fossil sector.
“As you know, our election platform committed to entrenching a low-carbon economy in which Canada is a net-zero producer of emissions by 2050, with concrete action along the way,” Scoffield writes in the imagined draft. “While we didn’t set out a plan for that during the campaign, we need to work closely and quickly with the corporations involved in energy production as well as provincial governments if we are to have any hope of meeting that ambitious but necessary goal.”
In the Globe and Mail, meanwhile, sustainable finance specialists Jim Leech and Sean Cleary urge Trudeau to take steps to “climate-proof” the Canadian economy, noting that “while governments are struggling to come up with public policy responses, global investors and financial institutions are not standing around. The investment world is already shaping markets in response to the effects of climate change.”
That means “Canada cannot wait to establish the expertise required to navigate successfully to a low-carbon economy,” they warn. “If we delay, others will shape Canada’s economic future for us.”
In a country that already has some catching up to do, the two authors argue that “a redefinition of fiduciary duty to incorporate the effects of climate change would lead to significant changes in capital flows and risk management processes. This will influence Canadian companies to provide more thorough corporate disclosures regarding climate change and help them compete among their peers in an increasingly climate-conscious investment environment.”
The Tyee, meanwhile, notes that a gap in the international accounting regime for carbon emissions has opened the door for greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian fossil fuel exports to triple since 1992, when the country signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, since the reporting regime only covers emissions that physically occur within national boundaries.
“This means that Canada does not count more than 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that comes from others burning our fossil fuel exports each year,” even though those emissions far exceed the country’s already-excessive domestic emissions of 700 Mt per year, writes industrial ecologist Chris Kennedy, chair of civil engineering at the University of Victoria.
“Canada completely washes its hands of any responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that result from our massive fossil fuel exports,” Kennedy says. “Yet, we know full well that the impacts of carbon emissions are shared globally. To put it crudely: not only are we screwing future generations ourselves, we are aiding and abetting other countries in doing so too.”
Ottawa is also falling short on its commitments to water resource management and research under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Global Water Futures (GWF) program reported yesterday. “Canada could be a world leader on this issue, but we have to transform how we observe, predict, and manage water to meet these goals and then share our solutions globally,” said GWF Director John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan. “This is a fitting role for Canada as a world leader in freshwater and hydrological science.”