Steven Guilbeault hasn't forgotten what life was like for environmentalists when former prime minister Stephen Harper was in power.
“I had front row seats during the 10 years of the Harper government," Guilbeault, 49, said Friday.
He said he watched as Harper destroyed federal policies on climate change, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
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.
"Myself and many of my colleagues were labelled terrorists by the Harper government because we disagreed with them on their policies,” he said. “And if Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives win the next election, then everything we’ve gained over the past four years is gone.”
The former Greenpeace activist, who once made headlines for scaling the CN Tower to pressure the former Chrétien and Bush governments about the Kyoto Protocol, made the comments as he confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in Canadian politics — that he will be seeking the Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Ste-Marie in the upcoming October federal election.
Guilbeault said he respects both the New Democrats and Greens but that his concerns about seeing the Conservatives return to power are what prompted him to join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
Scheer's Conservatives introduced an environmental platform on June 19 that commits to meeting Canada's international climate change commitments, but is vague on details about how to achieve those goals.
Guilbeault doubts the Conservative plan would work and said he believes the Liberals are the only party that can prevent a new Scheer government.
Co-founded Quebec’s largest environmental group
Guilbeault co-founded Équiterre, which has become Quebec's largest environmental organization. But he now faces some criticism from other environmentalists for joining Trudeau's Liberals right after the government re-approved a proposal to build the West Coast Trans Mountain oil pipeline, along with tanker expansion off B.C.’s coast.
But he said Friday that he doesn't support the Trudeau government's decision to spend billions of dollars to purchase the existing Trans Mountain system, nor does he support the approval of the expansion project.
"I felt it would have been hypocritical for me, having fought pipelines for many, many years, and now join a political party and then just shift, do a 180-degree (turn). I felt it wouldn’t be good for me and it certainly wouldn’t have been good for the party," Guilbeault told National Observer following his announcement at Montreal's Parc Lafontaine, a popular urban park in the city.
"I would have lost all credibility and I would be of no use to anybody, and it would just increase general cynicism towards politics.”
He was backed by several members of a local Liberal riding association, who came out for the announcement.
Guilbeault announced he was leaving Équiterre last October, amid rumours that he was on the verge of running for the Liberals in a byelection. At that time, he said he was interested in politics, but didn't immediately make the jump.
The Trudeau government subsequently appointed him to a federal advisory panel on climate change, allowing him to appear frequently with the prime minister and other members of cabinet in recent months.
While Trudeau and other Liberals actively tried to recruit him, Guilbeault said, he told the prime minister that he would never be able to defend the government's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
“I told him and I told people that I couldn’t defend this project and the prime minister said, ‘Fine, I don’t have any problems with that,'" Guilbeault said. "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, and it could do even more and I want to see if I can help to make that happen.”
Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, a left-leaning research organization, said he was baffled by Guilbeault's move to run in a riding that was previously held by former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and is now held by the NDP.
"I have known and liked (Guilbeault) for many years. His decision today makes little sense for two reasons," wrote Smith, a former chief of staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton, on Twitter. "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. 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."
And though he says he is running to prevent a @CPC_HQ 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. #polcan #cdnpoli 3/3— Rick Smith (@rjcsmith) June 21, 2019
Among the policies that Guilbeault supports are major investments in public transit as well as a decision to impose a nationwide price on carbon pollution.
He also said that these are among the first steps that will allow Canada to meet its international commitments under the Paris Agreement to fight the climate crisis and curb the country's dependence on oil, an industry that has access to the world's third-largest reserves of crude oil and which employs tens of thousands of Canadians.
“In order for Canada to meet its climate change Paris commitments and even go beyond, there’s wide agreement — and Prime Minister Trudeau has talked about this — we need to reduce our dependency on oil," he said. "So the question is, what are the best mechanisms to do that? The government certainly has started to put some of them in place, putting a price on carbon throughout Canada — which was non-existent, except for two provinces, before Justin Trudeau’s government was elected — investing more in public transit. ... And we probably need to come up with new ideas, and I’m not quite sure what these are right now, but I’ll certainly be working with members of the Liberal party in the coming weeks and months to try to figure those out and I’m hoping that I can contribute somehow to the party’s platform as well.”
He noted that the government had already taken steps to meet with communities and thousands of workers across the country affected by a promise to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030 and ensure that there is a plan in place to help workers in transition.
“I think maybe this is the type of exercise we need to do for oil as well," he said. "Obviously we’re not phasing (out) oil by 2030, but we are heading into a world where there will be less and less oil consumption.”
He added that there was "no doubt" in his mind that this is happening.
"Now how do we do it so it’s fair to workers and communities who are in some cases, or will be impacted by this transition? That’s what we need to figure out.”
Despite criticism from some circles, he said he has also been getting messages of support from many environmentalists about his decision to enter politics.
“I knew that this decision would be unpopular with some," he said. "And I have spoken with colleagues across the country about it before doing it, and some people disagreed and I understand and respect their position."
Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna was among those who praised Guilbeault's announcement, describing it on Twitter as "incredible news" and a sign that the Liberal government was gaining momentum in the fight against climate change.
Such incredible news that @S_Guilbeault is stepping up to join our team. 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. https://t.co/OQ3hpKzkLw— Catherine McKenna 🇨🇦 (@cathmckenna) June 21, 2019
Guilbeault said he has been impressed by the level of support he's getting.
"Since the news came out, two days ago, I’ve been getting messages all across the country from environmental leaders, members of environmental organizations that I’ve worked with over the last few years, decades, in some cases, saying ‘way to go,’" he said. "I even had a message from a political opponent … saying you’re not running for my party, but I’m happy you’re running.”