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The recent federal election may have returned a status quo Parliament, but the government’s new cabinet is anything but. Veteran ministers Marc Garneau and Jim Carr are out, new faces like Kamal Khera and Sean Fraser are in, and rising stars like Anita Anand and Mélanie Joly have been promoted into higher-profile positions on the government’s front bench. But if there’s one message that emerges most clearly from this changing of the guard, it’s that the Trudeau government is preparing to press ahead on climate change.
Steven Guilbeault has been promoted to minister of environment and climate change despite making a mess as heritage minister of the rollout of Bill C-10, the government’s attempt to bring digital streaming services under the purview of the Broadcasting Act. This is the job Guilbeault clearly always wanted, given his background as former senior director for Équiterre and long-standing director and campaign manager for Greenpeace Quebec.
Jonathan Wilkinson, who took over from Catherine McKenna as the minister of environment and climate change, now slides over to natural resources. But while he’s been nominally supportive of the government’s decision to buy and build the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, he’s unlikely to offer the same sort of enthusiastic support as Seamus O’Regan did.
This realignment makes plenty of political sense, given that COP26 is just around the corner and climate change remains a winning issue for the Trudeau Liberals. But it will trigger a renewed outpouring of anger and frustration from Alberta, where Guilbeault is seen within the oil and gas industry as an even bigger enemy than Wilkinson or McKenna ever were. As University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young tweeted, “This is not a Cabinet intended to address regional alienation in AB/SK.”
It’s worth pointing out both the finance minister and the associate minister of finance are now Albertans, which is the first time that’s happened in Canadian history. But that’s a product of their own qualifications and talents rather than a renewed attempt to placate Alberta. And while the decision to announce the new cabinet on the same day Alberta reported the results of its equalization referendum is probably a coincidence, the message being sent from Ottawa to Edmonton seems clear: no more Mr. Nice Guy.
It’s hard to blame the federal government for taking this approach, given the volume and variety of vitriol that Jason Kenney and his government have sent their way. And it seems like a fairly easy fight for the prime minister to win, given how massively unpopular Alberta’s premier is right now. Perhaps, after years of trying to placate the Prairie provinces and assuage their apparently insatiable sense of victimhood, it’s time for a bit of tough love. Few people are better qualified to mete that out than Guilbeault.
Nobody should be confused about where the power lies with this government, though. Despite the new cabinet and the fresh faces, it’s still heavily concentrated in the offices of the finance minister and especially the prime minister. Now, more than ever, Justin Trudeau has surrounded himself with familiar faces, from Guilbeault and Joly to old friends like Marc Miller, Seamus O’Regan and Dominic LeBlanc. Those expecting the prime minister to quietly hand the reins to Chrystia Freeland may be sorely disappointed, because this feels far more like a cabinet of someone preparing to fight than someone getting ready to quit.
And while that fight will include wrapping up child-care agreements with the remaining provinces and continuing the transition from pandemic support to economic growth, it will be defined by what the government does on climate change. As economist Mark Jaccard noted in a recent op-ed, that will depend an awful lot on what happens in — and to — Alberta. “The critical industrial policy will be the Liberals’ promise to cap and then reduce emissions from oil and gas production,” he wrote.
Kenney won’t like that. Neither will the many Albertans who are more heavily invested in defending the past than embracing the future. But after years of playing nicely with them, whether that involved building pipelines or paying billions of dollars to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells, it seems like the prime minister has decided to stop waiting for Alberta to get the memo on climate change. Now, it seems, he’ll be the one sending it.