Transitioning away from fossil fuels is key for Canada to meet its climate targets, but a recent audit shows the federal government is not ready to support a just transition for affected workers and communities.

Despite promising an economic transition that leaves no Canadian behind in 2019, the federal government has been “unprepared and slow off the mark,” environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco told Canada’s National Observer after tabling his report Tuesday.

The federal government has no implementation plan, formal governance structure or monitoring and reporting system to support a just transition, the audit found. It also noted long-promised just transition legislation, first announced in 2019, has been delayed and consultations on the legislation are incomplete.

As a cautionary tale, the report referenced the failure of federal programs in the early 1990s to support 37,000 workers affected by the collapse of the northern cod fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, pointing to a lack of “rigorous planning” as a warning.

“It's deeply concerning that we're not seeing more action beyond promises to ensure that workers are protected in a just transition,” Green Party MP Mike Morrice told Canada’s National Observer.

“As Greens have pointed out before, either we can move toward the just transition or an unjust disruption. And this report leads us to believe we're headed towards the latter.”

The audit also called the country’s coal phaseout a “missed opportunity” because federal programs and benefits “fell short” of what was needed for just transition and the government did not adequately measure results to understand whether programs were achieving their aims.

For example, Employment and Social Development Canada was supposed to implement a program that would provide up to four weeks of income for affected coal workers on leave for training. The audit revealed it failed to provide workers with this benefit and instead relied on regular employment insurance, noting this was “not sufficient” to meet workers’ needs.

“The coal transition is already happening in Alberta and will be happening in the Atlantic provinces later. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia … they have to be ready for those workers and not leave them out in the cold,” said DeMarco.

Moving quickly to facilitate a just transition is also important if the government wants to retain public support for its climate plan, he added.

Despite promising an economic transition that leaves no Canadian behind in 2019, the federal government has been “unprepared and slow off the mark,” environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco told Canada’s National Observer after tabling his report.

If the federal government doesn’t start opening doors for fossil fuel workers, “they're going to lose support for their initiative because you're leaving people behind — which is quite the opposite of what a just transition is,” he said.

The NDP’s natural resources critic, Charlie Angus, said the government “can’t skate by without providing concrete measures to ensure energy workers and their families have the good, sustainable jobs they need now and in the future.”

“We have learned hard lessons from the failures of past federal governments who refused to support or plan for a just transition — and it left communities devastated,” Angus’ statement reads. He said the NDP will continue to call on the federal government to “take real action by expanding EI benefits, providing opportunities for retraining and job placement services, ensuring companies retain and redeploy their workers when in transition, and guaranteeing that workers nearing retirement have the security they have worked their whole lives for.”

In a joint statement responding to the commissioner’s reports, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government “will always have the backs of workers.”

“In the last few months alone, we have invested in projects that will secure or create thousands of jobs, from biomethanization plants in Quebec to the auto sector in Ontario to the home retrofit industry in Manitoba and across the country,” the statement reads, also noting that measures announced in the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan and Budget 2022 “will build on this progress.”

Morrice pointed out that in Budget 2022, rather than investing in a just transition, the federal government handed "a new subsidy to oil and gas in the form of carbon capture and storage." The investment tax credit for carbon capture, utilization and storage was the budget's big-ticket climate item, which he says "continue(s) to raise serious questions with respect to what direction we're heading."

An Abacus Data poll from October 2021 found a majority of Canadians want to see the federal government take bolder action to respond to climate change, including the “swift” implementation of a just transition policy and investment in renewables.

Natural Resources Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and other federal departments focused on economic development in select regions agreed with all the commissioner’s recommendations, which DeMarco says is “very good news.”

However, it remains to be seen whether each department actually creates an action plan that “makes them walk the talk,” DeMarco said. He recommended the Standing Committee on Environment demand departments produce such plans after reports like this are released to ensure a strong commitment on paper.

Some key recommendations include developing an approach to measure, monitor and report on progress toward a just transition with data collection and public reporting requirements. Better data collection related to sectors, skills, occupations and the diversity of workers and communities would allow the government to better target programs to specific groups.

Because the coal transition is well underway in Alberta but not in Atlantic Canada, there is still a chance to learn from the experience, said DeMarco. He says if the government starts monitoring and measuring the success of the coal transition, that can help avoid making the same mistakes in Atlantic Canada’s coal phaseout and benefit the rest of the country in its transition away from oil and gas.

Conservative shadow minister for natural resources Greg McLean did not respond to requests for comment by the deadline.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer