If you didn’t know any better or didn’t bother to look too closely, you might think the “Ministry of Just Transition” was a real thing. Its website looks very similar to other federal government properties, right down to the familiar Government of Canada logo, and it echoes language the Trudeau government has used in the past, including last July’s announcement of a “Just Transition Engagement.” But a more thorough inspection reveals it’s actually a campaign being run by 350.org, and the writing was done by none other than former NDP candidate Avi Lewis.
Hoisting governments on their own petard is hardly a new strategy. It’s one I find almost irresistible, and I’ve done it plenty of times with the UCP here in Alberta, whether it’s their disastrous “best summer ever” or Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer’s claim that his government will “move at the speed of business.”
But it’s one thing to mock a government with its own words and quite another to build a website and online identity for a “Just Transition Ministry” that so closely mirrors the government’s own branding that a casual observer could be tricked into thinking it really exists.
In an age of widespread (and widely weaponized) misinformation, and at a time when Conservatives are gleefully spreading their own brand of deceit around a supposed “truck tax,” this is a dangerous way to attract attention.
The tactics behind the campaign are secondary to its content, though, which leans heavily on the phrase “just transition,” two buzzwords that don’t play nearly as well as they could. A 2019 poll done by Abacus Data for Clean Energy Canada showed that when given a range of options, most Canadians ranked “just transition” as one of their least favourite ways of describing the process of moving away from fossil fuels.
When asked: “Which do you feel is the single best description of the transition you would like to see happen?” only eight per cent of Canadians — and five per cent of British Columbians — selected the phrase “just transition.” In contrast, 30 per cent said they liked “responsible transition.”
The 2018 Alberta Narratives Project, which captured the findings and insights from more than 50 provincewide conversations on climate change with nearly 500 people, raised some important flags about the use of the word “transition.” “The conventional transition narrative follows an arc that begins by asserting the dangers of climate change, then criticizes the oil industry, followed by an imperative to reduce or close down fossil fuel production and an economic case for expanding renewable energy,” it said. “This narrative does not hold up well in Alberta.”
The idea of a “just transition” tested just as poorly. “There was little interest in Alberta in protecting people’s livelihoods in this way,” the authors wrote, “possibly because of shared values of resilience to change and independence from government.”
The “Just Transition Ministry” website also repeatedly references a “green economy,” another phrase that’s more of an albatross than it needs to be. As Angus McAllister, the founder of McAllister Research, told Clean Energy Canada, “It works with the usual suspects and alienates everyone else.”
Clean Energy Canada’s 2019 research shows that when asked “Which best describes the economy you want to see for Canada in the future?” 43 per cent said “sustainable economy” — nearly three times as many as who said “green economy” (15 per cent). In Alberta, the spread was even bigger, with 58 per cent preferring “sustainable economy” to the just nine per cent who liked “green economy.”
Opinion: The phrase "just transition" doesn't play well in Alberta with people whose livelihoods will be upended as #FossilFuel production winds down. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver. #JustTransition #cdnpoli
Why does this sort of linguistic nitpicking matter? Because as the ongoing efforts in the United States to improve policing outcomes and raise awareness about the discrimination and violence against Black and brown communities shows, words matter. Former president Barack Obama made that point in December 2020 when he suggested the phrase “defund the police” was getting in the way of the task at hand. “If you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are.”
Obama was upbraided by progressive activists and Democratic legislators for his comments, but others rallied to his defence. As Njeri Mathis Rutledge, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, wrote in her column about that skirmish, “Messaging and policy go hand in hand. Rather than insist on a slogan that is both inflammatory and misleading, we must choose language that will influence real progress and mobilize most people to action, instead of just a few.”
The same applies here in Canada, and especially in Alberta, to the notion of a “just transition.” Given the recent report from the IPCC and the crucial importance of making forward progress on climate policy in Canada, we can’t afford any missteps.
And while the idea of a “just transition” might appeal to people in downtown Toronto, Vancouver, or Cortes Island, it’s far less attractive to Albertans whose lives and careers are going to be upended as fossil fuel production winds down, as it inevitably must. Rather than doubling down on potentially polarizing language, we should adopt words and ideas that bridge the divide and move as many people as possible down the road together.
And please, no more fake websites.