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Environment, energy files get new ministers in cabinet shakeup ahead of COP26 summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sending a signal that combating climate change and transforming Canada's economy will fall to more than just one department in his government, say environmental groups.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sending a signal that combating climate change and transforming Canada's economy will fall to more than just one department in his government, say environmental groups.

Jonathan Wilkinson was shuffled from environment to natural resources in a cabinet shakeup Tuesday and Steven Guilbeault moved to environment after spending the last two years as minister of heritage.

Wilkinson, whose background before politics was as the CEO of multiple clean technology companies, will helm a department that has to oversee a transformation for Canada from an oil and gas country to a clean-tech economy, said Caroline Brouillette, director of domestic policy at Climate Action Network Canada.

Guilbeault, who helped found Equiterre during the very first United Nations climate conference in 1992 and was the director for Greenpeace in Quebec, will take on implementing a range of new climate promises including emissions caps on the oil and gas sector, tougher regulations for methane leaks and phasing out subsidies to fossil fuel companies by the end of next year. 

"I think that these nominations signal a shift toward a whole of government approach to climate action," said Brouillette.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday there are a number of good ministers now tasked with climate action and it is his plan to bring "the same focus and urgency we brought to the fight against COVID" to the climate crisis.

Guilbeault's credibility on the file, and his connections and networks in Canada and around the world, will serve him well, said Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart. But having a natural resources minister who spent the last two years crafting Canada's stronger climate plans is equally important in moving that department away from its history as the "ministry of oil," he said.

But it won't just be them, with climate policies also expected to be in mandate letters for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc, and Labour Minister Seamus O"Regan.

Guilbeault's appointment wasn't greeted warmly in Alberta. Known as an opponent to pipelines and expanding oil production, Guilbeault was also just recently named half a dozen times in the inquiry report on whether foreign money was used to target Alberta's industry. That included a reference to a 2008 op-ed he wrote referring to Alberta's crude as "dirty oil."

He wrote that with Marlo Raynalds, then the executive director of the Pembina Institute. Raynalds is now Guilbeault's chief of staff, having served that role for the last six years for both Wilkinson and former environment minister Catherine McKenna.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the appointment was "very problematic" for his province, and the security of hundreds of thousands of Alberta jobs.

"His own personal background and track record on these issues suggests somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist when it comes to finding solutions," Kenney said.

Guilbeault has less than a week to get used to the new job before he leaves for Scotland and the United Nations COP26 climate talks, which are a critical juncture for the Paris climate agreement.

Brouillette says Guilbeault won't take long to brief on the file and has probably attended more COP meetings than anyone else in the Canadian delegation — this will be his 19th according to Guilbeault himself.

Catherine Abreu, a member of the government's net-zero advisory body and executive director at Destination Zero, said Guilbeault adds some credibility to Canada's climate reputation at home and abroad, a reputation that has taken a beating in recent years as Canada hasn't yet lived up to the rhetoric of its climate promises.

Guilbeault's first years in cabinet were rocky, tasked as the minister of heritage with legislation to regulate social media companies in Canada, a job he couldn't get done when the bill he proposed was opposed heavily by other parties in the minority of House of Commons.

While there were some pundits wondering about the decision to give Guilbeault the reins to one of the biggest, most complex files, Abreu said the environment is Guilbeault's comfort zone.

"It does really seem that way, to me that it was much more about the subject matter than about his qualifications as the leader," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2021.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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