New environment minister downplays questions about past activism, says he has no 'secret agenda'

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Oct. 27, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Oct. 27, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's new environment minister says his past as an activist should not raise alarms in the energy industry or the office of Alberta's premier.

"I don't have a secret agenda as environment minister," Steven Guilbeault said today after the first meeting in Ottawa of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet. "It's a government effort to tackle … what many consider one of humanity's greatest challenges, which is climate change."

Guilbeault said the government's plan to fight climate change is "very clear" and most of it — such as carbon pricing and the push for more public transit and cleaner energy sources — is "already known."

The Trudeau government has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Watch: Guilbeault says he has no secret agenda

Before entering electoral politics in 2019, the Quebec MP co-founded Équiterre, a Quebec-based environmental organization, and was the director of a provincial chapter of Greenpeace. He spoke out against pipeline projects, including the Trans Mountain expansion.

Guilbeault also took part in stunts to draw attention to environmental causes.

In 2001, Guilbeault was arrested after scaling Toronto's CN Tower to raise awareness of climate change. In 2002, he was involved in a Greenpeace stunt that saw activists climb onto the roof of then Alberta premier Ralph Klein's house to install solar panels.

Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press
Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that Guilbeault's appointment to the environment portfolio sends a "very problematic message" to the province.

"I certainly hope that [Guilbeault] … will quickly demonstrate to Alberta, and other resource-producing provinces, a desire to work together constructively on practical solutions that don't end up killing hundreds of thousands of jobs," Kenney said.

Asked about Kenney's comments, Guilbeault said oil companies already recognize that more needs to be done to tackle climate change and that many already have agreed to hit net-zero emissions by 2050. He also noted that the new mayor of Calgary, Jyoti Gondek, wants the city to declare a climate emergency.

Canadians made it clear in the recent federal election campaign that they want "not just the federal government but all governments to do more" to address climate change, he said.

Guilbeault added that he is "disappointed" Kenney will not be in Glasgow, Scotland next week for the COP26 climate summit, noting that other premiers are attending.

"I would be happy to sit down with Premier Kenney and with other provincial premiers and environment ministers to talk about how we can work together in the fight against climate change," he said.

Guilbeault served as heritage minister in the last Parliament. His predecessor as environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, was moved to Natural Resources this week.

Wilkinson told reporters that Guilbeault has shown himself to be a "very pragmatic and thoughtful fellow" around the cabinet table.

'We're not trying to cap production' — Guilbeault

"I think that perhaps Mr. Kenney needs to dial down the rhetoric a little bit and sit down with Minister Guilbeault and have a conversation with him," he said.

Guilbeault and Wilkinson are expected to work in tandem to accomplish the Liberal campaign promise of capping greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Wilkinson said the government will keep doing "what the science tells us we need to do" by reducing emissions, but will do so in a way that promotes economic opportunity for all regions.

"We're not trying to cap production. We will be capping the amount of pollution that comes from those sectors," Guilbeault said.

In a statement issued after the new cabinet was unveiled Tuesday, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole accused Trudeau of appointing a group of "largely inexperienced and ideologically driven individuals" who he said pose a risk to "national unity."

Just eight of the new ministers named this week had not previously served in cabinet and only one of the new members is a first-time MP.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, meanwhile, wasted little time in sharing a photo of Guilbeault's 2001 arrest and branding him a "looney-left environment minister."

New minister will 'create further division,' O'Toole says

O'Toole said Wednesday that Guilbeault was an inappropriate pick for the environment portfolio because he is "out of balance" when it comes to growing the economy, supporting the resource sector and cutting emissions.

He accused Guilbeault of being "against everything, ideologically opposed to ... large portions" of the Canadian economy.

"I think it was one example of an approach that is going to create further division in this country at a time we don't need it," he said.

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