Federal department says 'just transition' document refers to industry size, not job loss

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson speaks during Question Period, in Ottawa in a file photo from 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson speaks during Question Period, in Ottawa in a file photo from 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

On Monday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said she had a "pit in her stomach" after a federal document was written about by three Alberta columnists, who suggested the "just transition" would cost hundreds of thousands of Canadians their jobs.

Referencing the document again on Tuesday, Smith wrote on Twitter that the plan would "eliminate 2.7 million jobs."

But the federal government said that those numbers had been misinterpreted, and that the figures referred to the overall size of the workforce of various industries, not anticipated job losses.

"The federal government's approach to sustainable jobs is about creating jobs, not eliminating them," said Natural Resources Canada press secretary Keean Nembhard in an email.

The 81-page briefing document was addressed to the minister, who was appearing before a committee, discussing coming "just transition" legislation.

The federal government says the legislation is intended to "seize economic opportunities associated with" a low-carbon economy, while provincial officials argue it is code to shut down the oil and gas sector.

"It's worse than I feared. 'Just Transition' isn't about a transition at all … it's about eliminating entire sectors of our economy and hundreds of thousands of good Alberta jobs deemed too 'dirty' by elites in Ottawa," reads a statement from the premier's office sent to CBC News on Tuesday, attributed to Smith.

Columnists at three Postmedia publications were responding to an initial story from the Ottawa-based online news publication Blacklock's Reporter. "Energy jobs, about 202,000 workers gone," reads a Calgary column. "In Alberta, 187,000 jobs toast. Read that number again."

"If you're from Alberta, Saskatchewan or Newfoundland and Labrador, this plan might well strike you as madness," reads an Edmonton column.

The document is publicly available on the federal government's website. It consists of speaking points prepared for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in June 2022 before speaking to the Standing Committee on Natural Resources.

On page 68 of that document, a hypothetical question is posed: "What sectors and regions will be most affected by a transition to a low-carbon economy?"

The document states that "significant labour market disruptions" will take place across Canada as a part of the transition, including in agriculture, energy and transportation.

The memo then goes on to list various job numbers associated with each industry — for instance, 202,000 workers, or one per cent of Canada's employment, in the energy industry.

And though the premier attributed that figure as being the number of jobs lost, a press secretary with Natural Resources Canada said those numbers were included to provide a snapshot of the total number of people working in each industry.

"Those industries are identified because global economic shifts could affect them," he said.

READ | Page 68 of an 81-page briefing document, as referenced to by the Alberta premier and three Postmedia columnists: 

'Just transition' has become contentious in Alberta

The "just transition" legislation, which has yet to be released, was part of the Liberal Party's 2019 election platform.

But in recent weeks, provincial officials have increasingly taken issue with the branding of that legislation. Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage has called it "polarizing," pointing to its usage by climate organizations, and Smith has suggested it was little more than "social justice" language.

In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, the Pathways Alliance, a group representing 95 per cent of oilsands companies, said it shared that concern over the proposed name of the legislation, but added it was supportive of the government creating plans to "address the tens of thousands of skilled jobs needed in our country as the oil and gas and other sectors ramp up efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions."

Speaking to Alberta@Noon host Judy Aldous on Tuesday, Savage said the federal government was sending mixed messages, adding the Alberta government had "picked a lane" — attracting investment while reducing emissions.

"If we don't need to retrain, we're going to need a lot of workers for traditional oil and gas, because we want to be the most sustainable barrel," she said. "On top of that, we need additional workers for all the new and growing things."

Todd Korol/The Canadian Press
Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

In a subsequent interview on the same program, Andrew Leach, an energy and economics professor at the University of Alberta, said the overall effect of global economic forces and legislation in Ottawa will inevitably change the makeup of the province's key industry.

"[The challenge is] we may have lots of clean energy jobs, we're probably not going to have them in exactly the same places, for the same skill sets, for the same people, as we have for oil, gas, coal jobs we have today," he said.

The scope of various federal climate strategies have received criticism, and not only from those on the conservative side of the spectrum in Alberta.

On CBC's West of Centre podcast on Friday, Alberta's Opposition leader Rachel Notley said she didn't agree with the federal government's plan to reduce Canada's emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, nor federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's assertion such targets weren't aggressive enough.

"Both are wrong, and I've been very clear on that, and that has been my position and I will advocate that position with every tool and tactic that I can muster, should I be given the opportunity to do that job, because it's not practical," Notley said.

On Tuesday, Notley wrote on Twitter that she was also calling on the federal government to "put the brakes" on their sustainable jobs plan, as well as its emissions cap.

"We need real care and competence when it comes to Albertans' jobs," she wrote.

Canada's environment commissioner has also said the 2030 emissions targets are unrealistic, stating they rely too heavily on "unrealistic" assumptions about hydrogen use. The Alberta government has also strongly pushed back against the federal government's coming cap on oil and gas emissions — saying it would challenge it in court — asserting it would lead indirectly to a production cut.

Martin Olszynski, a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Calgary in the faculty of law, said there is global  agreement on the need to respond to climate change.

"What we're talking about here is just a policy response to that, right? And it won't be perfect. And I'm sure that a lot of people would like it to just go away, but it's not going to go away," he said.

"So we need to have a reasonable adult conversation about these things. And unfortunately, we're not having that right now."