Saskatoon-raised Jonathan Wilkinson named federal environment minister, handed tricky carbon tax file

Saskatoon-raised Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson, a former advisor to Premier Roy Romanow and leader of the Saskatchewan Young New Democrats, has been named federal environment minister.

Wilkinson was first elected to the House of Commons in 2015, representing the riding of North Vancouver.

He previously held the position of minister of fisheries and oceans, and was parliamentary secretary to Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna.

Wilkinson received his B.A, from the University of Saskatchewan and was awarded the Prairie Rhodes Scholarship. He was a member of the civil service in Saskatchewan in the early 1990s before moving to a career in the private sector, including experience in the energy and environmental industries.

As the MP for North Vancouver, Wilkinson is familiar with the issues surrounding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, as well as Bill C-48 and Bill C-69 — both contentious in Saskatchewan. Premier Scott Moe has referred to them as the "oil tanker ban" and "no more pipelines" bills.

Balancing climate change, economics

Speaking to reporters following Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony, Wilkinson said the federal government is committed to reaching its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, while also being mindful of energy-reliant provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He said he will reach out to stakeholders in both provinces.

"The issue is one that relates to the hydrocarbon-producing regions of this country — how we address climate change in a way that addresses their legitimate economic concerns. That is something that we need to be thoughtful of."

Wilkinson mentioned his experience working in government in Saskatchewan and his 15 years in "clean tech" before entering politics.

He said there is common ground between energy-producing regions and government in finding a way to monetize "the energy value of hydrocarbons that is not carbon polluting."

Romanow calls Wilkinson 'extremely intelligent'

Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow called Trudeau's choice of Wilkinson "excellent."

"I am a very big fan of Jonathan Wilkinson. He is extremely intelligent. He's a Rhodes Scholar. He is a thoroughly competent and very trustworthy," said Romanow, who was Saskatchewan's premier from 1991 to 2001.

Romanow said Wilkinson played a key role in his office.

"He worked for me when I was premier and did an excellent job in advising with the rest of the team on constitutional matters, the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord being the best example."

The former premier said Wilkinson will have his hands full with his new "tough portfolio," navigating environmental concerns but also economic concerns of energy producing provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta.

"This is a major issue and it's a tough one to to balance," Romanow said.

Carbon tax key issue to navigate in Sask.

Wilkinson's file will also include contentious issues such as the carbon tax opposition in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

While two-thirds of Canadians voted for a party that supported a carbon tax, the story was reversed in Saskatchewan and Alberta. More than 60 per cent of voters in those two provinces chose the Conservatives, who promised to scrap the carbon tax if elected.

The Conservatives won 47 of 48 ridings in Alberta and Saskatchewan, shutting out the Liberals entirely.

The lack of Saskatchewan and Alberta representation in Trudeau's minority cabinet has been the subject of much speculation. Longtime Regina MP Ralph Goodale was defeated, ending a 26-year run in Ottawa. Goodale was an experienced voice in cabinet and was the de facto deputy prime minister.

All of Trudeau's ministers were re-elected except for Goodale and Edmonton MP Amarjeet Sohi.

Both Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have launched legal challenges of the constitutionality of the carbon tax. Saskatchewan's case is scheduled to be argued at the Supreme Court in March.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A week after the Liberals minority win, Moe sent a letter requesting a "new deal" with Canada, which included cancelling the carbon tax and a commitment to pipeline projects. The letter also asked for a one-year pause of the carbon tax and a re-evaluation of Saskatchewan's climate change plan.

One of Kenney's post-election requests was for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to be removed from the file. McKenna has been a target of criticism from both provincial premiers.

In a meeting last week, Moe and Trudeau held their positions on the carbon tax. Moe called the message from Trudeau "more of the same."

Cabinet about 'decisions,' not makeup: Moe

Moe said he was looking forward to getting to work with the new Trudeau cabinet, notably Chrystia Freeland, who was named deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs on Wednesday.

Moe said he had a positive relationship with Freeland following work on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement on trade.

He said hopes Freeland's new responsibilities are a signal of the importance the federal government places on relations between it and the provinces.

As far as the cabinet's makeup is concerned, Moe said the "who" is not as important as the "what."

"We've had representation from this province over the last four years in cabinet, and we've had some obvious vocal discrepancies with the direction and decisions of that particular cabinet," Moe said.

"It's not about who is sitting around the table — it's about the decisions they make."

Winnipeg MP Jim Carr was named special representative to the Prairies, although his specific duties and mandate are not yet clear.