Throne speech climate plans set off opposition storm

·6 min read

Opposition parties were ready to pounce after Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon read the throne speech in English, French, and Inuktitut to officially open Canada’s 44th Parliament on Tuesday, criticizing the Liberals for a lack of clear priorities.

The speech acknowledged “our Earth is in danger” and outlined main objectives for the new government, including growing the economy, fighting climate change, “moving forward” on reconciliation, and ensuring communities are safe, healthy, and inclusive.

On the climate front, there were specific references to creating the Canada Water Agency to manage rivers, lakes, and other freshwater priorities and developing the country’s first national adaptation strategy, along with echoes of campaign promises to address biodiversity loss, cap oil and gas emissions, slap a price on pollution, and mandate zero-emission vehicle sales.

If a throne speech can be seen as outlining the minority government’s priorities, the reaction from opposition leaders is a preview of how the legislative session could go.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the speech didn’t sound like that of a government willing to co-operate, and emphasized the governing Liberals should not take NDP support for granted if it wants to pass legislation. Singh also criticized the speech for lacking clarity on the Liberals’ priorities, saying it leaves him and Canadians wondering what the government’s “real” goals are.

“A throne speech is supposed to lay out ambition, and of course I'm not faulting the lack of detail. That's not something we expect in a throne speech, but we do expect an idea of where this government is going,” Singh said.

“This throne speech doesn't respond to some of the most important, easy first steps like ending fossil fuel subsidies,” he said, calling them “subsidies that are incentivizing fossil fuels, instead of going towards helping to incentivize renewable energies.”

Canada takes the carbon crown among its G20 peers for providing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. A recent analysis from Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth U.S. found that from 2018 to 2020, Canada gave at least $13.6 billion to the oil and gas sector, representing nearly 20 per cent of the G20 total. A report from Environmental Defence earlier this year calculated at least $18 billion given to the fossil fuel sector in 2020 alone.

At COP26, Canada committed to end public financing for unabated fossil fuel projects overseas as part of an agreement developed by the United Kingdom. That agreement builds on a G20 commitment to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 — a deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised would jump to 2023 during the federal election campaign.

Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May told Canada’s National Observer that given the cascading climate disasters unfolding in British Columbia, it should be clear “that incremental measures aren’t good enough.”

The throne speech was “a repetition of election promises, which themselves were completely inadequate as presented at COP26,” she said.

While the speech had some reference to “investing in public transit,” May questioned why there wasn’t a specific plank for a national transportation strategy. Such a strategy has been discussed for years while companies like Greyhound axe increasingly unprofitable transit routes.

“I know that the Minister of Transportation Omar Alghabra has been in touch with all the provincial governments to talk about the need for a national transportation strategy that deals as well with bus, rail, and ground transportation,” May said.

May added that connecting rural and remote parts of the country with safe transit to reduce hitchhiking would make people, particularly Indigenous women and girls, safer. Safe, reliable transit has been a key recommendation for years, repeated again in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry report.

May also said given the urgency of the climate crisis, and the country’s commitments at COP26, Trudeau should look to transform the Trans Mountain corporation to an agency that could help brace for extreme weather.

“What I would’ve loved to see ... is to say we as a government are able to deploy massive resources immediately for the reconstruction of highways, protection of critical infrastructure, and adaptation work, because the Crown corporation called Trans Mountain is now redeployed,” May said.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet described the throne speech as being too vague to justify calling an “urgent” election. When asked if his party would vote to support the throne speech, he said “supporting might not be the best word.”

“We will live with this empty piece of paper, gently read in three languages,” he said.

Meanwhile, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole doubled down on his party’s commitment to fossil fuels and economic growth, saying there would be a “relentless” focus on economic recovery “in every sector of the economy, (and) in every region of this country.”

“Justin Trudeau and his new environment minister want to deny the energy sector the opportunity to supply the world with ethical, emissions-lowering Canadian energy at a time that it is most desperately needed,” he said, adding: “They'd rather ship crude oil up the St. Lawrence from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela than ensure a worker in Edmonton or a First Nation community can provide for their families.”

In fact, Alberta’s oilsands, which host the vast majority of Canada’s oil, are some of the most carbon-intensive crudes on the continent, and in world-leading forecasts that project oil demand to decline in every scenario, experts expect Alberta’s oil industry to be one of the first hit in the transition given its marginal position in the market and its high cost of breaking even.

The fact the transition off fossil fuels is already happening means Trudeau missed an opportunity to make curbing fossil fuel production and implementing just transition legislation for affected workers a core element of the speech, said climate advocacy group 350 Canada campaigns director Amara Possian.

“It's one of the most important pieces of legislation that we need, and which they promised would happen, and there wasn't any mention,” she said.

On Monday, 350 organized a rally outside the PMO demanding action on just transition legislation. In July, Natural Resources Canada launched a consultation that was later extended, as industry, climate groups, and individuals compete for influence. A recent poll from Abacus Data, commissioned by Stand.earth, found two-thirds of Canadians support Ottawa introducing just transition legislation.

“Time is running out, and (just transition legislation) is the first step,” Possian said.

“We have to start by keeping fossil fuels underground, and ensuring that communities that are impacted by that transition are taken care of.”

West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) said the flooding crisis in B.C. has emphasized the urgent need for climate action.

“As the Governor General stated, now is the time to move talk into action — from making real progress on reconciliation, to meeting Canada’s climate targets,” said WCEL executive director Jessica Clogg in a statement.

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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