Canada’s two kinds of environment ministers

Based on my experience of Canadian environment ministers (whatever the department is called at a given time), there are essentially two types. The rarer type is the genuine environmentalist who thinks they can get things done through the compromises of government. They’re true believers on climate change but rarely have much support from cabinet or the prime minister because what they want to do is not actually popular. Set in the abstract, people want to keep the climate stable and protect the planet. Give them the choice between that and something concrete, however, and you have the recipe for delay and misdirection which has been ongoing in Canada for 30+ years. I would say Stéphane Dion and Catherine McKenna are the clearest example of the genuine environmentalist set, and demonstrate how people with those priorities get sidelined. When you have no natural allies in cabinet because most of the other departments are pro-fossil (industry, transport, finance, natural resources, etc) the constraints of cabinet solidarity put ministers of this type in the position of unsuccessfully demanding the bare minimum behind closed doors, before defending inadequate plans to the public.

The other type of Canadian environment minister is the public relations spinmaster whose behaviour does not demonstrate any sincere concern about climate change, but simply the need to manage it as a PR issue. This is a much easier approach to the job since you can always just say nice things, avoid hard decisions, and cut dirty deals in the background. I feel like John Baird, Jim Prentice, Peter Kent, and Jonathan Wilkinson fall in this category. My father recently collected a set of letters on climate change for Minister Wilkinson (mine is here) and the experience illustrates how Wilkinson is a PR man for a government which in practice largely serves the same interests as the Harper Conservatives, but who work to maintain a false public and media narrative that they are bold environmental champions.

Part of the problem, surely, is that politicians have a hopelessly distorted understanding of the scale against which they should be judged. They give themselves kudos for being better than some of their electoral competitors, rather than comparing the scale of the efforts they propose against the scale of what needs to be done. The consequences are that the future becomes more dire for everyone, and that Canada will have an infrastructure and economic base poorly matched to what success in a post-fossil world will require.

12 thoughts on “Canada’s two kinds of environment ministers”

  1. I was quite surprised by Mr. Wilkinson’s self-congratulatory tone and his smiling belief that the Liberals have the right course to avert catastrophic climate change. A very slim tall man, one of the founders of Greenpeace, stood up and clearly stated that the catastrophe is already here. He did not get much of a response. The crowd was generally benign and were easily assuaged by Wilkinson’s relaxed and confident presentation. Not all of us felt that way.

  2. The flashiest, most 2015-like appointment on Tuesday was that of Steven Guilbeault, the celebrated environmental activist and Trudeau’s new minister of the environment. That move may be exciting for environmental groups and the voters who would like to see the government move aggressively against climate change. But in terms of getting things done, it’s also a gamble.

    For one thing, Guilbeault’s immediate predecessor — Jonathan Wilkinson — made steady progress on the government’s policy goals while proving to be a smart and practical, though unexciting, communicator. For another, Guilbeault was nothing like that while serving as heritage minister. The fight over his signature legislative initiative was particularly loud, messy and ultimately unsuccessful.

    Wilkinson is at least not going very far. As natural resources minister he could have a significant role to play in the government’s climate agenda, presumably including the Liberal commitment to legislate emissions limits for the oil and gas industry.

  3. “Kenney’s head is gonna explode,” he said. “This is really a finger in the eye to everything that Kenny has done.”

    According to Bratt, Guilbeault, who was a star recruit for the federal Liberals in 2019, desperately wanted to be the environment minister.

  4. ‘Multi-faith’ North Shore environmental group plans rally, dialogue with federal minister

    The event is being called “multi-faith” because most of the 30 invitees are from area churches and in one case a synagogue. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is running to keep his seat in the North Vancouver riding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *