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Kenney says longtime activist's appointment as environment minister sends 'very problematic' message

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the federal government's choice of longtime environmental activist Steven Guilbeault for minister of environment and climate change Tuesday sends a "very problematic" message to the province.

Longtime environmental activist Steven Guilbeault gets prominent role in Trudeau's cabinet

Political science professor Duane Bratt says the appointment of long time environmental activist Stephen Guibeault sends a strong signal to Premier Jason Kenney. (Jason Franson, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the federal government's choice for minister of environment and climate change Tuesday sends a "very problematic" message to the province.

Longtime environmental activist and former heritage minister Steven Guilbeault will take on the prominent role in cabinet as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals attempt to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Quebec MP once worked as a senior member of Greenpeace and was arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower in an attempt to draw attention to climate change.

WATCH | Steven Guilbeault scaled CN Tower as Greenpeace activist in 2001:

Taking Greenpeace's message to the skies

20 years ago
3:14
Greenpeace scales Toronto's CN Tower in protest over the Kyoto Protocol. 3:14

Guilbeault has vocally opposed pipelines and also co-founded the environmental non-profit group Équiterre, which was cited as a participant in "anti-Alberta energy campaigns" in the United Conservative Party's controversial Allan Report. Guilbeault himself was mentioned in the report by name six times.

On Tuesday, Kenney expressed concern over his appointment as minister of environment and climate change. 

"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.

"But his own personal background and track record on these issues suggest somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist when it comes to finding solutions."

'Kenney's head is gonna explode'

Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary, put it more bluntly.

"Kenney's head is gonna explode," he said. "This is really a finger in the eye to everything that Kenney has done."

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

Justin Trudeau officially introduced Steven Guilbeault as the Liberal Party of Canada's candidate in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"I think Trudeau would have put him in that spot in 2019, except for the shellacking they took out in the Prairies," Bratt said.

Jonathan Wilkinson had the job but was shuffled on Tuesday to become minister of natural resources, which makes him another notable appointment for Alberta.

Kenney said Tuesday that Wilkinson's relationship with Alberta had been "constructive" during his tenure as environment minister.

"I think [he] understood that Alberta is a good faith partner in addressing the climate challenge, and I think broadly agreed with our effort," the premier said. 

Meanwhile, Bratt says Guilbeault could have his work cut out for him.

"If the job is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I think he could very well be effective. If it's about the politics around that, that's going to be a lot tougher for this man."

If the job is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I think he could very well be effective. If it's about the politics around that, that's going to be a lot tougher for this man.​​​​​​- Duane Bratt, political scientist with Mount Royal University

But when Guilbeault was running for the federal Liberals in 2019, the high-profile environmentalist said he was willing to be pragmatic about pipelines in the pursuit of better environment policy and explained why he felt comfortable running for the party, despite seeing the issue differently.

"I disagree with the pipeline," he told CBC News at the time about the Trans Mountain pipeline, which the Liberal government purchased in 2018. It approved its expansion the following year.

"But when I look at everything that the Liberal government has done over the past four years, in terms of fighting climate change, there's so much for me to rally around that, despite this point of disagreement, I've decided to go ahead."

UCP has tried to work with Ottawa, Kenney says

Kenney said Tuesday that since elected in 2019, the UCP has attempted to find a way forward with the federal government and tried to address the "urgent need" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while still growing Alberta's economy and responsibly developing its resources.

WATCH | Kenney outlines his concerns over the appointment:

Alberta's premier reacts to Canada's new federal environment minister

1 month ago
3:01
Jason Kenney says the longtime activist's appointment as environment minister sends a "very problematic" message. 3:01

"Despite our best efforts, we have constantly been surprised by ever-more ambitious federal targets and prejudicial policies, which seem to be directed at impeding Alberta's natural resource development, jobs and our economy," Kenney said.

But Bratt pointed out that Kenney's so-called Fight-Back Strategy has likely not endeared his government to anyone in Ottawa, nor has it done him many favours back in Alberta.

"The carbon tax, the War Room, the Allan Inquiry, buying [the Keystone XL pipeline] — they've all been self-punches to the face," Bratt said.

"I don't think Trudeau thinks he's got a lot of leverage right now," said Bratt.

He pointed to both the "massive unpopularity of the Kenney government" and the seats the Liberals managed to win in Alberta in the federal election.

Appointment comes days before UN climate conference 

Meanwhile, Alberta's energy industry seemed to be taking the appointment in stride.

The Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAEC), the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said they would continue working with the federal government. 

Tim McMillan, the president and CEO of CAPP, said it was incredibly important that industry, along with Guilbeault and Wilkinson, find common ground.

"Canadian producers share the aspiration of Canadians to find realistic and workable solutions to the challenge of climate change," he said. 

Bratt said environmental groups will likely be thrilled to see Guilbeault in the role.

The announcement comes just days ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow.

"[Trudeau is] gonna walk in with someone who got arrested and convicted over demonstrations to defend the environment," Bratt said. "That's pretty strong cred."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Kost

Online Journalist/Associate Producer

Hannah Kost is an award-winning journalist from Calgary, Alta. She joined the CBC in 2019 as an online journalist and associate producer.

With files from Colleen Underwood, Julia Wong and Catharine Tunney

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