Montreal

CAQ takes 'pragmatic' green turn at 1st general meeting since election

Hundreds of CAQ party faithful gathered in Montreal Saturday morning for a weekend of talks on how the government should position itself when it comes to developing energy projects in Quebec.

Premier says economy and environment need to be developed hand in hand

Premier François Legault mingled with party members at the Coalition Avenir Québec's first general council meeting since the 2018 election. (Radio-Canada)

The Coalition Avenir Québec pulled out all the stops to present a green face to party members gathered at its first general council meeting in Montreal on Saturday — with carbon offsets for travel and non-disposable cutlery.

Absent from most of the CAQ's electoral campaign, the environment was chosen as the main talking point for the party's first council meeting since its majority election win last October.

Premier François Legault said the CAQ is ready to take on the challenge of developing a greener economy — but not at any cost.

"There are 1,200 people here this morning to talk about the environment. Of course we're going to do it our way, pragmatically, to reconcile environment and the economy," Legault said Saturday morning.

Several environmentalists were invited to the meeting to help launch discussions surrounding renewable energy projects.

"I'm very open to listening to citizens and to pressure groups, but the CAQ is not at their service, it is at the service of all Quebec citizens," Legault warned.

Mixed feelings among the party faithful

Not everyone was pleased with the meeting's green agenda. One party member took his turn at the microphone during a session to decry "opening the door to ecological propaganda."

But later on, another member said he was taking part of his time at the microphone to ask the climate sceptics to bite their tongues.

"Climate scepticism is really outside the debate," he said, and warned their opinions would make the proceedings fodder for Infoman, a French-language satire program on Radio-Canada. 

CAQ member Marie-Ève Bouchard, left, with fellow member Éric Corriveau, says the party's desire to be a pro-environment party is genuine. (Cathy Senay/CBC)

Marie-Ève Bouchard, a party supporter for several years, said people she works with believe the CAQ is talking about the environment as a trick to improve their image, "but they don't really think they're going to change."

But Bouchard herself believes the CAQ's desire to be a pro-environment party is genuine. 

"I'm really satisfied that they're talking about this," she said. "But now they have to convince people with action — [and] I'm sure they will do it."

'Nothing wrong with hope'

Among the key speakers invited on stage was Dominic Champagne, the instigator of the Pacte pour la transition — launched in November 2018 to encourage Quebecers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The petition has garnered more than 278,000 signatures so far.

Despite his dissatisfaction with the CAQ's track record, Champagne said "there was nothing wrong with hope," and considered the meeting to be "a step in the right direction."

"We've seen an important mobilization in Quebec society since the last elections and I see this is a sign that the government was listening," Champagne said before the first plenary session.

Environmental activist Dominic Champagne responds to reporters on climate change as Liberal MNA Marie Montpetit, left, looks on, Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

It didn't take long, however, before their differing views came to the surface.

Legault explained his government was not ready to rule out a proposed $9-billion project to pipe natural gas from Northern Ontario to the Saguenay region, where it would be liquefied and shipped through the Saguenay Fjord, on its way to Europe.

"The project would export gas toward Europe to replace coal, so when we look at the overall impact on the planet it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Legault said.

Champagne, on the other hand, said Quebecers were more mobilized than ever, and would not allow this project to go through.

"The CAQ says there could be social acceptability for this project, but that's not true," Champagne said.

"I can tell you — it's not going to happen."

'Pragmatic approach'

Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said there were several other files he hopes to see move forward, including an overhaul of Quebec's bottle-refund policy.

"The program hasn't been renewed in the past 30 years, it's pretty much arrived at the end of its life cycle," said Charette, who has discussed the possibility of widening the program to include wine bottles, for example.

He said he believes Quebecers are more receptive to that kind of "concrete measures" than to overarching statements or policies.

"We didn't focus on environment during the last campaign but we had many interesting things in our program," said Charette.

The general council meeting wraps up in Montreal Sunday.

With files from Cathy Senay

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