Will Jonathan Wilkinson's gender give him an easier time in the environment ministry?

Jonathan Wilkinson probably can expect to have a much easier time in the environment portfolio than his predecessor did - because of who he is, not what he does.

Catherine McKenna's time in the post exposed her to abuse that focused on her sex, not her policies

Jonathan Wilkinson arrives for the cabinet swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On paper, Jonathan Wilkinson is the ideal person to front the Trudeau government's environmental agenda at this particular moment.

In practice, he might find it nearly as hard as his predecessor did.

"I think we have an opportunity in this minority Parliament to reset things," Wilkinson said in an interview with CBC News this week.

The new minister has the benefit of having lived and worked in the places where the Liberal agenda on the environment and energy is most fiercely contested.

He grew up in Saskatoon, attended the University of Saskatchewan, became an assistant and adviser to NDP Premier Roy Romanow and was part of the province's negotiating team during the Charlottetown Accord discussions. Before running for office as a Liberal in 2015, he was an executive in the clean tech sector. His Vancouver riding is across the harbour from the western terminal of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

His personality defaults to "dry." He identifies as a policy wonk. In question period, he has seemed wholly uninterested in partisan theatrics.

He is also not a woman.

Singled out

Catherine McKenna, Trudeau's environment minister for the first four years of his government, might have become a political lightning rod regardless of her gender. But as Shannon Proudfoot persuasively argued in Maclean's magazine, there are good reasons to believe that the venom directed at McKenna had something to do with the fact that she is a woman.

"I would love to say no," Wilkinson conceded this week when asked on CBC's As It Happens whether he might find the job easier because he's a man. "But I probably, in my heart-of-hearts, say yeah, maybe it is, in this context."

Wilkinson doesn't have to worry about showing up at his campaign office someday to find the word "c--t" spray-painted on its facade. Opponents of the government's agenda are unlikely to nickname him "Climate Barbie."

That said, it's not obvious that championing action on climate change is particularly easy for men. Just ask Stéphane Dion ... or Al Gore.

Staff discovered a vulgar word — which CBC News has blurred — painted across Catherine McKenna's campaign office Oct. 24, 2019. (David Richard/CBC)

That McKenna had become an unfortunate focal point for climate policy critics was confirmed shortly after October's election, when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney publicly called for Trudeau to replace her. Perhaps Kenney had some inkling that she was likely to be moved — or maybe he just wanted to make it harder for Trudeau to move her. Regardless, it's not clear that she said or did anything to justify being singled out.

Wilkinson should be hard to demonize. In fact, the Conservatives have already started to focus their attacks instead on the new natural resources minister, Seamus O'Regan. Both of them will also be backed up by Chrystia Freeland.

The climate agenda seems to be selling

For all the sound and fury that surrounds the discussion of climate and energy, the Liberals can reasonably claim to have made significant progress, both in terms of policy and public opinion.

In the last election, more than 60 per cent of voters cast a ballot for a party that supported putting a price on carbon. According to public polling, a majority of respondents both nationally and in British Columbia also support building the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Indeed, Wilkinson's own re-election suggests the Liberal agenda has some durability. When the Trudeau government first approved the Trans Mountain expansion, it was assumed by various pundits that ridings like Wilkinson's would be lost.

Instead, Wilkinson won North Vancouver by a margin of 10,000 votes.

But winning over the residents of North Vancouver was the easy part.

Acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was always going to be a challenge because it requires changes to the way we live. The Liberals have now been returned to office with a mandate to keep pushing change in order to reach even more ambitious targets.

Pushed by the Bloc, pulled by the NDP

What's more, to survive as a minority government the Liberals will need the support of either the Bloc Québécois or the NDP — two parties that no doubt will want to be seen pushing the Liberals to accelerate the pace of that change.

But in Canada, such change can easily become fuel for a national unity crisis.

October's election result presented that threat in stark terms — particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where action on climate change is viewed as an existential threat to livelihoods and where many people seem unwilling to believe that Justin Trudeau actually wants to build a pipeline.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, the Trudeau government's support for a pipeline is viewed with great suspicion.

Some in the province may have assumed that McKenna's replacement would be Quebec's Steven Guilbeault, the well-known environmentalist and rookie Liberal MP. But in the current context, it might have been dangerous for Trudeau to give the environment portfolio to a Quebecer with a long history of opposing pipeline development.

Maybe McKenna or Trudeau could have done more to limit these regional fractures. Trudeau's stray verbal gaffe about phasing out the oilsands during a town hall in 2017, for instance, opened a wound that not even $4.5 billion for the Trans Mountain project could heal.

But significant regional differences were always going to emerge whenever the federal government started to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We need to fight climate change, but we need to do it in a way that is sensitive to the concerns and aspirations of areas that have a significant impact associated with hydrocarbon production," Wilkinson said.

In one of her own interviews this week, McKenna mentioned that she left a letter behind for her successor with a few pieces of advice — among them, "have empathy."


October's result might cast the whole challenge in a new and more serious light — with the progressive enthusiasm for climate action being forced to reckon with the threat of fracture and the very real anxieties of many Canadians.

Regardless, opponents of climate action will not go quietly. And proponents of more dramatic action to reduce emissions will not stop demanding that Trudeau move further and faster.

Wilkinson's task might be to limit all sides' grounds for complaint. And he might be ideally suited to that task.

But he might also end up demonstrating just how difficult the job of environment minister has become — no matter who holds it.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.