Radical or pragmatist? Either way, Steven Guilbeault has his work cut out

What's so scary about Steven Guilbeault? Out of all the cabinet picks Justin Trudeau announced this week, Guilbeault's appointment as environment minister has inspired the most expressions of concern.

The former Greenpeace activist may find that the hardest people to please are his old allies

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks during a news conference Tuesday, October 26, 2021 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

What's so scary about Steven Guilbeault?

Out of all the cabinet picks Justin Trudeau announced this week, Guilbeault's appointment as environment minister has inspired the most expressions of concern.

There are fair questions to ask about how well the celebrated environmentalist will handle such a pivotal role. The threat posed by climate change is probably still scarier.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said that Guilbeault, a former campaigner with Greenpeace and Equiterre, was an "activist" — specifically, "an activist without an approach to uniting people."

Guilbeault was asked in a phone interview whether "activist" is a label he needs to shake off. "Absolutely not," he replied.

"I am a climate activist. I have been for 30 years," he said Thursday. "Obviously, I have a different role now than when I was in the environmental movement. But my desire, my motivation to come into politics was to work on the fight against climate change. And that continues to be what motivates me to be here."

Then-Greenpeace activists Steven Guilbeault, right, 31, and Chris Holden, 23, are led by officials from the CN Tower in Toronto on July 16, 2001. Guilbeault and Holden scaled 346 metres (1,136 ft.) to protest Canada's role in changing the world's climate. (Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press)

Within hours of Guilbeault swearing the oath at Rideau Hall, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney depicted his appointment as a grave threat to the province. A columnist for the National Post wondered how "dangerous" Guilbeault might be, while the Calgary Herald's Don Braid recalled how Guilbeault scaled the house of former premier Ralph Klein and installed solar panels on his roof without permission.

Two columns in the Globe and Mail suggested that Guilbeault's appointment might herald something like the infamous National Energy Program of the 1980s.

'Not radical enough'

What all these commentaries failed to mention was that, thirteen years after his prank on Klein, Guilbeault was among the activists who stood on stage, alongside major oil company executives, to support Alberta's then-premier Rachel Notley as she unveiled an ambitious new climate policy for the province.

"I think if people look at my track record as an environmentalist on this file, they will see that I have worked with industry. I have worked with many different governments across the country," Guilbeault said. "And interestingly enough, at the time [of Notley's announcement], I was criticized by some environmentalists as not being hardcore enough regarding that plan.

"For some, I'm a radical. And for others, I'm not radical enough."

Despite his support for Notley, Guilbeault maintained his opposition to new pipeline construction. That opposition didn't prevent Guilbeault from joining the Liberal government in 2019, just a year after that same government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and agreed to pay for its expansion.

WATCH: Steven Guilbeault reacts to criticism of his past as an activist

Environment minister reacts to criticism of his past as a climate activist

1 year ago
Duration 10:39
Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault tells Power & Politics he is proud of his past activism, adding it's necessary to keep governments' feet to the fire.

"I think that there are a great many people in Alberta and elsewhere in the country that care about climate change. And I think that there are lots of people … that recognize that there are many opportunities presented by this transformation we're going through," Guilbeault said this week.

"And frankly, this transformation is happening around the world, whether or not we want it. The question is how do we ensure that in this transformation, no one is left behind."

A pragmatist in power

Change is scary. But what's ironic about the portrayal this week of Guilbeault as a zealot is that his reputation among environmentalists is actually that of a pragmatist.

"Like every movement, the Quebec climate movement unites groups with different theories of change," said Caroline Brouillette, national policy manager at the Climate Action Network and a former analyst at Equiterre.

"To simplify, there's a segment that is more confrontational in its demands and a segment that favoured dialogue with the government. Steven belonged to the second group."

Dan Woynillowicz, a former director at the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada, compares Guilbeault to a smart quarterback who wants to get his team down the field but doesn't try to do so by only throwing risky passes.

Even if Guilbeault doesn't match the caricature presented by his loudest critics, there are still reasons to wonder how he'll do as environment minister.

Guilbeault had a bumpy ride as heritage minister. And the Liberal Party's platform commitments mean he will have to engage directly with Alberta's oil and gas industry — to set new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from the sector and to phase out federal subsidies for the industry by 2023.

'I never get everything I want'

Guilbeault points out that Canada's previous vow to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 actually dates back to 2009, when Stephen Harper was prime minister. But he also stands by the Liberal government's position that eliminating such subsidies does not mean withholding federal support meant to help the industry lower emissions — a point on which Guilbeault might find himself offside with some in the environmental movement.

"Frankly, I've had conversations with some [environmentalists] already, and this is something we'll have to agree to disagree [on] because I don't think we should abandon those sectors," Guilbeault said.

Notwithstanding the concerns voiced by many on the right this week, it's very possible that Guilbeault will have a harder time pleasing his old friends on the left — and face more withering attacks if he doesn't. The government is gambling that it will be able to do enough to maintain Guilbeault's credibility while also not damaging itself on other fronts.

WATCH: Guilbeault and Wilkinson discuss priorities for their departments

"[Over the last two years], we've made lots of incredible, amazing decisions to move the fight against climate change … but not everything was necessarily what I would have wished," he said.

"But I mean, I'm a father of four kids. I never get everything I want with my kids at home. There's no reason to believe that in a society of several tens of millions of people, as a government, it [shouldn't] be the same."

Guilbeault said his experience as an activist will serve him well in cabinet because the best ministers push for their projects and don't take no for an answer, even if they know they can't win every battle.

Some would argue it's possible for a cabinet minister to be too close to the issue they're charged with managing — that a certain distance makes for better judgment or easier politics. Guilbeault said he's heard that argument before but doubts it's ever raised when someone from the private sector becomes finance minister.

There are obvious optics elements to Guilbeault's appointment. Trudeau wants to be seen as credible and ambitious on climate change — there are few Canadian environmentalists more credible or celebrated than Guilbeault. By the same token, Liberals can't entirely dismiss attempts by Kenney and O'Toole to turn Guilbeault into a political foil.

Polling released this week by Abacus Data suggests that Canadians' desire for climate action has actually increased over the last six years. That still doesn't give governments permission to act or speak carelessly.

But for reasons both political and practical, there's something to be said right now for moving as ambitiously as possible against the very real threat of climate change.

Guilbeault's success or failure remains to be seen. But for all Canadians, the scariest threat on the horizon is still climate change itself.


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.

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