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Steven Guibeault, co-founder of Equiterre, a non-profit and non-governmental organization.
Steven Guibeault, co-founder of Equiterre, a non-profit and non-governmental organization.

Jeffrey Simpson

Steven who? Steven Guilbeault. Remember the name Add to ...

Steven Guilbeault just turned 40, but what an impact he has already had in Quebec and, indeed, in environmental circles across Canada.

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the Rio environmental conference, he became the co-founder of Équiterre, a non-governmental organization that now has 5,000 contributors, and works with farm organizations, provincial and municipal governments and any other institution that want to improve the environment.

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Impeccably bilingual - the offspring of an Irish-Canadian mother and a French-Canadian father - Mr. Guilbeault coils immense energy into a small physical frame. He wrote a book last year, contributes a weekly column for the Metro newspaper and a syndicated column for 75 Quebec weeklies, served as the first president of the sustainable development committee of the chamber of commerce, was co-president of the Climate Action Network, appears regularly on television, continues to help run Équiterre and, oh yes, is raising four children.

Some day, but not now, Mr. Guilbeault will likely be in electoral politics. "I've been asked several times to run federally and provincially. I've never closed the door," he said. "But I have four kids, and I see the life politicians have. One day, certainly, I would be ready. It's difficult to say at which level of government."

Équiterre's offices are located in a nondescript converted warehouse in north-central Montreal. That's going to change dramatically next year when Équiterre joins other organizations in the new $30-million Maison du développement durable downtown on St. Catherine Street.

La Maison will be a stunning building - "we're trying to show how to do things differently," Mr. Guilbeault says - using very little water and recycled energy. Big Quebec companies such as Rona, Bell and Cascades contributed to its construction, as did the Quebec government. (Ottawa gave nothing.) Hydro-Québec donated the land for $1-a-year for 50 years.

Équiterre raises half its $3-million budget from members and projects, receives money from foundations and gets about 15 per cent of its income from governments. One nifty project involved helping Yellow Pages produces Green Pages. (Not surprisingly, given the Harper government's general attitude toward groups that criticize its policies, it has cut its funding to Équiterre since 2006.)

Anyone who knows Quebec understands the farm lobbies' clout. The pork and dairy lobbies, in particular, are immensely powerful, enough to make federal and provincial governments quake. Farmers think of themselves as traditional stewards of the land. But as the negative effects of certain of their practices become apparent - big phosphate runoffs into streams, rivers and lakes; methane emissions from cows - farmers are increasingly under the microscope.

Équiterre is working with farm groups to improve their practices. It's part of what Mr. Guilbeault describes as Équiterre's philosophy of working "on the ground" with groups. "The farmers are caught," he says. "They don't want to be stigmatized, but they know they have to change. And they are changing a little."

What pains Mr. Guilbeault most is the Harper government's indifferent attitude toward climate change, one of Équiterre's special interests. "It's sad to see what's happening," he says. "Even from an economic point of view, we're missing the boat. The petroleum industry represents maybe 5 per cent of Canada's economic output, and we're sacrificing the manufacturing sector for it, and missing green technologies that other countries such as South Korea are developing. … Essentially for ideological reasons, we are missing the boat."

China has become the world leader in the production of solar panels. The United States is making massive investments in renewable energy. "Canada," he says, "is essentially flat-lining."Yes, he agrees, climate change has lost some of its importance as a political issue in these turbulent economic times. But the environment still remains in the list of the top four matters of public concern, he notes.

While he argues that carbon emissions have to have a price, Mr. Guilbeault is agnostic about whether that price should come from a tax or a market formed by a cap-and-trade system. He notes correctly that most businesses, given a choice, would prefer a tax. Having seen the last federal election, where someone he admires, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, got shredded for proposing a carbon tax, Mr. Guilbeault concedes that "the idea of a tax is dead for a long period of time."

Like many environmental groups these days, Équiterre works actively with business. "The message about emissions has to be from more than environmentalists. We have to enlarge the tent and work with business." That's much easier done in Quebec than in other parts of Canada. The voices questioning the validity of the science of climate change barely exist in Quebec, unlike their stubborn presence in certain segments of the English-Canadian media and population.

With personal energy to burn, an impressive record of activism and practicality behind him, and with the ambition to make a difference, don't be surprised if, some day, you hear much more about Steven Guilbeault.

 

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