Ottawa has unveiled legislation that it’s hoping will steer national work-force strategies, to meet the labour needs and challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, for decades to come.
But the first test for the new Sustainable Jobs Act, before it even becomes law, will be whether it gets some acceptance from Alberta and Saskatchewan. That’s where its development, under the federal government’s initial branding as a “just-transition” strategy, has been painted as an aggressive attempt to take jobs away from the oil-and-gas sector.
“I think this is something that shouldn’t be controversial,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in an interview on Thursday, shortly after he tabled the bill in the House of Commons. “And I’m hoping that it will not be.”
The contents of the legislation seem to justify that hope, absent the context of the politics that have surrounded it.
If passed, it would not actually put in place any new labour or industrial policies yet. Instead, it would merely set a requirement that Ottawa present a plan every five years (starting in 2025) for aligning the work force with the push toward net-zero emissions, in terms of both job creation and helping workers and communities adjust to that shift.
It would establish a secretariat within the government to help develop and implement those plans, as well as an advisory council – made up of 15 people from outside government – to provide guidance on them. And that’s about it, for now.
It includes a few small concessions to the New Democratic Party, whose support should effectively guarantee its passage, most notably the provision that one of the advisory council’s two co-chairs will come from organized labour. (The other co-chair will be from industry.)
It does not include any specific requirements that Indigenous leaders or communities be part of the process, which quickly earned it criticism from several First Nations and from some environmental organizations.
As Mr. Wilkinson noted, it is essentially a companion piece to the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, which Parliament passed two years ago. That legislation requires the government to lay out emissions-reduction plans that may actually be disruptive to existing industries. This one is more about accountability for the government in helping people adjust to the disruption – which will happen to a significant extent because of the international push to confront climate change, regardless of Canadian government policies.
If anything, it could fairly be criticized for being somewhat late and a little modest in laying the groundwork, at a time when other jurisdictions – the European Union being one of the prime examples – are further along in laying out policies and spending commitments to address skilled-labour shortages for emerging clean industries and to try to support workers from legacy industries.
Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged that the perception up until now that it would be something more radical was partly of the government’s making, because of the way it used the “just-transition” terminology for the past few years, as it vaguely promised a plan for workers without specifying what it actually had in mind.
Having grown up in Saskatchewan, Mr. Wilkinson said, he understands why that jargon evoked fears of a forced shutdown of the fossil-fuel sector.
He’s counting on the switch in language to help lower the temperature, arguing that he considers even some oil-and-gas jobs to be sustainable. That is among the points he will make to Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who has done as much as any politician to raise concerns about Ottawa’s plans, when he visits Alberta next week.
Assuaging Ms. Smith may be a tall task, because of other federal policies under development that have fuelled Alberta’s suspicions. That especially includes a proposed cap on emissions from the oil-and-gas sector, which Ottawa is aiming to introduce before the end of this year, and which absent dramatic improvements to the industry’s environmental performance could lead to production cuts and some of the feared job losses.
Regardless of how the conversations with Ms. Smith and others go, Ottawa will feel the pressure – including from the NDP and organized labour – to get the legislation passed swiftly, and then turn its focus to its actual sustainable jobs policies.
An indication of what those will entail was provided by an interim strategy – before the full one the new law will require by 2025 – that the government released earlier this year.
It includes measures such as working with each province (through regional working groups that Mr. Wilkinson has been setting up to address clean-energy opportunities more broadly) to identify specific labour-policy needs, setting up a national Sustainable Jobs Training Centre and new streams of federal skills funding.
It also promises the implementation of measures to support Indigenous ownership, partnerships and jobs in clean-energy projects.
Perhaps most tellingly, in terms of the current state of planning, it commits to improving the collection and analysis of labour-market data – something the government recognizes as a current shortcoming, impeding the ability to develop policies to help align skills with clean-industry jobs.
That sort of information, instructive about everything from retraining programs for people currently in the work force to immigration needs, is relevant to industrial shifts nationwide.
In the interview, Mr. Wilkinson cited the buildings sector, which will need qualified workers to provide energy retrofits to millions of buildings across the country, as one such example. The transition of the Ontario-centred auto sector toward making electric vehicles is another.
But as evidenced by where Mr. Wilkinson is headed next week, it’s clear where reaction to the bill that is supposed to hold current and future governments accountable for doing all this will be watched most closely, and where buy-in would help most to set it all in motion.