Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault at a meeting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 1, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is playing an increasingly prominent role on environmental files, meeting with groups such as Greenpeace and helping to sell the Liberal government’s oil-and-gas policies to members of the environmental movement.

As a longtime environmental activist, Mr. Guilbeault was a star recruit when he ran for the Liberals in Montreal last year. But his appointment as minister in charge of Canada’s cultural and sporting sectors in November disappointed many environmentalists because the position did not provide him with a direct role on issues such as climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the federal government to readjust its priorities, leading Mr. Guilbeault to take a greater role in environmental matters, according to government officials and environmental activists. The move is raising expectations in the environmental movement, with prominent activists saying there is now greater pressure on Mr. Guilbeault and the rest of the Liberal government to deliver stronger action on climate change in the coming recovery spending.

Government sources said Mr. Guilbeault was part of a strategy overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office to develop and explain Ottawa’s plan to spend $1.7-billion to clean up abandoned oil-and-gas wells and $750-million to reduce methane emissions. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement on April 17, Mr. Guilbeault called at least four environmental groups to explain the policy and how it was part of the government’s focus on jobs and climate change, sources in government and environmental groups said.

Sources in Quebec’s environmental movement added they have grown to rely on Mr. Guilbeault and his office for information on Ottawa’s environmental policies and for specific details on programs such as the cleanup of the oil-and-gas wells.

In addition, the sources said Mr. Guilbeault has advised some of his former colleagues in the environmental movement on the best way to get the Trudeau government to take strong actions on climate change. According to the sources, Mr. Guilbeault urged them to focus on positive measures – such as the need to transition toward renewable sources of energy – rather than attacking the Alberta government or the oil industry for their pro-development policies.

Senior government officials confirmed Mr. Guilbeault’s regular interactions with environmental activists, as well as his long-standing strategy in favour of constructive dialogue between governments and civil society as the best way to enact long-term change.

While some environmentalists spoke on the record for this story, others were granted confidentiality to allow them to provide greater details on their private interactions with Mr. Guilbeault and his office. Government officials were granted confidentiality because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

Mr. Guilbeault’s focus on the environmental front stems in part from his role in a small group of ministers who are helping to develop postpandemic programs and a “green recovery” effort. Mr. Guilbeault and other ministers held a private workshop last week with private-sector consultants to start developing proposals to boost the Canadian economy after the public-health emergency is over.

It is in that context that Mr. Guilbeault met with officials from Greenpeace Canada last week, and with a large coalition of mostly environmental and social groups on Tuesday, the sources said.

Officials said Mr. Guilbeault continues to dedicate a majority of his time to his Heritage portfolio, but confirmed that he is putting his knowledge of environmental issues to growing use.

Mr. Guilbeault did not agree to an interview request, but provided a statement in which he said the pandemic has forced the country to start rethinking its approach "on the health, safety and social sides, but also on our production and consumption systems, the way we design our living spaces, move around and much more.”

“Although the current crisis is our main focus, we can't forget about the future and the other crisis, the climate one,” he said.

Mr. Guilbeault’s work on the recovery is done in collaboration with Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. “Ministers work collaboratively on many files, and Minister Wilkinson and Minister Guilbeault frequently talk with each other on a range of issues,” said Moira Kelly, a spokeswoman for Mr. Wilkinson.

Mr. Guilbeault, who climbed the CN Tower in 2001 to denounce government inaction on climate change, has long been a fixture in Canada’s environmental movement. While some felt he was getting too close to various governments before entering politics, there is general agreement in the movement that he is well-versed in the intricacies of climate change and adept at forging a consensus among divergent interests.

Mr. Guilbeault joined the Liberals even though he was against their decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, arguing that Mr. Trudeau was the best choice to deliver a coherent climate-change policy in government. During the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals promised to surpass their 2030 targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reaching net-zero by 2050, although they did not provide details on how to get there.

Many environmentalists are happy with Mr. Guilbeault’s growing involvement on this file in recent weeks, but remain worried the government will not take the necessary steps to put an end to the development of the oil sands.

“We will judge him on the basis of what he actually achieves,” said Laure Waridel, who co-founded an environmental group called Equiterre with Mr. Guilbeault in 1993.

Greenpeace Canada’s Patrick Bonin, who met with Mr. Guilbeault last week to discuss plans for a “green and just recovery,” said he remains skeptical about the Liberal government’s ability to live up to its promises.

“Steven Guilbeault was used during the last campaign to allow the government to position itself as being green,” Mr. Bonin said. “We certainly hope that he won’t be used again to give the impression that the government is green while failing to fundamentally change its policies and miss its 2030 targets.”

Dominic Champagne, a Quebec artist who is leading a grassroots campaign to push governments to tackle climate change, said he wants Ottawa to listen to scientific advice on climate change in the same way it listened to public-health officials on COVID-19.

“Steven Guilbeault has made a bet that he can achieve more progress in government than he could as an activist,” Mr. Champagne said. “For now, we are still looking for proof that he is right.”

The Conservatives, on the other hand, criticized the possibility that the recovery effort could be used as an excuse to shut down the production of oil and gas in Canada.

“Shovel-ready oil and gas projects could lead Canada’s economic recovery if there are actions, not just words, from this Liberal Government,” said Shannon Stubbs, the Conservatives’ natural resources critic. "The Liberals’ death-by-delay tactics are doing exactly what foreign activists in other countries want: to shut down Canada’s oil.”

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.