As an environmental activist, Steven Guilbeault has made headlines with dramatic stunts, but he’s also shown balance and restraint in criticizing governments for action and inaction.
Raised in the pulp & paper town of La Tuque, Guilbeault, 49, recalls being aware of how sulphur compound and nitrogen oxide emissions were poisoning the air. He also climbed a mature tree behind his house at age five in a bold but failed attempt to prevent it from being cut down as part of a residential development.
As an adult, he co-founded the environmental group Équiterre and made international news in 2001 when as a leader in Greenpeace Canada he scaled Toronto’s CN Tower with a fellow activist, unfurling the sign, “Canada and Bush, Climate Killers.” His goal was to focus attention on global warming as the UN Conference on Climate Change was about to start in Kyoto.
Yet when Quebec’s Liberal government in 2014 launched its plan to develop Quebec’s oil and gas potential, Guilbeault praised it as “very relevant” but added that it could be improved.
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He’s become something of a pragmatist but retains a radical side: On September 27 he’ll be joining thousands of Montrealers expected to participate in a massive “strike” for the environment.
It is that combination of critical thinking and measured responses that makes him an ideal prospect for mainstream politics, and Guilbeault says he was courted by all major parties at every level of government “except for the Conservatives” before agreeing to run for the federal Liberals in Laurier–Sainte-Marie in October.
The choice was not easy, for the party or the candidate, because Guilbeault opposes the Liberal purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and its planned expansion to carry tar sand bitumen from Alberta to the West Coast.
Nevertheless, Guilbeault is a star candidate, recruited by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the hope of winning back a riding the Liberals last held when the popular Jean-Claude Malépart was MP in 1988-90. Now covering eastern parts of The Plateau and Mile End, it then became the home riding of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, and for the last two elections, held by Hélène Laverdière of the New Democratic Party.
Given recent opinion surveys, if the Liberals are to get a second mandate, they must gain about ten seats in Quebec, and Laurier–Sainte-Marie is high on that list. It will not be an easy ride for Guilbeault. Opinion polls indicate it will be a tight race alternately leaning toward the Bloc Québécois or the NDP.
Guilbeault credits his record as an environmental activist for attracting support from non-traditional Liberals including Robert Perreault, the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and Montreal municipal politician, who will be in charge of volunteers, and Dylan Percival-Maxwell, the Green Party candidate in the riding in 2008, as well as several NDPers.
All are committed to protecting the environment and getting on with the job, Guilbeault says. “If progressive voters want the perfect party but they have no chance of implementing their program, how does that help us in Canada?”
Now the father of four, Guilbeault traces his involvement in the environmental movement to the presence of a highly polluting industry in the centre of his hometown, and the emergence of the movement while he was at Université de Montréal.
“We decided to get together and do something about it. Équiterre became the largest environmental organization in Quebec, and it has been very effective.
“We need a strong activist community, companies willing to play their part, but we also need politicians who understand those
issues and are willing to go to bat for them,” Guilbeault says.
“It’s time for me to try to change things in the political arena. The advantage of being in Ottawa is that the policies and regulations adopted there will have an impact on all Canadians,” he said, pointing to measures the Liberals introduced to boost the income of seniors and low-income families.
He believes in Trudeau’s leadership noting they established a friendship shortly after he was first elected as an MP in Papineau riding
and became the Liberal environment critic. “We started seeing each other and we’ve kept in touch. We have gone out for beers together. He is someone for whom I have lots of admiration and respect.”
Asked to compare the major parties’ environmental policies, Guilbeault had a measured response: “Of the four major national parties, three are in favour of putting a price on pollution, investing more in transit, electrification, more efficient buildings, and there is one party – the Conservatives – that does not want to do any of this.
As for the pledge to phase out federal aid and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, Guilbeault says the total is way down from a high of $3.7 billion to “the hundreds of millions. I think we should remove them all, and that is the view of out party since 2015.”
But here again he takes a balanced view: “I would be in favour of helping these guys to become less polluting – with the proviso that they deliver. I am not in favour of giving them money to explore for more oil or increase production.”
As for the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, Guilbeault says he thought about it long and hard, and disagrees. If the Conservatives win, at risk are $30 billion for mass transit improvements and $20 billion for green infrastructure, he argued.
As for calls to leave tar sand oil in the ground until such time as it can be refined without huge environmental impact, Guilbeault says: “The age of oil won’t come to an end because we are running out of oil. Worldwide we’re investing more yearly in solar, wind, and other clean and renewable technologies than we are in oil, coal, and natural gas. The challenge for Canada
is how do we make that transition? How do we take care of those people who have worked really hard all their lives in this sector?
“The Trudeau government is committed to bringing our greenhouse gas emissions close to zero by 2050, and if we are to do that it is hard to see how we can also have massive oil production. How do we get from where we are now to where we want to go? That’s the hundred-dollar question, and I think there are a number of answers.
“We have to be more careful about what we consume and how we consume it.” He mentioned a US department of energy study that found the rapid adoption of LED (light emitting diode) light bulbs would save $265 billion over 20 years, help eliminate the need to build 40 new power plants and save hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
We should all be concerned about the environment and Guilbeault urges everyone to get involved with their community organizations, put pressure on political representatives.
“On Oct. 21 vote for a party that cares about the environment and has a chance of implementing changes that are needed.”