Hold onto your hat. Three weeks after Canadians elected a new government, we may be entering the biggest moment of opportunity this country has seen in a generation.
Over the last six days, Ottawa has been seized with a sense of excitement, hope, and possibility, following the swearing-in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet. There’s a lot to like about the team the PM has assembled—about the way he’s structured the Cabinet, and the spectacular expertise that some of the ministers bring to their jobs.
But that doesn’t mean our job is done. It’s just beginning. For Sierra Club Canada Foundation and its members and supporters across the country, last week’s swearing-in ceremony was a cue to get (even more) active.
So far, the messages from the new Cabinet are positive. The momentum is right. Which means it’s up to us to put together the facts and arguments (now that we have a government that believes in listening to science) to make progress on the issues we hold dear. Priorities like addressing climate change, achieving 100% renewables and a low carbon future, banning neonicotinoids, improving environmental assessments, and increasing wildlife protection, are all areas where there is an urgent need for federal action.
Changing the ‘Machinery of Government’
So far, much of the talk has been about changing the “machinery of government”. For anyone who lives very far outside Ottawa’s Greenbelt, it’s deadly boring stuff. But structures make a difference—environmental heroes like Tzeporah Berman have written books on what it takes to turn grassroot demands into lasting policy change.
It turns out it’s a lot more fun to talk about the “machinery of government” when the machinery is being tuned to a higher, greener standard.
And when you’re a national government, this is one important part of how change happens.
The federal department of environment, led by international lawyer and newly-elected MP Catherine McKenna, has been renamed Environment and Climate Change Canada. Names matter, and we hope the appointment of a minister of environment and climate change indicates that Canada's federal government is at last ready to take real action.
In the crucial foreign affairs portfolio, Trudeau tapped Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister and Liberal leader who chaired the UN climate summit in Montreal in 2005 and once named his dog Kyoto.
Cabinet committees have a lot of influence in federal policy-making—especially with Trudeau’s simple but transformative announcement that Canadians will see a return to government by Cabinet. The new Cabinet Committee on Environment, Climate Change and Energy will be chaired by Dion, and it’ll include the ministers of environment and climate change, trade, agriculture, Indigenous affairs, innovation, energy, infrastructure and communities, fisheries, and science.
Which is a longer way of saying that most of the country’s critical capacity to respond to climate change will be represented when the committee meets. Before the swearing-in, some of us at National Office had talked about focusing this blog post on the prospects for a “green economy caucus” within the federal Cabinet. Depending on how the committee performs, that caucus might already exist.
Things Are Moving Fast
It didn’t take long for the new Cabinet to swing into action.
On Friday, two of the most important federal departments—Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment and Climate Change—lifted the Harper-era ban that prevented federal scientists from discussing their work with media or the public. Even though you and I fund that research through our tax dollars.
The decision means that fisheries biologists, like Dr. Kristi Miller, can talk about their research—in her case, a 2009 article in the prestigious journal Science that chronicled the collapse of sockeye salmon on British Columbia’s Fraser River.
"I was told at the time that the problem with the study was that it was talking about dying salmon, and that wasn't a positive news story," Miller told CBC. She later learned the gag order originated in the Harper-era Prime Minister’s Office.
"The government has made it clear that it values science and will treat scientists with respect," wrote Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Natalie Huneault in an email to the National Observer. "Scientists and experts (such as researchers, meteorologists, or climatologists) are available to share their research and speak freely about their work with the media and the public."
That same day, U.S. President Barack Obama ended a seven-year drama by announcing that his government would withhold approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Most notable about Trudeau’s response was that he looked to the future, rather than trying to bully and bluster Obama into supporting a piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that had come to symbolize the battle against climate change.
“The Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project,” the Prime Minister said, “and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.” There’s a very strong possibility that that relationship will focus more decisively on energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean energy finance, and other key elements of a low-carbon future.
And that was all in the first half-week after the Cabinet was appointed.
More Challenges Ahead
The next four years will be filled with challenges, triumphs and defeats. The federal government will be engaged with many of the issues that Sierra Club of Canada Foundation members have championed for years—from neonics and pollinators to environmental assessment, from air and water quality to wildlife protection.
Many of our members have already made a difference, working to elect Members of Parliament who will listen closely and think carefully before making decisions that affect the environment. Now, we’re into the next phase. Because your front-line knowledge and experience will be one of the essential ingredients in our work to keep the new government on track.
Click here to make a donation to help keep our work on track.
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