To the outside world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a welcome new face for Canada. He’s young and handsome. He’s appointed a diverse cabinet, with equal numbers of men and women. He rides the bus. All of this is true, and for those of us who fought against Stephen Harper for years, the election of Trudeau was a breath of fresh air.
Now that we’ve taken that breath, however, we have some things to say, because despite the new administration’s election year promises that they’ll clean up Canada’s record on the environment and Indigenous rights, there’s a risk that the Trudeau administration will follow in some of Harper’s footsteps, rather than setting out a bold new course.
Four days of action
That’s why, from Nov. 5 to 8, we organized a demonstration called Climate Welcome to call on Prime Minister Trudeau to freeze tar sands expansion and commit to a justice-based clean energy economy. Over four days, around 300 people gathered, sat in and risked arrest in a series of “gentle but serious” acts of civil disobedience and changed the narrative on climate change in Canada.
Each day, activists delivered gifts to the prime minister, making the case for a freeze on tar sands expansion and a rapid move to a justice-based clean energy economy in Canada.
It started on the first day with the delivery of over 50 reports detailing the environmental, economic and human rights case for stopping tar sands expansion. The next day, over a million messages gathered from nearly a decade of opposition to tar sands and pipeline development were delivered. On the third day, we brought water that had been gathered from over 50 bodies of water threatened by pipelines. The last day, we brought a set of five Canadian-made solar panels.
The prime minister didn’t accept the gifts, but the four days transformed the narrative around climate change, Trudeau and what real action on climate change looks like.
Walking the talk
On Oct. 23, four days after Justin Trudeau’s election, the CBC ran a story about expectations for the new government when it came to climate change. According to the article, people close to Trudeau expected that, on climate, “a different team and a different tone, it may be enough for now.”
A week later, on the eve of Climate Welcome, the United Nations released a study detailing the ambition gap in countries such as Canada for emissions reductions ahead of the Paris climate conference. Journalists began to pay attention to the fact that climate activists were headed to Trudeau’s front door on day one of his mandate, questioning whether Justin Trudeau would walk his talk on climate change: “environmentalists point out [that] he is going to Paris with outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper's lackluster emission targets in hand.
On the first day of Climate Welcome, nearly 40 people risked arrest.
One of those people was Rob Steinman, a retired teacher from Peterborough, who told the Ottawa Citizen that he had joined the action because “it’s very hard for politicians to do what they have to do to stop climate change because it means making some big transitional changes, so I feel it’s up to us as the people to let the politicians know that we’re willing to go to the wall for this.”
At the end of the day, no one was arrested, but the stage was set to turn up the heat in the coming days.
The next day, twice as many people risked arrest, with 76 people sitting in when the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected by U.S. President Barack Obama. The decision threw into stark relief Trudeau’s climate challenge, which was explained as “a common [climate] bottom line that could confound the Liberals’ best intentions: Alberta’s oilsands cannot expand from their current output, and that means no new pipelines.”
That afternoon, newly minted Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion faced questions on the Keystone pipeline and the Climate Welcome action. He told reporters he “disagrees with those environmentalists who oppose any expansion of oil sands” and instead wants “sustainable development,” something that we know would require leaving at least 85 per cent of tar sands in the ground.
In that same interview, Dion also raised serious questions about the Liberal’s strong language on respecting communities and rebuilding Canada’s environmental review processes. Asked about Energy East, he expressed his support for the pipeline, a comment reminiscent of those that Justin Trudeau chastized Stephen Harper for calling him a “cheerleader rather than a referee” when it came to pipeline projects.
Later that weekend, as the sit-ins continued to occupy the entrance to the prime minister’s residence, the new minister of climate change, Catherine McKenna, headed to Paris for a meeting to prepare for this month’s climate talks. By the time she arrived, it seemed like the shine had worn off the new Liberal government when it comes to climate change:
“The new Canadian government may be more eager than its predecessor to influence the outcome of pivotal climate talks later this month, but the timing isn't working in its favour...for critics, the Canadian government will also arrive saddled with the modest emissions targets set by its predecessor.”
The sit-ins wrapped up on a sunny, crisp day when an assistant to the prime minister came down for the third time. He declined to accept the gift that had been brought that day — a set of five solar panels — but made it clear that the message had been heard.
If there was any doubt, the next day Minister McKenna, when pressed on the issue of how Canada is showing up in Paris, stated that Canada’s existing climate targets “will be the floor” from which to build up. Now, they’ve also committed to hold a special meeting with Canada’s premiers ahead of the UN talks, where they’ll try to address Canada’s lack of targets, which they originally had said they would do 90 days after the global summit. As of right now, the government appears set to still show up with Stephen Harper’s targets, but now the world knows, and Canada will have to be better to live up to its promises.
Obviously, this is a small win to change the conversation — but it’s also a clear acceptance of what we’ve been saying, that this government will be judged for its deeds, not its words. That in itself is a big shift, and less than a week into Justin Trudeau’s mandate, it’s an important one.
Doing better is a first step, but doing the right thing is going to mean that sooner or later Justin Trudeau is going to have to pick a side: people or polluters. That decision, when it comes, is what will determine his climate legacy.