Surrounded by the lush tropical greenery of Winnipeg’s indoor gardens, Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew reaffirmed his commitment to “turning a new leaf” as he introduced his inaugural cabinet, including a new minister of environment and climate change.

Tracy Schmidt, a rookie MLA representing the Winnipeg suburb constituency Rossmere, has been appointed to helm the department and oversee Crown corporation Efficiency Manitoba for the New Democratic government. Schmidt comes to the file with a background in labour law following a 10-year career with Canada Post.

At the end of his closing remarks detailing the NDP’s plan to revitalize health care and strengthen the provincial economy, Kinew used the event’s location — The Leaf at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park — to signal his government’s intent on climate change.

“In order for us to guarantee these opportunities for future generations we have to be responsible stewards of the land, of the water, of the air we breathe and we must take action to confront the existential crisis that is climate change,” he said.

“There could perhaps be no better reminder of these priorities than to have our event here, at The Leaf. So today, as a province, we are turning a new leaf over together.”

Environment minister Tracy Schmidt (left) signs the oath of office from Lt.-Gov. Anita Neville (right) at a wooden table during swearing in ceremonies in Winnipeg on Oct. 18, 2023
Tracy Schmidt takes the oath of office from Lt.-Gov. Anita Neville at a swearing in ceremony on Oct. 18. Schmidt is the only lawyer in the New Democratic Party’s cabinet and comes to the environment file with a background in labour and employment law along with a career at Canada Post. Photo: Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

But following a campaign relatively devoid of climate commitments, the surprise appointment of a rookie member to a critical file — the second rookie in a row to hold the position — undercuts the promise to prioritize climate change and suggests a continuation of the status quo on environment issues.

Of Kinew’s 14-member cabinet, seven were assigned ministerial roles on files they previously followed as official critics, notably the postings of health, finance and justice, which align with the NDP’s platform priorities. Four of the new ministers, including Schmidt, are first-time MLAs.

Manitoba isn’t alone in navigating turnover and inexperience in climate department leadership. Ontario has had five climate ministers since former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray retired from the post in 2017; Alberta’s environment ministry has been through a handful of restructurings — including a controversial decision to carve forestry, parks and tourism out of the environment department’s mandate last year — and cycled through three ministers since 2022. Saskatchewan’s current environment minister is a former police officer; Alberta’s worked in communications; New Brunswick’s was an elementary school principal.

By contrast, British Columbia’s environment minister George Heyman — who previously served as executive director of the Sierra Club’s B.C. chapter — has held the post since the NDP was elected in 2017. Heyman is the only current provincial environment minister with a background in environment and climate change prior to joining politics.

PCs had five environment ministers in the last seven years

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives cycled through five environment ministers during their seven years in government, none of whom had prior experience with climate or environment issues.

According to former NDP environment minister Gord Mackintosh, environmental experience isn’t a key qualification for the role. Mackintosh was appointed to the file during his fifth and final term in office under former premier Greg Selinger in 2012. Before entering politics nearly two decades earlier, Mackintosh had a background in environmental law, making him the last Manitoba environment minister with relevant experience prior to joining the legislature.

Former Manitoba environment minister Gord Mackintosh poses on a lawn chair wearing a yellow shirt in 2017
Gord Mackintosh served as environment minister from 2012 to 2015 and is credited as instrumental in establishing several new parks and protected areas in Manitoba. Mackintosh says experience is not necessary to the environment file, but consistency can help build trust with stakeholders and the public. Photo: Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press

“I asked to be assigned the portfolio because I considered the work so profoundly important,” Mackintosh said in an interview. ​​“I’ve always considered the portfolio to be critical to our health and our economy.”

Mackintosh says it’s crucial an environment minister “be a listener and a convener, someone who respects science, empower advocates and stakeholders and understands Indigenous governance.”

But Mackintosh noted the rapid turnover in department leadership “can set back the work on some files,” pose a “daunting challenge to stakeholders” and undermine the department’s accountability.

The newly named department of environment and climate change (previously called the department of environment and climate, the department of conservation and water stewardship and the department of sustainability through its various iterations) suffered funding and staffing cuts through repeated restructuring, causing what’s been described as a “crisis” for department staff. The NDP has yet to signal whether any of that funding or staffing will be restored. Mandate letters outlining the department’s responsibilities are expected in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Manitobans have been calling for a whole-of-government approach to climate change, acknowledging the state of healthcare and the economy — two focal points for the new NDP government — are deeply impacted by the climate.

​​”The most daunting challenge of our time is climate change, and in Manitoba we have such serious challenges of water and waste, now with critical mineral development the importance of the portfolio is going to be more obvious than ever,” Mackintosh said.

Shuffles in roles and department names

Mining was shuffled from agriculture and resource development to natural resources and northern development to the portfolio of economic development, investment and trade under the previous government. The new cabinet combines the two departments into economic development, investment, trade and natural resources, suggesting mining will stay put (under the leadership of second-term MLA Jamie Moses, who has a background in agriculture and business) for the time being.

Schmidt will, however, inherit responsibility for the Sio Silica sand mine, a controversial proposal still making its way through the environmental licensing process. The Clean Environment Commission submitted a report on the project to Schmidt’s predecessor in June, who in turn passed the report on to an environment department advisory committee. That committee has been tasked with making the final call on whether — or how — to license the silica sand mine, but Schmidt will be the one to face the public when the decision is made.

Manitoba Hydro will also have a growing role to play in the future of climate policy in Manitoba. Kinew stressed his government’s commitment to lower fuel costs (by temporarily eliminating a flat-rate provincial gas tax) and making Hydro bills more affordable.

“The best way that we can do that is strengthening the public utilities board and making sure that we always keep Manitoba Hydro public,” Kinew said during the swearing-in ceremony.

Manitoba Hydro recently completed its first Integrated Resource Plan, which suggests the utility will face challenges keeping up with electricity demand in the coming years.

A large crowd, seen from above, sit in the lobby of The Leaf at Assiniboine Park as the swearing-in ceremony for NDP Premier Wab Kinew and his cabinet begins on Oct. 18, 2023
Seven members of Premier Wab Kinew’s cabinet previously served as critics for the files they now helm, bringing experience to key departments such as health, finance and justice. Photo: Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

The Crown energy utility falls under the purview of the new minister of finance, Adrien Sala. Sala has been critic for finance and Manitoba Hydro since joining the legislature in 2019. He is one of few cabinet members with significant business experience prior to entering politics.

The party’s longtime environment critic Lisa Naylor joined cabinet Wednesday as minister of transportation and infrastructure. Her role will be far reaching — the province has a robust transport industry and is ever-discussing the need for better highway infrastructure — but will need to incorporate climate considerations such as electric vehicles, active transportation and public transit.

Given the significance and symbolism of several NDP cabinet appointments, intended to signal the government’s priorities for the upcoming term, the appointment of a relatively unknown new MLA to the climate file suggests environmental issues aren’t high on the priority list.

Throughout the campaign, Kinew’s climate promises represented only a symbolic departure from the status quo; he agreed to bring Manitoba up to par with national conservation and emission reduction targets, pledged funds for electric car rebates and promised a limited number of subsidized geothermal heating systems, but dedicated few other words — or dollars — to climate action in Manitoba.

This latest appointment only serves to double down on the lukewarm trend.

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