Steven Guilbeault

The radical pragmatist: environmentalist Steven Guilbeault on running for the Liberals

The founder of one of Quebec's leading environmental organizations opposes the Trans Mountain oilsands pipeline approved by the Trudeau government. Here's why he is running for the Liberals in this fall's federal election anyway

Earlier this summer, when the Quebec environmentalist Steven Guilbeault announced his Liberal candidacy for the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie (currently held by the NDP), the Calgary Herald ran a headline saying “Justin Trudeau has found his Tzeporah Berman.”

Guilbeault is a household name in Montreal and much of Quebec. He co-founded one of Quebec’s leading environmental organizations, Équiterre, where he worked as senior director until November of 2018. Prior to that he was the Quebec bureau chief for Greenpeace from 2000 to 2007, and headed their climate and energy campaign for three years before that.

He has been a vocal opponent of oilsands expansion and new pipelines across Canada, including the Trans Mountain pipeline that would transport Alberta oilsands to Burnaby on the West Coast. He and the prime minister have agreed that Guilbeault will maintain his opposition to the pipeline while seeking to join the party that has staked so much of its political fortune on pushing it through.

Laurier-Sainte-Marie is five provinces away, but Guilbeault’s nomination for the Liberals has raised a lot of eyebrows in British Columbia. Trudeau clearly hopes Guilbeault will re-establish Liberal credibility in an environmental community that feels deeply betrayed; Conservatives are hoping the announcement will cement their own support among oilsands proponents elsewhere in the country; and Steven Guilbeault just wants “to move the needle.”

The Narwhal reached out to Guilbeault to discuss his decision to enter politics, why he chose the Liberals and the moral dilemmas of crafting climate policy in the world’s fourth-largest oil-producing nation.

The following interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

Back in 2001, you scaled the CN Tower for Greenpeace and unfurled a banner which read “CANADA AND BUSH: CLIMATE KILLERS.” Would that younger version of you be surprised that today’s version of you is running for office?

A friend of mine, many years ago, said this about me: He said that I was a radical pragmatic. In the sense that the path of change that you and I and many others are asking our society to do is pretty radical, from where we are to where we feel we have to be. But there’s also a part of me that understands there are constraints, and that it can’t happen overnight. And sometimes, you need to climb the CN Tower to make people pay attention to what’s happening, and sometimes you need to sit down with people who you may disagree with, may have different points of view, and maybe even different values, to try and find a common ground to move the needle a little bit.

I know some of my climate change colleagues say, you know, we need to move the needle much faster, and I totally agree with that. But when we go outside of the climate activist circle, it’s not that obvious. My mom lives in a pulp-and-paper town four hours northeast of Montreal. She gets climate change a little bit and her boyfriend does too, but they don’t get the emergency. I think we have to find a way to move that, but we have to do this by bringing alongside as many people as possible.

So I think the pragmatic part of me that was climbing the CN tower would understand what I’m doing now. I think.

What do you think you can do as a politician that you couldn’t do as an activist, and why join the Liberals?

Well there are a couple reasons I decided to run for the Liberals. In my view, and I could be wrong about this, but in my view, they’re the only party that can block the Conservative Party from becoming the next government. … I’ve heard some people say, well, we [the Greens or the NDP] could hold the balance of power in a minority Conservative government. Well, look at what that did [for] us when we had a minority conservative government. That’s when all the cutbacks started on efficiency, on climate change, on environmental education, let alone everything that had to do with immigration, minority rights, and so on.

When I look at what [the Liberals] have done, I had no problem rallying behind them. They’ve been a very active government on climate change in the last four years. We had no environmental or climate policies to speak of in 2015, and now we have a whole bunch of them.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Is there so much more work that needs to be done? Absolutely. Am I pissed because of the pipeline? Yes. But when I look at everything that’s happened, I know that I can contribute to help them be more, and we can go even faster. And that’s what I’m hoping I can do, if I’m elected and if the Liberals form the next government.

I was on stage with Rachel Notley when she launched her climate leadership plan, and many environmental groups, I remember Greenpeace and 350 were talking about “this historical moment,” and Pembina was there, and a bunch of other groups were on stage — we all knew that she wanted a pipeline! She’d said so many times. But we still supported her because we thought that this was a bit of a revolution in Alberta, and there was no chance on earth that we would get anything close to that with the Conservatives.

Steven Guilbeault

“Is it perfect? Of course not. Is there so much more work that needs to be done? Absolutely. Am I pissed because of the pipeline? Yes,” Guilbeault told The Narwhal. Photo: Valerian Mazataud / The Narwhal

In 2017, Bill McKibben wrote in The Guardian that Trudeau was “a disaster for the planet.” What would you say to him now?

I would tell him I admire his work, I’ve been a big fan of his since the publication of his book Hope, Human and Wild over 20 years ago. But I disagree with him, just like I disagree with George Monbiot [The Guardian’s environmental writer] when he says that Angela Merkel is the worst climate person on the planet because she hasn’t been doing enough on climate change. And somehow they’re putting Trudeau and Merkel on the same level as people like Harper and Trump. To me, to paint everything in such black and white contrast — I mean if we were to ask which government of the world is doing a good job, they would say no one. And I understand, I think we can say that no one is doing a good enough job. But to say that they’re doing nothing because they’re not doing everything is overly simplistic.

Yes, it’s a good rallying cry to mobilize activists. But I’ve been doing lots of public engagements over the last 20 years, every year I speak to three to five thousand people. It’s been my experience that this type of message, if you’re trying to convince people who aren’t convinced, it doesn’t work. They change the channel. They say, ‘these people, you can’t talk to them.’

“I think we can say that no one is doing a good enough job. But to say that they’re doing nothing because they’re not doing everything is overly simplistic.”

The moral clarity of climate change is so stark, it’s completely unforgiving; but that comes crashing into democracy, which is founded on the need to compromise – 

And the fact that not everybody is following the issue as closely as we are, and I think we tend to lose sight of that because we tend to talk to ourselves.

But is that an inherent characteristic of activism? Is it possible to be an activist and really push society to change as fast as possible, while acknowledging the need for compromise?

I think it’s a human characteristic. We tend to talk and hang out with people who have similar views as we do. We don’t like to get our views or values confronted too much. So the business people do that, and the trade union people do that, and we do it too. So it’s not something that’s specific to activism.

Throughout B.C., there’s this near-universal sense of betrayal amongst the environmental community over Trans Mountain. It’s reached a point where the Trudeau memes you see coming out of Vancouver have become a perfect mirror image of the ones emanating from Calgary. Both sides see him as a pawn of the other.  So what would your message be to the environmental community out here?

I know many of the activists. I understand their frustration and their anger. I get it. I’ve been trying to tell them — and it’s not easy, and I understand it — but they should not let their anger cloud their judgement. If the Conservatives win the next election, then the $30 billion that we have for transit across the country, I don’t think it’s staying. The $20 billion that’s going to be invested in green infrastructure, gone. The $2.5 billion for clean technology, gone. The money for purchasing electric vehicles, gone. New and better environmental impact assessment and public consultation? We clearly know where the oil industry and the conservative forces of Canada are on this. This is a very clear example of where the Trudeau government stood their ground and said no to changes that were clearly written by the oil industry. If the Conservatives come in, this is also gone. Carbon pricing, obviously it’s gone. So, someone is going to tell me that all these things don’t matter?

At the risk of putting words in your mouth, do you feel the environmental community has trouble giving credit where it’s due?

Yes, I do, and I understand why. I’m putting myself in their shoes, and if instead of Trans Mountain we were talking about Energy East, and if the federal government instead of investing in Trans Mountain would have invested in Energy East, I think I would be very angry right now. I think I’d be very unhappy. And I don’t know, would I be running for the Liberals if that happened? It’s a really good question. So I get it. But I’m asking them to think long and hard about what the alternative is …

It’s an emotional discussion, and I get that. You know, it’s always angered me — when you sit across the table from someone and they say well can we have a rational, unemotional discussion about this? Dude! You can’t! What are you talking about?  It’s the future of our planet, and what kind of planet will I leave to my kids, and you want me to have an unemotional conversation about it? Forget it. That doesn’t mean I have to lose my judgement and my emotions have to take over everything. So I would never ask my colleagues to leave their emotions at the door.

Steven Guilbeault

Guilbeault, one of the founders of Quebec environmental group Equiterre, says he’s not going into politics to “play some political game.” Photo: Valerian Mazataud / The Narwhal

Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott went through this door before you, and it didn’t go so well. Why do you think it’ll go differently for you?

I don’t know either Jody Wilson-Raybould or Jane Philpott. What I can say for myself is I have 20 years of experience working on public policy around climate change, as an activist, not as someone in a political party. I understand we need to compromise to be able to move forward sometimes. I’m going in there knowing there’s no way I’m going to win 100 per cent of my battles 100 per cent of the time. And I’m hoping to win enough battles that, at the end of this four-year period, if all goes well, I can say I’ve contributed positively to the trajectory of where my country is going. That’s my hope, but I’m going in there with no illusions.

I’m envisioning a scenario where you win your seat in October, the Liberals win a majority government, the lawsuits against Trans Mountain are defeated and construction begins in earnest. Now the biggest environmental protest in Canadian history takes place on Burnaby Mountain, and you are part of the government that has to confront it. That’s a pretty awkward scenario, no?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played that scenario in my head in the last few months. Which is why I felt it was necessary for me to be crystal clear with the prime minister and the party regarding my position on this. I was against [Trans Mountain] a few weeks ago, I’m still against it today, and I will be against it tomorrow and in the months to come. I told him I disagreed and I said it publicly. So I imagine it’s going to be a very uncomfortable moment, if that scenario as you described it happens. By making this decision I’ve accepted that I may end up in that situation. I’ve seen a number of political commentators say that me expressing my disagreement with the pipeline publicly might come with a political cost to my career. If so, so be it. I couldn’t see a scenario where I would change my mind. I’m not going into politics to simply play some political game. I’m going there to try and continue making progress on the issue I’ve been working on for the last 25 years.

Arno Kopecky is an environmental journalist and the author of two books of narrative nonfiction: The Devil's Curve, and The…

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