Canada’s friendliest province — unless you’re the climate

Floods, extreme heat, droughts, wildfires: Manitoba has seen it all. In this week’s newsletter, reporter Julia-Simone Rutgers talks about hopeful parties that barely tackle climate change in their election promises — if at all
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View of Manitoba legislature through wildfire smoke; Winnipeg.
Manitoba is not exactly known for its ambitious climate commitments. For reporter Julia-Simone Rutgers, that rings especially true as she covers this year’s provincial election.

“The environment has felt more like an asterisk in many policy promises,” she told me. “Some leaders haven’t even uttered the words ‘climate change.’ ”

Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson has hopped on the trend of rejecting meaningful climate policies, much like many of her counterparts across the country — particularly policies coming from the federal government.

The federal carbon price? That’s an “unfair cash grab” and Manitoba will “stop at nothing” to see it eliminated. The international goal to conserve 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030? That “could harm economic development” — and the province is considering expanding mining activity in provincial parks. It goes on.

None of this negates the impacts of climate change felt across the Prairies.
Peguis First Nation; condemned house from flooding
Manitoba is a place where floods affect 90 per cent of Indigenous communities and have left residents evacuated for months, if not years. A place where residents are finding their homes — long built to withstand frigid winters — are now way too hot as summer heat intensifies. Add in extreme drought, wildfires and the numerous threats to one of Canada’s “most endangered lakes,” not to mention the uncertainty around extracting minerals deemed critical to a low-carbon future, and you’d think you might have some fodder for intense campaign debate.

But the environment and Manitoba’s climate footprint have again taken a backseat in this election campaign. Voters are set to head to the polls next week, on Oct. 3, and the debate has so far been dominated by concerns about health care, cost of living and public safety. 

Climate change is still a priority for Manitobans; very few have been happy with the province’s efforts to curb its carbon emissions.

I spoke with Julia-Simone, who has been scouring the scant environment-related promises for a hint of what’s to come in the province following the election. Read on for her takes from the campaign trail — and why this election matters even if you don’t live in Manitoba.

Take care and don’t forget to vote,

Sharon Riley
Prairies bureau chief

Reporter Julia-Simone Rutgers looking into the distance, wearing a sweater with a logo of The Narwhal. Text reads: Julia-Simone on the Manitoba election
Sharon: What’s the biggest environmental issue voters are focused on?

Julia-Simone: With the cost of living on everybody’s mind, the standout environment issues of the election are energy policy and pricing. Manitoba generates comparatively low greenhouse gas emissions with its majority-hydroelectric grid, but we can’t just keep doing things the same way. Demands on the power grid are increasing and electricity rates and the price of natural gas have already been on the rise.

The two leading parties are making a lot of promises when it comes to lowering energy bills, like cutting fuel taxes, eliminating the price on carbon (which isn’t really possible, but I digress) and freezing hydro rates. What’s more important is actually reducing our energy consumption — and that’s what the environmentally engaged voters are looking at. Keep an eye out for better public and active transit infrastructure, electric vehicle capacity and options to keep homes warm in the winter without breaking the bank!

S: Has the election put any environmental successes or failures into plain view for Manitobans?

J-S: I think it’s really highlighted the previous government’s resistance to take climate policy seriously. That’s left Manitoba behind the curve. We’ve had a climate action plan since 2017, which was supposed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one megatonne over five years. As of the latest data, we were only one-fifth of the way to that goal. The Environment Department was restructured several times in just a few years, there have been five different environment ministers since 2016 and the amount of funding and staffing allocated to the department has shrunk considerably.
S: What’s going on with the carbon pricing debate?

J-S: The Progressive Conservatives’ 2017 climate plan included a $25-per-tonne flat fee on carbon emissions. But that plan didn’t meet federal minimum standards for carbon pricing. The government went to the Supreme Court and lost. A few months later, Stefanson promised to drop the battle and work more collaboratively with the feds.

Still with me? ‘Cause this is where it gets spicy. In this year’s campaign, Stefanson pulled a 180 and announced (in the party’s very first campaign promise) she would do whatever it takes to eliminate the federal carbon levy from “everything.” But she hasn’t pitched a plan to make that happen — she’s only promised to go back to court. And that’s just not likely to work out. The NDP isn’t too fussed about the carbon price; it’s only really promised to renegotiate with the feds — but we’re still not sure what that means.

S: What’s the deal with protected areas and parks?

J-S: Manitoba has had a protected areas network since the 1990s. For decades the government was steadily adding new pockets of land to the list, but that growth seriously flat-lined under the Tories. In seven years, Manitoba has added just 400 square kilometres in new protected areas, which is less than 0.1 per cent of the province’s land area. It’s the least amount of growth seen under any government since the network was created. At the same time, the mining industry is angling to see a complete suspension of land protection so it can search for critical minerals — including in provincial parks.

The Tories refuse to sign any conservation targets; the NDP has said it’ll push to reach 30 per cent protection by 2030. I’ll be following all of these issues closely — no matter which party forms Manitoba’s next government.
Prairie reporter Drew Anderson’s face carrot-dyed on latte foam, in an ExxonMobil-branded coffee cup at the 2023 World Petroleum Congress in Calgary.

A crude interpretation of the energy transition

Carl Meyer’s nerdy heart grew in size when he first found out Calgary would host the “Olympics” of the oil and gas industry — as The Narwhal’s climate investigations reporter, the chance to speak to some of the global fossil fuel industry’s biggest players was simply too good to pass up.

So, he and Prairies reporter Drew Anderson headed to the Word Petroleum Congress, where the theme “Energy Transition: The Path to Net Zero” hinted at talks about an inevitable green future. 

The congress was far from it, Drew reported last week.

Industry groups made green-tech promises and talked about the need for economic stability, both of which keep us on the path of oil and gas development. Meanwhile, delegates were treated to nitrogen cold brew coffee, virtual reality headsets playing visions of Saudi Arabia’s net-zero future and lattes with their faces printed in the foam (yes, including Drew’s face).

As Drew writes, and Carl soon will, from crude jokes (pun intended) by industry leaders to claiming Alberta oil is ethical, “it all leads to a paradox, particularly for Canada.”


This week in The Narwhal

Smoked salmon hanging from rafters with a hand reaching up through the smoke
As salmon are ‘cooking’ in hot water, Lake Babine Nation stands up to Fisheries and Oceans Canada
By Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood
The federal government is supposed to manage salmon populations — but Lake Babine Nation says its approach is far from precautionary. The nation has closed a fishery itself for the sake of the salmon and people who rely on them.

Curtis Avery, environment manager of Nipissing First Nation
Nipissing First Nation officials unsettled by tour of North Bay’s new plastics factory 
By Leah Borts-Kuperman
A man in a crowd gives a thumbs-down sign at a meeting with Imperial Oil to talk about leaking tailings ponds in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
Alberta officials did nothing wrong when an oilsands leak went unreported for 9 months: report
By Drew Anderson
A woman stands in Indigenous regalia before a black curtain
Mineral claims require First Nations consultation, B.C. Supreme Court rules
By Francesca Fionda

What we’re reading

For The Globe and Mail, Lindsay Jones writes about giant squid washing up on Newfoundland’s shores, turning into local legends — and the scientists who want to know why the carcasses keep coming.

J. B. MacKinnon makes the argument that even the most trouble-making creatures alive — rats — have a right to exist in accordance with nature. Sarah Gilman helps the defence with her adorable rat illustrations in Hakai Magazine.

The Guardian’s Oliver Milman reports on a battered and dented 70-year-old pipeline that imperils the Great Lakes.
When yet another election doesn’t centre climate change as a key voter issue. Don’t worry — our reporters will keep holding politicians accountable to their scant green promises. Tell your friends to sign up for our weekly newsletter so they don’t miss out on the action.
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