Steven Guilbeault, an environmental activist who scaled the CN Tower in 2001 to protest government inaction on climate change, wants to run for the Liberal Party in the federal election. The governing party, including Prime Minister Trudeau, hopes he runs under the Liberal banner.
Like many Quebeckers, however, Mr. Guilbeault first needs to be convinced that the party will run on a strong environmental platform that mitigates the impact of last year’s $4.5-billion purchase of the Trans Mountain (TMX) pipeline expansion project.
“If I go, it will be because they will have shown me a sincere desire to enact measures that are ambitious and that will allow Canada to go even further than what we have done,” Mr. Guilbeault said in an interview.
The environment is shaping up to be a key issue in the Oct. 21 general election in Quebec, where the NDP, the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois are looking to capitalize on the Liberal Party’s mixed record on the issue since 2015. For the Liberals, winning Quebec seats may mean improving that record in the wake of the TMX purchase, through candidates like Mr. Guilbeault.
The environmental issue plays out differently in Quebec than in much of the rest of the country. The province participates in a cap-and-trade system and is not subject to a federal carbon tax like Ontario and Saskatchewan, which removes a polarizing element from the debate.
Many environmentalists are now looking for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to convince them that the Liberals have a coherent plan to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.
“There was a lot of hope when the Liberals were elected and there is now just as much disappointment,” said Laure Waridel, a well-known environmentalist in Quebec. “The pipeline purchase ... will really hurt at election time.”
One of the best ways to counter criticism over the pipeline purchase, for many senior Liberals, is to bring Mr. Guilbeault on board for the next election. Among those who have encouraged him to run are Mr. Trudeau; his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts; and Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, who is the Liberal campaign co-chair in Quebec.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the Liberals are looking for a balance between economic growth and combating climate change, but will continue to bolster their environmental platform. The alternative, she said, would be a Conservative government “that wants to take us back in time.”
“We have the most ambitious plan of any federal government in history and we are actually following our plan,” she said. “Then we will put in our platform what more we can do.”
Mr. Guilbeault does not strike a unanimous figure in the environmental movement, given his self-described interest in “pragmatic” solutions and political compromises. Still, the former Greenpeace activist and co-founder of an environmental NGO called Équiterre has been at the forefront of the international fight against climate change for decades.
A key factor in his decision to run or not will be how Liberal Party deals with Alberta’s newly elected government of Jason Kenney, who has been rolling back environmental measures put in place by the previous NDP government. He will make a final decision in coming weeks.
“You can’t fight against climate change in Canada and reach ambitious targets without measures that deal with the pollution caused by the oil sands," Mr. Guilbeault said. “If there was a deal with a province and that province is no longer willing to live up to its part of the deal, the federal government must ask itself some questions about what it plans to do."
Many environmentalists said that if Mr. Guilbeault runs for the Liberals, his candidacy could reset the debate over environmental policy in Quebec.
“Justin Trudeau needs Steven Guilbeault to restore his credibility in Quebec,” said Dominic Champagne, a Quebec artist who is leading a grassroots campaign to push governments to tackle climate change.
Mr. Champagne added that environmentalists still have to decide whether to engage in strategic voting to prevent a Conservative victory in the next election.
“I seriously think that if [we] go back to an oil-friendly Conservative regime in Ottawa, the situation will degenerate," he said. “At the end of the day, neither the Greens nor the NDP are an alternative to the Liberals. The alternative to the Liberals are the Conservatives, so we will face a tough choice in October.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will announce his party’s environmental policy in a speech in Montreal in June.
The Green Party is hoping to capitalize on discontent with the Liberals to win a first seat in Quebec in the next election. The party’s deputy leader, Daniel Green, finished in third place in a by-election in Outremont in March, and will run again in the same riding in Montreal.
“We would have liked to see less talk from the Liberals and more action,” he said, predicting that Mr. Guilbeault would have a tough time selling the Liberal agenda in Quebec. “It will be interesting to see him justifying why his party decided to buy a pipeline to export oil.”
The NDP announced its new environmental policy on Friday in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, where Mr. Guilbeault will be running if he makes the jump.
“Under the Liberal plan of Justin Trudeau, we’d reach the targets set by [former Conservative prime minister] Stephen Harper in two centuries,” said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. “The time to act is now, we can’t trust the other parties anymore.”