Canada. A Just Transition?

When news spread about Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press, it is fair to assume that copyists would have felt a little uneasy about the changing times. The federal government must now respond to the 21st Century revolutionary equivalent, namely, the socio-economic implications in the shift away from fossil fuels – and towards renewables.

It is hardly worth reminding that Canada holds the world’s third largest oil reserves. Evidently, the oil and gas sector is of the utmost importance to the Canadian economy, accounting for roughly ten percent of nominal Gross Domestic Product with some 4.7 million barrels of oil pumped out daily (Sönnichsen 2020).

The socio-economic significance of the oil and gas sector is also hard to understate given that it directly accounts for 180,000 jobs across the country (Statistics Canada 2019). Nonetheless, the fact that these figures – provided by the 2019 Labour Force Survey – are down ten percent from the previous year and twenty percent since the peak in 2014 is telling of an economy which is moving away from fossil fuels as it edges ever closer to its deadline of carbon neutrality by 2050. However, as pressure builds in the pipelines to reduce production, the myriad spill over effects of this green transition are beginning to manifest themselves in Canadian politics.

Hence, central to Canada’s green roadmap is Trudeau’s Just Transition Act which “aims to minimize the impact on workers and communities, in the transition to a low-carbon economy” (Government of Canada 2021). But what does such a just transition look like?

Since time immemorial philosophers, politicians and the public have debated the term ‘just’ and the concept of ‘justice’. For example, Seamus O’ Regan – the Minister for Natural Resources who spearheads the Federal Government’s Just Transition – is keen to console those 180,000 workers, stating that “these same workers will build our low-carbon future …They won’t be left behind — they will lead the way” (O’Regan 2021). The modus operandi of the Liberal Party is thus indicative of most governmental responses to a sector in decline: retrain and relocate workers.

In recent days however, Alberta Energy Minister, Sonya Savage has lamented the Just Transition Act stating that it is “extremely harmful to the hundreds of thousands who directly and indirectly work in the sector and will be detrimental to Canada’s economic recovery” (Savage 2021). Her position is, however, hardly surprising given that Alberta forms some eighty percent of Canadian oil production. Accordingly, Canada’s green transition will need to address geographical disparities regarding the significance of the sector. Furthermore, given The Liberal Party’s underwhelming performance in the 2019 Albertan General Election (which saw the party gain just 0.98% of the popular vote), any future success in the province will require them to adequately reassure concerned oil and gas workers.

The savage truth is that Sonya speaks of a separate justice to Justin and the Albertan oil sands underline a geopolitical fault line in Canadian politics that will become increasingly contentious as pressure mounts for Canada to go green.

Rory Glass


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