Long-awaited Sustainable Jobs Act a snoozer

Seth Klein
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau helps to install solar panels on a roof during a campaign stop in Iqaluit, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Photo by:The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

June 16, 2023

The federal government has tabled its long-awaited Sustainable Jobs Act (formerly to be known as Just Transition Act).


The full name of the bill is “An Act respecting accountability, transparency and engagement to support the creation of sustainable jobs for workers and economic growth in a net-zero economy.” And yes, the bill really is as boring as the title suggests.


In the face of the climate emergency and the imperative to give workers and communities confidence as we rapidly transition the economy, the bill is fundamentally incongruent with the task at hand, and ultimately of little consequence as drafted. Nothing about it communicates urgency.


Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was quick to say she will oppose the act with everything she can muster, but it’s unclear to me what exactly there is in this nothing sandwich she finds so objectionable, beyond the concept of sustainable jobs itself. She insists we have the technology to make oil and gas jobs sustainable, and indeed, the feds might well agree with her – there is nothing in their definition of sustainable jobs to indicate they don’t think there can be a bright future for oil and gas jobs (so long as they fit some magical notion of “net-zero”, which they seem to think can be done through carbon capture and storage).


In substance, the bill is exceedingly modest. The act merely establishes a framework to guide the development of a sustainable jobs plan, but it is not itself a plan. Indeed, the act only requires that the government table a first Sustainable Jobs Action Plan in December of 2025, meaning after the next federal election. Hmm.

"It's as boring as it sounds," writes @sethdklein about the fed's new Sustainable Jobs Act. #cdnpoli #climate crisis - Twitter


As foreshadowed last February, the bill embeds in legislation the establishment of a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council to advise the government on the development of its plan and produce an annual report. It is good that labour and Indigenous people will have representation on the proposed council. The bill speaks to the importance of sustainable jobs being good jobs with union representation, with a focus on opportunities for equity-seeking groups.

But notably, the act is silent on regional planning and governance. It does not mention the government’s own Regional Energy and Resource Tables, let alone something more ambitious like provincial/Indigenous Just Transition Agencies, as the Climate Emergency Unit with whom I work has proposed.


Most importantly, the act is not backed up by investments of consequence in actual sustainable jobs. Without significant money to back up the principles articulated in this act — a substantial investment in the jobs of the future — and transformative new programs, just transition will remain a hollow promise. Rather, as recent announcements by Equinor to put on ice the Bay du Nord offshore oil project, Suncor’s decision to lay off over a thousand workers and Enbridge’s decision to rethink its Westcoast Connector pipeline project in Northern BC make clear, the government seems content to let fossil fuel corporations themselves decide which oil and gas projects will proceed and the fate of affected workers and communities.


This is, sadly, a very dull bill. It does not achieve politically what the government should want to achieve – namely, to capture people's imagination with a compelling counter-offer to all those workers and communities that currently feel economically reliant on fossil fuels. It does not shift the conversation in Alberta (or Saskatchewan or Newfoundland and Labrador). The federal government has soft-peddled and delayed its just transition plans for two years, hoping not to jinx Rachel Notley’s election chances. So much for that – now we have both weak federal policy and Premier Smith.


We have to do better. The energy transition cannot, like so many industrial revolutions of the past, consign one group of society to the scrapheap of history. The federal government has to present a compelling and hopeful plan to anxious workers. In the absence of such a program, the Liberals are following the script drafted by Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives, who falsely portray climate action as an elite exercise that does not care about working people. So long as the government refuses to offer an exciting just transition or sustainable jobs plan – call it what you will – and resists implementing a windfall profits tax on the oil and gas companies, it reinforces the populist right narrative.


We urgently need to make an audacious and hopeful offer to those workers and communities whose employment and economic security is currently tied to the fossil fuel industry (and to a lesser extent, the auto, steel, concrete and agriculture industries, all of which face substantial transition challenges), to young people setting off on their careers who are deeply anxious about the climate emergency, and to Indigenous communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction.


The Climate Emergency Unit has called for a new federal Just Transition Transfer and a Youth Climate Corps. These would be transformative programs that communicate that we are indeed entering emergency mode. They would be specifically linked to funding climate infrastructure projects that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, along with training and apprenticeships programs for young workers and those leaving the oil and gas industry. Audacious programs such as these could serve to restore national solidarity and renew Confederation as we mobilize for this generational task.


[Top photo: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau helps to install solar panels on a roof during a campaign stop in Iqaluit, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Photo by:The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette]