Interviewed on June 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Pinnington.
Pinnington: What energizes you about what is happening in Canada right now?
Guilbeault: Our municipalities are beacons of hope. In Montreal, we beat a 50-year-old record in terms of transit usage because we’ve invested in the transportation infrastructure. The green belt around Toronto is seen by many as a model in North America. Vancouver is probably one of the 10 best examples in the world of what needs to be done at the municipal level on sustainability. In each of these places, it’s not just about money, but also about a shift in mentality. People see this challenge as an opportunity to be better in what we do, to be more resilient, to be more efficient.
We recently organized an event to celebrate Quebec’s achievement of its 2012 greenhouse targets, the most ambitious in North America. Mr. Charest spoke at the event and said, “When you look around the world, the countries that are able to solve problems and rise to challenges can do so because these issues transcend political affiliation or ideology.” Across the country and world, where sustainability initiatives are taking place, it’s because these issues are transcending political affiliation or political mentality. Obviously, from one political party to another, there will be differences, but as long as we can agree that we share the same goal and need to achieve the same objective, then it becomes a conversation about how do we do it. We’ve seen that happen in many parts of Canada, and this really energizes me.
Pinnington: What about the current situation in Canada keeps you up at night?
Guilbeault: If you look at the federal scene, it is not pretty. Canada used to be a leader when it came to environmental and humanitarian issues. We weren’t always the best, but we were part of the leading pack of countries. The Montreal Protocol was signed in Montreal in 1988 to slow down depletion of the ozone layer. Canada led the effort to ban antipersonnel landmines, culminating with the Ottawa Convention in 1997. We used to be a country that had a good reputation. Now when I go to UN meetings abroad, senior ministers from different countries come to me and say, “What’s happening with Canada? We don’t recognize what you’ve become.”
Pinnington: If things turn out badly in the next 20 years, what will have happened?
Guilbeault: Canada as a whole right is now focused on developing a kind of 19th-century resource-based economy. The economy of the 21st century will be one that focuses on knowledge, on know-how, on innovation and creativity. If we are stuck in oil and gas, we will be forced to import technologies that others have developed. We are not preparing for the world that will be.
Also, the reality is that many people are talking the talk of sustainability, but fewer are walking it. We have a role to play both as citizens and as consumers. I have a friend who says, “Buying is voting.” We need to become more aware of the choices we make every day as individuals, including in the political arena. These issues have to be a bigger part of people’s choices.
If we fail to make the changes we need to, it won’t be because the solutions aren’t there or because they aren’t economically viable. It will be because we didn’t believe we could do it and didn’t mobilize enough people from all the sectors of our society to make it happen.
Pinnington: If things go well over the next 20 years in Canada, what will have happened?
Guilbeault: People will have realized that we can’t have a prosperous society at the detriment of the planet. Fortunately, we’re seeing more and more business leaders become vocal about some of these issues. They need to be part of the solution, because they can do things that I, as an environmental advocate, can’t do, that governments can’t do. If I’m side by side with someone in business, then all of a sudden we’ve increased the weight of our message and enlarged the audience that will be receptive to it.
Pinnington: Why are some business leaders beginning to advocate for environmental sustainability?
Guilbeault: Beyond the moral imperative to think and act more sustainably, there are material benefits. I had a conversation with Robert Dutton, the now-retired CEO of RONA, the hardware store. Under his leadership, the company took a superb shift towards sustainability. He said, “Today, I interview people to come and work for me. But people’s values have changed a lot. It’s about the pay cheque, but also about what kind of company you are. Are you a responsible corporate citizen? Soon, I will be interviewed by people who I want to come and work for me. It’s going to be a totally reverse dynamic. Unless my company is a responsible actor, it’s going to be hard to attract new people.” He also told me that when RONA reduces waste at their large hardware stores by 80%, they save about $80,000 a year on waste collection. If that’s not good business, I don’t know what is.