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Danielle Smith, ‘just transition,’ and what lies beyond truth

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If it was somehow true, as Danielle Smith and team incorrectly maintain, that a federal document details a plot by the Trudeau government to eliminate 2.7 million jobs (or “up to” that many) with its “just transition” plan, then we would be hearing no end of rooftop screaming from the aerospace and residential construction sectors. And we’re not.

That large figure refers not to job losses, but to the total employment in all sectors in which Ottawa expects “larger-scale transformations” to come from a shift to a low-carbon economy, according to the June 2022 ministerial briefing note United Conservatives have fixated on this week.

Smith has contorted this note to declare that it’s about “eliminating entire sectors,” notably the energy and agricultural sectors critical to Alberta’s economy.

But here’s the thing: those industries respectively represent 202,000 and 292,000 of that larger total — which is, again, sums of sector workers. Much bigger are the buildings industry (1.4 million workers) and transportation (642,000), while the remaining are in manufacturing (193,000).

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Surely, the electric vehicle shift and the push to lower building emissions will transform large swaths of those industries. However, there’s nobody claiming that action to limit climate change will displace all existing jobs for condominium framers, air traffic controllers and all their ilk.

Because that would be absurd.

And yet. This week has been one large “and yet” on the Smith government’s intense fight against Ottawa.

Spin cycle

Even after the natural resources minister and multiple media outlets laid out the facts that 2.7 million jobs didn’t actually mean what Smith said it meant, the clear misrepresentations continued.

A party fundraising letter; a video by Smith, pacing around outside a government office; tweets from cabinet ministers, including one in which Transportation Minister Devin Dreeshen claimed the transition would “kill 2.7 million jobs in Alberta … that’s straight from a Liberal memo.” Journalist Charles Rusnell noted that there aren’t 2.7 million jobs, total, in Alberta.

Dreeshen did, at least, delete his manifestly wrong tweet. But other top officials keep their inaccuracies up for public consumption. It’s good fodder, after all, to stoke public anger on a file that already makes people in the oil and gas industry anxious — suggest they could all lose their jobs if the federal government proceeds with some national-economy-destroying scheme, for which no proof exists. (Unless you count extreme exaggeration based on a briefing note.)

A freeze frame of a video in which Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks about a federal memo on "just transition."
In a video posted to social media, Premier Danielle Smith repeated her misleading assertion that the federal government is intent on “eliminating entire sectors” of Canada’s economy with the plan it is no longer calling a “just transition.” (Twitter/ABDanielleSmith)

Smith further misleads in her video by misattributing a quote to the federal government: “It’s worse than we feared,” she says. “And I quote: ‘Canadians thrown out of work by climate change programs can always get jobs as janitors,’ said the federal briefing note.”

She’s not quoting from the government document. That’s a line from a story by Ottawa-based outlet Blacklock’s Reporter, which first twigged Smith to the publicly available document’s existence.

Work up in a lather, rinse, repeat

Certainly, there is room for concern and debate between Albertans and the federal government at the intersection of climate change and oil and gas development. From a sector-specific emissions cap that could potentially force production cuts if too stringent, to worry the “just transition” idea stems from the rhetoric of activists bent on much more rapid change than either industry leaders or federal ministers attest to want, there’s meat to gnaw on this bone.

This particular transition issue and the intense temperature around it has also seized NDP Leader Rachel Notley. She came out this week with calls for the Liberals to shelve their spring legislative plans, which represented a markedly sharper position than she’d taken on CBC’s West of Centre podcast a few days earlier, a head-scratcher for some in her party’s base.

In a further sign of the widening rhetorical gap between Alberta’s politicians and the oil companies they profess to defend, oilsands leaders aren’t rending their garments about an energy transition; they are gearing up for it.

And sure, take all the hyperbole out of politics and what do you have left? Mountains of uneaten perogies and cheeseburgers at the legislature cafeteria?

But it shouldn’t be too much to expect some respect for accuracy and facts from the politicians Albertans entrust with their public services, tax dollars and so much more. Between her past incarnations as a journalist and elected official, Smith has had multiple and various obligations to convey information accurately. And yet.

Like they did (or didn’t) in Quebec

This wouldn’t be the first time Smith has used misrepresentation to underline key facts.

For months during her quest to become UCP leader and premier, Danielle Smith had a favourite — albeit not factual — example that justified her plans for an Alberta Sovereignty Act.

When the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act to dismantle the trucker convoy occupation last year, Smith said repeatedly, Quebec’s National Assembly “put forward a motion that said we will not enforce that. It passed unanimously — and didn’t create a constitutional crisis.” Smith’s act would similarly refuse to enforce federal laws in Alberta, she’d declare.

Except Quebec’s legislature didn’t do that. It passed a non-binding motion that merely urged Ottawa not to apply the Emergencies Act within that province, though Quebec Premier François Legault acknowledged he lacked power to actually stop the Trudeau government from doing so.

Smith’s clear misrepresentation got pointed out to her repeatedly over the summer (by me, at least). But she continued wielding it — until Power and Politics’ David Cochrane refuted Smith’s claim to her face on live TV in October, once she’d won.

From then on, Smith jettisoned that inaccuracy from her rhetorical toolbox. But some mistruths, apparently, seem harder for the premier to quit.

Part of Suncor’s base oilsands plant. The industry’s leaders have not been raising the sort of alarms politicians have about the coming energy transition, federal plans and workforce impacts. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press )

When Smith’s office was asked Thursday about her continued misuse of the 2.7-million jobs figure, her office replied in an email: “When the federal government states that 2.7 million people’s employment will be ‘transformed,’ can they tell these people specifically what they’ll now be doing to earn a living?”

In other words, this isn’t going away.

Those 202,000 energy workers in Canada, who have steady wages, mortgages and children  — must they be someone’s rhetorical pawns?

To say nothing of all those folks in highrise construction and major railways that she hasn’t yet raised concerns about, but surely will?

 

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