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Sustainable Jobs Act: another plan to make a plan

New federal just transition legislation falls short on support for workers and communities

June 22, 2023

4-minute read

Since the federal Liberals first promised a Just Transition Act back in 2019, workers and environmentalists alike have been eagerly awaiting legislation that would ensure no worker or community is left behind as Canada transitions toward a carbon-free economy.

Four years later that legislation has arrived in the form of Bill C-50, the Sustainable Jobs Act, a proposal so brief and unambitious that it is, as Seth Klein succinctly put it, “ultimately of little consequence as drafted.”

The act follows on the heels of the Sustainable Jobs Plan, released in February, which outlined a broader strategy for advancing a people-focused just transition. This act is one part of that 10-point plan.

To be fair to the government, the bill we got last week includes basically everything the February plan promised and nothing more. Nevertheless, the Sustainable Jobs Act is a disappointment on several levels.

Let’s start with the legislation’s three explicit objectives:

  1. Economic growth. On the one hand, it’s a goal so generic as to be meaningless. On the other hand, by failing to specify “clean growth” this objective could well be used as a pretense for protecting fossil fuel interests. Industry co-opting climate policy is nothing new, of course. But we can’t be afraid to deliberately shrink certain segments of the economy, such as oil and gas production, in service of a cleaner and more robust economy overall.

  2. Creation of sustainable jobs. A sensible goal in the abstract, but since the legislation fails to define “sustainable jobs” this goal is fundamentally immeasurable. In a reversal from the earlier Sustainable Jobs Plan, which did include a vague sense of what was meant by the term, the government has opted for an “evergreen” definition of sustainable jobs in this legislation that it can continually redefine as needed. That’s a risky approach, because without a clear definition, there is no reason why policies to promote “sustainable jobs” could not include industries like fossil fuel extraction, especially under a different government.

  3. Support for workers and communities. Social support lies at the heart of a just transition, so its inclusion here is essential. Unfortunately, no such support exists in the legislation itself.

The bill introduces a plan to make a plan with no plan for when the plan fails.

The meat of the Sustainable Jobs Act is not tangible programs. Instead, Bill C-50 creates a set of institutions—all previously outlined in the Sustainable Jobs Plan—for managing the government’s sustainable jobs agenda moving forward. There are three key pieces here:

  1. Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council. Like the Net-Zero Advisory Body it is modeled after, the council will consult with stakeholders and offer advice and recommendations to relevant ministers through an annual report. Its 15-person membership will include a balance of labour, Indigenous organizations and industry. Importantly, a trade union representative will co-chair. The council could play an important role in shaping the sustainable jobs dialogue moving forward. But, since it is effectively made up of volunteers, its impact may hinge on how much bureaucratic support it receives.

  2. Sustainable Jobs Action Plans. The legislation requires the government to produce a plan every five years starting in 2025 to advance the act’s three goals. While the plans must include “milestones” (i.e., targets) and ministers must report on their progress, there is no mechanism for measuring or enforcing compliance. Moreover, since the goals of the act are so amorphous to begin with, it remains unclear what each plan will even contain. Put another way, the bill introduces a plan to make a plan with no plan for when the plan fails.

  3. Sustainable Jobs Secretariat. The secretariat is a new bureaucratic body responsible for developing the Sustainable Jobs Action Plans and coordinating the sustainable jobs agenda between relevant departments. It is a necessary institution for enabling a whole-of-government approach on this file, but it has a narrower mandate than initially suggested in the Sustainable Jobs Plan. Specifically, it does not appear the secretariat will be the external-facing “one-stop shop” for workers and employers that was previously promised.

And that’s pretty much it! Besides some boilerplate legalese, there is little other substance in the bill as drafted. So what’s been left out? Several priorities are conspicuously absent.

First, despite a passing reference to the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in the preamble, Bill C-50 does not require the government to formally account for net-zero emissions in the development of its sustainable jobs policy. There’s a risk that this legislation will work at cross purposes with Canada’s broader climate agenda, especially given the ambiguity around what constitutes a sustainable job.

Second, while the preamble acknowledges the barriers to employment facing marginalized groups in the clean economy, including women, racialized and Indigenous workers, there is nothing in the bill itself that would help diversify the workforce. Inclusion and equity do not make it into the formal mandates of any of the institutions created by the act.

Similarly, while the bill includes positive language around “good-paying, high-quality jobs,” there are no tangible rights or considerations for workers outside of their role as stakeholders. There is nothing in the act that would ensure good, unionized jobs are a priority in the 2025 Sustainable Jobs Action Plan. In contrast, the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act includes a variety of concrete protections, such as pro-union prevailing wage rules.

Finally, the bill promises “support” for workers and communities but is ambiguous about what that entails. Even modest guarantees, such as publicly-funded retraining, are omitted. A truly ambitious piece of legislation could have made a green jobs guarantee for workers, similar to the Youth Climate Corps proposed by the Climate Emergency Unit. For communities, the act could have guaranteed public investments in regions impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels. As it stands, no tangible support of any kind is guaranteed by the act.

In sum, the weakness of the Sustainable Jobs Act, as drafted, is not in its general orientation but rather in the ambiguity of its commitments. Could the act, as written, facilitate a truly just transition to a net-zero economy? Possibly. But is it likely to advance that transition in a tangible and meaningful way? Not without some serious revisions.

As Bill C-50 moves through the legislative process there will be opportunities to strengthen this language. Shifting elements of the preamble into the body of the text would be a good start, but there is space here for more ambitious ideas, too. A federal funding backstop for regional economic diversification supported by inclusive workforce development initiatives, for example, would be something to get excited about.

Workers and communities need concrete and timely solutions to their transition challenges, not merely promises of future plans. The government cannot shy away from the potential for this legislation to inspire hope among those who are most reticent about the transition to a cleaner economy.

A strong Sustainable Jobs Act could yet play a pivotal role in driving forward Canada’s climate agenda while minimizing the costs and maximizing the benefits for everyone.

Thank you to Marc Lee and Lauren Latour for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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