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“If you’re running in Newfoundland and Labrador, you have to be able to talk about oil and gas.”

This was one major takeaway from the Executive Director of the Western Environment Centre, Katie Temple, following the environmental debate hosted by the organization last week for federal candidates in the Long Range Mountains riding. Since then, the group has signed an open letter to federal candidates urging them to create a just transition for Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil and gas workers which will be published at the end of this week.

The evidence is abundantly clear that the burning of fossil fuels—oil, gas, and coal—is the biggest contributor to climate change. Just this week, a group of 2,185 scientists, academics and researchers (including political economist Dr. Sarah Martin, an Associate Professor at MUNL, and Dr. Angela Carter, an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo) called for an international non-proliferation treaty to constrain the production and supply of fossil fuels.

Both candidates who attended the debate—Liberal incumbent Gudie Hutchings, and newcomer for the New Democratic Party, Kaila Mintz—acknowledged the urgent crisis of climate change in their opening remarks. Conservative candidate Carol Anstey declined the organization’s invitation to participate. (Of note, Hutchings also declined to participate in the same debate in October of 2019.)

According to Hutchings, climate change is “one of the most significant issues facing humanity.” Mintz took this a step further, addressing the need to wind down our economic reliance on fossil fuels, stating that “we can’t ignore the climate crisis any longer.”

Originally from Corner Brook, Mintz has a masters degree in Immigration and Settlement Studies, has worked for Global Affairs Canada, and has a long history of working against human rights abuses on an international scale. Hutchings has been the Liberal MP in the riding since 2015. Her background is in the outfitting industry, and she has experience as a president of the Corner Brook Chamber of Commerce, among other tourism and business-related activities.

The Future of Oil, Gas, and Planet

Since the Liberal Party of Canada came into power six years ago, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have plateaued at a historic high.

For several years under provincial Liberal leadership, Newfoundland and Labrador has been grappling with the fact that its identity as an offshore haven for multinational corporations to extract oil wealth does not align with planetary boundaries. Culminating in a joint federal-provincial subsidy for corporations threatening to abandon the area this Spring, the province has doubled down on its commitments to production and further exploration.

When presented with the question of how they would approach potential new exploration and development proposals, and whether they will support ending subsidies to the sector, neither candidate answered the question directly. Hutchings—MP at the time—seemed to have been misinformed on how those recent subsidy funds were allocated.

“You know, the $300 million dollars that we came up with for the offshore oil workers to help them in times of need, in COVID—that was, again, to help them transition out of this industry into the green economy,” Hutchings explained.

However, the official press release from the Canadian government stated that the purpose of the funds was for safety improvements, maintenance and upgrades of existing facilities, and research and development. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Reagan was also quoted saying “…We believe in this industry. And we believe in its future. This is about jobs. This is about ensuring a prosperous future for our offshore,” with no mention of a transition away from oil and gas. Political scientist Angela Carter, who has done extensive research on NL’s oil industry, was quoted in July calling the funds a “complete misuse” of public money.

Hutchings said that she and her colleagues have made it clear that they’ll support a “gradual reduction in oil and gas proposals” and that “it’s not going to be overnight.” According to the Liberal candidate, “it’s not that we’re going to turn off and turn on to the green economy.”

There was more urgency in the NDP candidate’s reply, stating that “the single most important thing we can do to solve the climate emergency is to transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels” and that “we must look at alternative energy strategies right away.” Although she also feels it will be a long-term process, Mintz hit on an important point: “We need to make corporations pay their fair share… an NDP government would ensure that funding goes to workers.”

“I do wish that more specifics had been discussed, instead of just general plans,” was Temple’s overall impression. A closer analysis of the parties’ climate plans as a whole by policy consultant and researcher Seth Klein concluded that none of the platforms hold up as a comprehensive climate emergency plan, which he says would actually propose new economic institutions that will drive change.

WEC Long Range Mountains Debate, 8 September 2021. Top: Carole Spicer, Spicer Facilitation and Learning; Katie Temple, Executive Director of WEC; NDP Candidate Kaila Mintz. Bottom: Katherine Flores, WEC Volunteer; Incumbent Liberal MP Gudie Hutchings.

The Inextricable Link of Food, Climate, and Justice

The questions then moved into food production and climate change, given the ever-important linkages between agriculture, land use, and carbon emissions. Sarah Martin, an expert on the global food system, recently pointed to the need for government support for the many ways food can be grown without relying on fossil fuels.

First, candidates were asked for specific ways their party would ensure implementation of agricultural practices which align with ecologically responsible principles, such as regenerative agriculture, while also addressing food insecurity in the region.

Mintz spoke about the affordability of fresh produce in the Long Range Mountains being a significant challenge, especially for “marginalized and remote communities.” She mentioned small-scale agriculture, and a commitment to working with Indigenous and community groups to “tackle food insecurity.”

Hutchings offered solutions such as a “focus on more high value crops to limit land use” and optimizing transportation regimes. She also mentioned recent investments in a secondary dairy processing facility in Deer Lake, and a federal-provincial agriculture program which supports local production and young people in the industry.

“Yes, we need to increase food production but in ecologically responsible ways,” said Temple. “In general there can be a disconnect when you talk about agriculture and the environment—often people don’t make the connection that agriculture can be devastating for the environment. For example, here on the west coast we just invested in a huge mono-crop potato farm. Without looking closely at the effects of that on the ecosystem and how we could farm in ways that work with the environment to reduce climate impact, that is not the best way forward.” 

Agriculture can be harmful to the people who work in the sector as well. The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) forces migrant workers to leave Canada after a maximum of eight months, provides no pathway to permanent residency, and ties workers’ status and access to basic needs in the country (such as healthcare) to the whims of their employers. It has been criticized by scholars as inherently, structurally, and intentionally racist.

Indeed, the nuanced ways in which the program exposes participants to human rights abuse, exploitation, and extortion has been well-documented by journalists, researchers, and advocacy groups across the country for decades—all of which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there is no legislation that addresses the vulnerabilities and challenges specific to migrant workers. When asked what candidates will do to protect these workers as the province moves to increase food production, Hutchings did not offer any solutions despite apparently having knowledge of the program’s injustices. Instead, she  referenced the workers she has met that seem happy here.

“It’s disgusting that there’s exploitation and extortion that has happened with some migrant workers, but… the temporary foreign worker program is working”.

Mintz hit closer to the issue at hand: racism and systemic injustice. However, both candidates seemed to equate the SAWP with longer term immigration streams, when in reality the program is designed to render those involved permanently impermanent.

In the context of climate change alone, perhaps legislation which forces up to 60,000 individuals to fly into and out of Canada from Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the Global South every season (instead of granting permanent status to workers and their families as has been the call from activists) is also bad environmental policy.

Who’s Educating Who?

Instead of concrete commitments to ending oil and gas subsidies, ecologically destructive agriculture practices, or justice for workers, Gudie Hutchings emphasized “pollution in our natural environments, especially plastics and chemicals” throughout the debate, including in her closing remarks. Mintz used her closing statement to reemphasize the importance of meeting emissions targets, government action to take on the “big polluters,” and true and equal partnerships with Indigenous communities.

The biggest standout of the evening’s debate though was the stark difference between the two candidates’ general approach to what they believed their role as a Member of Parliament would mean at its core. Hutchings was clear in that she believes that educating people—mentioned in at least four of her answers—was “critical” to environmental issues. She talked about educating youth on climate change, educating citizens on littering, and generally showing people the damage that individuals are doing to the environment. Conversely, Mintz was adamant about her desire to have the opportunity to learn from constituents about the environmental issues facing their communities and their ideas for solutions.

Those in leadership roles do need to be open to learning themselves. We gave the candidates the questions we were going to ask a week in advance, to show them what is important to our community, our organization and our members,” explained Temple.

“The purpose was to educate them, as well. It’s a back and forth—part of our responsibility at WEC is to educate policymakers on these issues.”

Meanwhile, it seems as though young people are clear on how they view climate change—and that governments are not doing enough to combat it. Locally, the St. John’s chapter of Fridays for Future, a group of students committed to climate justice, is planning a Global Climate Strike march on September 24 from Memorial University to the Confederation Building to stage a protest.

Their message couldn’t be any less ambiguous:

“The climate crisis does not exist in a vacuum. Other socio-economic crises such as racism, sexism, ableism, class inequality, and more amplify the climate crisis and vice versa. We are united in our fight for climate justice, but we must also acknowledge that we do not experience the same problems; nor do we experience them to the same extent. Together we will fight for a just future where no one is left behind. The historical victories of collective action have proven the need for the youth to stand united with the multisectoral, intergenerational struggle for a better future for all; a future where people and planet are prioritized.”

Heidi Janes is a board member of WEC. The views expressed here are hers.

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Heidi Janes is a grad student in MUN's Political Science department thinking, researching, and writing about food. Based on the west coast of the island, she'd much rather be outdoors.