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Just Transition reflects a desire to improve, but semantics are distracting from the bigger picture

What makes something “just” or “decent” is entirely subjective, but then again, what isn’t?

Word cloudLife itself is largely an amalgamation of people’s personal experiences, actions, ideas, and emotions. No definition will ever capture this degree of complexity or nuance. What’s good, kind or fair will remain philosophical topics of debate. A topic of lesser debate, however, lies in people’s collective desire to keep improving, to keep bettering themselves and the world around them. People are always striving to level up; from designing more efficient technologies, to medical breakthroughs, or implementing more innovative agricultural practices. People are by nature, forward thinkers.  

The concept of a just transition is no different. Yet this year alone, just transition made countless headlines as Alberta and Ottawa continued to clash over two words that have often been described as “divisive.” In January, Premier Danielle Smith reflected on the proposed Just Transition Legislation. 

Because when I hear the words just transition, it signals eliminating jobs,” she said. “Which for Alberta is a non-starter.” She went on to suggest that Alberta shares in the country’s goals to reduce emissions across all industries, including Oil and Gas. Yet the term itself remained a distraction.

“But to use that terminology, they’re virtue signaling to an extreme base that is openly advocating to shut down oil and natural gas,” she explained.

While Smith is not wrong in pointing out linguistic flaws, she is missing an opportunity to engage in a more productive conversation. The term may not be perfect and its language may be highly subjective but at its core, a just transition reflects an attempt to improve our current and future states. Not just in creating sustainable job opportunities, but also advancing social and environmental justice. To do this, we need to begin anchoring what is currently a large and highly complex conversation by grounding it in a multitude of actions and solutions that can be implemented at a community level. 

Ana Guerra Marin, Communities Director and Just Transition Lead at Iron & Earth, speaks passionately about Iron & Earth’s holistic approach to enabling a just transition. She emphasizes the importance of creating local opportunities. 

“That’s why Iron & Earth is not just focusing on solar and wind, they’re also focusing on retrofits, repurposing, all that kind of construction work that happens in the community,” she explains. 

She then recounts a story about a community engagement experience led by Iron & Earth with residents of Hinton, a town in west-central Alberta. While there are still difficulties that accompany communicating about a just transition, she suggests there are plenty of opportunities to look beyond the language itself— to connect in an authentic and constructive way.

Guerra Marin describes how facilitators drew on language from the Alberta Narratives Project, leaning towards the term “energy transition” as opposed to “just transition.” 

“What the community actually ended up saying was ‘no, we’re talking about diversification from energy sources and from industries,’” she explains. 

Allowing these perspectives to surface allowed participants to delve deeper into their visions for the Town of Hinton, exploring how a myriad of solutions could help improve the lives of its residents. They  only wished to improve their hometown and were more interested in solutions than a deep dive into the English language. 

From this perspective it’s clear that getting hung up on specific terminology only distracts from the bigger picture. When an organization such as Iron & Earth takes the time to engage and connect with communities, just transition efforts evolve beyond broad, philosophical ideas. Instead, they become focused on meeting community needs. The language becomes no more than a tool to find common ground.

At the end of the day, we can debate the concept of justice and fairness forever. But in order to find commonalities, we must move beyond semantics. We need to slow down and hear from communities, allowing them to share their experiences in whatever terms best reflect their unique perspectives. If we can learn to listen without agreeing on every definition or terminology, then perhaps we can finally begin a more constructive conversation. One that lays the foundation for an improved future.

post by freelance writer Emma Gammons



This blog is funded in part by the Government of Canada's Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program.

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Iron & Earth was founded and operates on Indigenous land within Treaty Six Territory and Métis Region 4 in amiskwaciy-wâskahikan (in Nehiyawewin/Cree), so-called Edmonton. The home of many Indigenous Peoples including the Nehiyawak/Cree, Tsuut’ina, Niitsitapi/Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, Dene Suliné, Anishinaabe/Ojibway/Saulteaux, and the Inuk/Inuit.

We pay our respects to all Indigenous Peoples of this land. Through their spiritual and practical relationships with the land, a rich heritage for our learning and our life as a community has been created and maintained. We recognize that the transition to a low-carbon future must be led by Indigenous Peoples and that there will be no justice unless we acknowledge and repair our relationship with the land.

We are committed to responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action and upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and acknowledge that we are always learning and unlearning practices that minimize harm and lead to the development of trust between us and Indigenous Peoples across Nations and urban centers.