Early Life and Education
Steven Guilbeault was born in La Tuque, Quebec, the first of four children in a Catholic family. He appears to have been strongly influenced in his early years by his uncle Valmont Guilbeault, a missionary with the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Haiti with whom he had rewarding conversations about personal commitment and the future of humanity. It was this same uncle who encouraged the family to adopt a child from Haiti.
During Steven’s childhood, the woods and hills of La Tuque were like one big playground. When he was about five years old, he saw some workers getting ready to cut down the trees in a wooded area near his home, and he went running to alert his mother. She gave him the idea of climbing a tree in order to save at least one of them, and that is what he did. Unable to persuade the little boy to climb back down, the workers asked his mother to intervene. She told them that she could do nothing about it. Within the next few days, the tree got cut down anyway, but through this experience, Steven discovered the feisty spirit that would serve him so well in future.
In 1989, he completed his college studies and enrolled in courses in computer science and industrial relations at the Université de Montréal. A year later, after considering his options carefully, he began studying political science. For one summer, he worked as a researcher and logistics coordinator for the Canadian Human Rights Foundation. Inspired by the values that were dear to him and remembering the teachings of his Uncle Valmont, he took courses in international morality and liberation theology, a school of thought that arose in Latin America and advocated the social and economic emancipation of the Third World.
During his university years, Guilbeault interacted with Laure Waridel, Elizabeth Hunter, Sidney Ribaux, François Meloche and Patrick Hern, with whom he shared similar ideas about social justice. Toward the end of his undergraduate years, he and his friends began looking for ways to create their own jobs in the field of the environment. Thus, in 1993 they founded a non-governmental organization called ASEED (Action for Solidarity, Equity, Environment and Development). In 1998, ASEED changed its name to Équiterre and defined its mission as follows: “Équiterre offers concrete solutions to accelerate the transition towards a society in which individuals, organizations and governments make ecological choices that are both healthy and equitable.” Within Équiterre, Guilbeault decided to focus his efforts on his preferred issue, climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992 and opened for signing at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil that same year. The first Conference of the Parties to the Convention was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995. At this conference, the industrialized countries acknowledged that the provisions of the Convention were insufficient to reduce greenhouse gases and launched a new set of negotiations aimed at strengthening the agreement. These negotiations led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord that was signed in 1997 and took effect in 2004.
Guilbeault participated in the 1995 Conference of the Parties (COP) in Berlin on behalf of the Quebec Coalition on Climate Change, which he had founded together with members of other organizations. Appreciating his enthusiasm and his understanding of the issues, the Canadian NGOs asked him to represent them on the Canadian delegation to the next COP. This request sealed his lifelong commitment to the fight against climate change.
Greenpeace and the CN Tower
In August 1997, while continuing to serve on the board of directors of Équiterre, Guilbeault took charge of Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy campaign. Through Greenpeace, he organized numerous actions that made a big impact, including holding a press conference on the property of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in Shawinigan, Quebec to oppose Canadian investments in nuclear energy.
But the action that unquestionably won Guilbeault the most attention was when he and British activist Chris Holden climbed the CN Tower in Toronto in July 2001 to draw attention to the issue of climate change. For several months beforehand, a group of activists had monitored the comings and goings of the security guards at the base of the tower, which is over 553 m high. Steven, an experienced rock climber, spent many weeks training for the ascent, knowing that it would be difficult. On the chosen day, the team arrived at the tower at around 3:00 a.m. Guilbeault and Holden took off and climbed the tower’s steel cables rapidly. Before the guards had time to intervene, the two activists were already more than 30 feet in the air. They spent four hours climbing the tower while using their cell phones to give interviews to the teams of journalists on the ground. Not far from the observation deck, they unfurled an immense banner reading “Canada and Bush – Climate Killers.” (A few months earlier, the United States had announced that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and although a majority of Canadians were in favor of this international agreement, the Canadian federal government had still not ratified it.) Guilbeault and Holden stayed perched below the observation deck for about four hours. Before arresting them, the police congratulated them on their daring exploit. Guilbeaultwas held in custody for a few days but released early enough to attend the Bonn Climate Change Conference shortly afterward. There he played a decisive role in preserving the Kyoto Protocol despite the US withdrawal. In December 2002, Canada ratified the accord.
Publications and Media Presence
In September 2007, after his many achievements both as director of the Quebec section of Greenpeace and as a participant in international conferences such as the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the 2005 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Guilbeault decided to return to work at Équiterre, where, as of this writing, he serves as spokesperson and senior director.
In 2009, Guilbeault published a book entitled Alerte! Le Québec à l’heure des changements climatiques (Quebec in the era of climate change – a call to action), in which he discussed the debates and actions surrounding climate change, an issue that had interested scientists since the 1980s. He also wrote about innovations related to green energy and the fight against climate change in Quebec and offered an action plan to make the province a true model for the rest of the world. In 2014, with co-author François Tanguay, he published Le prochain virage. Propulser le Québec vers un avenir équitable et durable (The next shift – driving Quebec toward a fair, sustainable future). This book discussed global climate issues and offered food for thought about the environmental choices that Quebec society has to make.
Guilbeault is much sought after by the media as an authority on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development and gives many newspaper and television interviews. Because of his high profile in the media, his extensive knowledge of environmental issues and the practical advice that he offers, Guilbeault is consulted regularly by political authorities as well. As of this writing, he is working closely with the Quebec government to develop an action plan for fighting climate change and serving as a strategic advisor to Cycle Capital Management, a company that specializes in investing venture capital in projects and companies in the clean technology and renewable energy sectors.
Steven Guilbeault has received many awards and honours over the years in recognition of his commitment to sustainable development and the fight against climate change. He was named an honorary member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2010 and received the Medal of the Université de Montréal in 2012, as well as the Blanche Lemco Van Ginkel Award from the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec (Quebec professional order of urban planners) in 2014.