The current debate over the future of Publisac, and in particular the way it is distributed, entails choices that force us to reflect collectively on the true meaning and the ethical nature of the green transition. We all feel a sense of urgency—and rightly so—but it should not make us lose sight of the fact that our decisions can have the effect of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, while other, more comprehensive solutions are available. If we yield to dogmatism, there is a danger that the transition intended to be green will be the opposite, if we hastily adopt draconian measures without collaboration or thorough analysis. Some measures might at the time appear satisfactory for some activists or even politicians, but they can have dramatic economic, social and even environmental consequences.
Barack Obama, who was in town recently, touched on this when he gave the example of oil industry workers, as well as people in India who live without electricity. Are we going to suddenly deprive the former of the livelihood that sustains their family and tell the latter they will never have access to electricity, with all the associated consequences for their living conditions, in the name of the climate emergency?
Our leaders therefore have a responsibility to consider every dimension of a problem and find a solution that is strategic and that ensures the green transition does not come at the expense of those who have no voice in the matter. We tend to forget that sustainable development is defined by the balance between environmental, social and economic factors.
In the case of Publisac, it has been demonstrated to have significant social benefits. Nine out of 10 Quebecers read the flyers. Low-income households, seniors and many more who still rely on printed flyers to save money and make ends meet every week. These households save between $1,000 and $1,500 every year. Let’s not ignore the needs of seniors and low-income families and find other reasonable solutions.
Moreover, at a time when the government has acknowledged the crisis in the print media and has come to their aid, it must be borne in mind that Publisac distributes 95% of Quebec’s weekly newspapers. As such, it plays an important democratic role. If it were to disappear, it would put the finances of numerous papers into jeopardy, since there is no other realistic solution that also makes economic sense.
Furthermore, Publisac is managed responsibly. It is not distributed to anyone who does not want it, making it part of reduction at the source. The bag itself, which is made of recycled plastic, as well as its contents, are fully recyclable, and the numbers show that they are in fact recycled.
Imposing an opt-in system as a replacement of an opt-out system would spell the end of Publisac, because complexities and additional costs would make the operation unviable. Thousands of jobs would disappear across Quebec, and many businesses would be threatened. Can we not reflect collectively on proposals that will have actual benefits for the environment without being detrimental to the economy and to thousands of families?
The goal of sustainable development should be the achievement of a balance between economic development, social progress and environmental protection. This change to the distribution model exacerbates an imbalance and divisions, as well as squandering a valuable opportunity to rally all stakeholders and come up with workable and innovative solutions.
Publisac is at the core of an ecosystem that is more complex than it might appear. Our decision-makers must agree to consider every aspect of the issue. Will the green transition come at the expense of those living in vulnerable situations when it could be done differently? Will they put up hurdles for companies that are trying to restructure the economy simply for the sake of appearances? These are questions we cannot ignore under the circumstances.
David Heurtel is Counsel at Fasken and was Minister for Sustainable Development, the Environment and the Fight against Climate Change (2014-2017) as well as Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion (2017-2018).