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Can Jonathan Wilkinson be our C.D. Howe?

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

By Seth Klein | Opinion | June 24th 2021 National Observer



Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson (left) and C.D. Howe, Canada's minister of munitions and supply during the Second World War. Photos by Alex Tétreault and Archives Canada / Wikimedia Commons

When it came time for the Canadian government to meet the emergency of the Second World War, one man (they were all men) within Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s cabinet stood out — C.D. Howe. While that wartime cabinet included many impressive members, a number of whom played instrumental roles in Canada’s mobilization, most historians of the period agree that Howe, the minister of munitions and supply, held a special role. More than any other, Howe (dubbed “Minister of Everything”) is seen as singularly responsible for spearheading Canada’s extraordinary wartime production and overseeing the wholesale transformation of the Canadian economy onto a wartime footing. In short, Howe was a leader who understood the scale and urgency of the challenge.

Today, as we struggle to meet the climate emergency, another transformation of our economy is called for. And that has me wondering: Can Jonathan Wilkinson, our federal minister of environment and climate change, the person charged with overseeing the decarbonization of Canada’s economy and society in the face of a civilizational threat, be our C.D. Howe?


Howe was an engineer by trade. Prior to entering politics, he had made a lot of money in the private sector, mainly by building the grain elevators that came to dot Western Canada in the 1910s and ’20s. In the course of doing so, he developed a strong reputation as someone who could get big and challenging jobs done quickly. When the Depression put an end to his business, he made the leap to politics in 1935, becoming the member of Parliament for what is now Thunder Bay, and was immediately invited into cabinet. After war was declared in late 1939, at age 54, Howe was made minister of munitions and supply.

Canada’s Second World War manufacturing was nothing short of stunning, all the more so because most of the production capacity had to be built from scratch. Historian Jack Granatstein, in a 2005 paper prepared for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now renamed