People & Culture

Catherine McKenna on diversity in politics, internet trolls, and cold-water swimming

Episode 28

A century after the first woman was elected to the Canadian Parliament, one of the most prominent figures in present-day politics shares her thoughts on how to amplify diverse voices in the Commons

  • Published Dec 14, 2021
  • Updated Apr 14, 2022
Former federal minister Catherine McKenna speaks at an event celebrating her Honourary Fellowship to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society on Aug. 19, 2021. (Photo: Ben Powless/Can Geo)
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With this December marking the 100th anniversary of Agnes McPhail becoming the first woman elected to the Canadian Parliament, Explore welcomes one of the most prominent female political figures of the present day to the podcast. Before stepping back from public life in the fall of 2021, Catherine McKenna was a federal Minister of Industry and Minister of the Environment in the government of Justin Trudeau. She was lead Canadian negotiator and signatory of the Paris Climate Accord, and got federal carbon pricing legislation passed by Parliament.

In this engaging and thoughtful conversation, she discusses the joys and challenges of being a woman in politics today, how to make politics more inclusive, what needs to be done to shut down the threats and hate of internet trolls, where things stand with the environment after the Glasgow Climate Conference, and why she is passionate about open and cold water swimming. 

David: Catherine McKenna, thanks so much for coming on the Canadian Geographic Explore podcast.

CM: It’s great to join.

David: Great. You’ve obviously retired from politics, but you’re still very involved in the environmental side of things and you were at the Glasgow climate conference. And I’m just wondering what your takeaway was from that, being on the civilian side this time and … the sort of overall sense of these major conferences is it’s never quite enough. But what was your feeling coming out of there?

CM: Well, I mean, I think people have to manage their expectations a bit in the sense that these climate conferences don’t reduce emissions themselves; emissions are reduced by action through countries and municipalities and businesses. But they are really important because they have the attention of the whole world to see, OK, how are we tracking and how is the world doing? And just to go back to the Paris Agreement, in 2021 there was an agreement for the first time ever that every country agreed to a temperature target: that we needed to stay well below two degrees, striving for 1.5 degrees and that every country needed to do their part. So these conferences are very useful because one, it increases ambition. I think there was a lot of pressure on countries to do more, and you saw Canada increased its target. So Canada already has a plan … to reduce emissions by 30 per cent, so they went to 40 per cent. So that was obviously a positive thing, and you saw that with other countries. And then you also saw initiatives that were announced at COP that weren’t necessarily about one particular country, but an area of focus. So there was a lot of focus on getting countries off coal and significant investments, with a lot of ambition to do it a lot faster. So I think that was very positive. On the side that was less positive, I mean, we’re just not there. We do not have enough action by countries that will keep us at 1.5 degrees. And if you go above that, then the challenge is a number of countries, especially small island developing states, will be in very serious trouble, including some being underwater. We have a lot more work to go. But I do think COP 26 showed significant progress, and now everyone really needs to do the work, and that’s what I’m really focused on personally. How do we scale climate and nature solutions? I think getting countries off coal really, really quickly and protecting very large pieces of nature is going to be an important part of that. And that’s something I want to focus on.

David: Part of the reason we wanted to talk to you today as one of Canada’s more prominent political figures, is it’s the 100th anniversary of Agnes Macphail being elected to the House of Commons. And obviously, things have progressed in terms of women being elected to office since 1921, but there are still a lot of challenges. Your career unfortunately highlights those, specifically social media and the trolling that you experience. What is it like to be a woman in politics today? And how do we make that as inclusive a place as possible?

CM: It’s a huge honour to be in politics. I mean, I’m no longer in politics, but I really felt that because you can make a real difference. And hopefully I was able to make some contributions during my time as Minister of Environment and Climate Change and then Infrastructure. But it is challenging and this is something that I am committed to taking on even post-politics: the hate, the misogyny online directed towards women. It can be directed towards a whole variety of folks, especially if you are a visible minority, if you are a member of the LGBTQ2+ community, if you’re Indigenous, and we really need to change that because we need more diversity in politics. And the last thing you want is that folks decide they’re not going to run because of the attacks they will get. There also seems to be something very strange, which is that if you are, at least in my experience, a woman in politics who also works on climate change, there’s a whole other level of vitriol, and that is a challenge. We just need good people to get into politics. I have called it out at times. I mean, I didn’t spend every minute of every day, it would be a waste of time, but I don’t think Canadians are willing to accept the treatment, especially online, and I think social media companies have a significant role to play in doing a better job of ensuring that they address the hate and vitriol and violence. Because the problem is it’s not just online. We are seeing that it has a tendency to go offline as well. So in-person attacks, which is obviously hugely problematic.

David: Looking at the recent whistleblower situation with Facebook and Facebook’s reaction to that, it seems, you know, that Facebook in particular doesn’t seem all that keen to regulate itself in a way that’s meaningful and the algorithm is still feeding hate groups into hate groups and congregating them. And I’m just wondering, are we reaching a point where there does need to be some sort of government regulation?

CM: 100 per cent. If you can’t regulate yourself, then that’s when government certainly has a role to play. And, you know, the companies have the algorithms. The companies are able to identify unacceptable behaviour, but often they don’t because their business model is focused on how many likes and retweets. And we’ve seen that if you are on Facebook, it came out recently thanks to the whistleblower that if you dislike something, you’re I think five times more likely for it to be promoted. So we’re actually helping people hate more, which is really, I don’t think what maybe what the intention was, I hope, when these companies were started, but they’re just so big now and they have such a pervasive influence on folks lives. And with that comes great responsibility, and they’re not willing to step up. I think that’s really where government needs to step in.

David: So what advice do you have to women coming into politics or considering a career in politics?

CM: Do it. We need more women in politics. We’re not going to change things by having less women in politics. I was kind of laughing because I mean, I use social media often, especially Twitter. I kind of like the ability to see what’s going on and participate in conversations, even though there is a fair bit of negativity. I posted a picture of Parliament, maybe 100 years ago, but it hasn’t changed as drastically as we’d like! I posted a picture of Parliament where it was all men and everyone working in Parliament was male. And then a picture of the Liberal benches. There was Karina Gould, who was the first cabinet minister to have a baby while as a minister, and she was breastfeeding in the House. And I think, look, that’s the different face of Parliament and that’s what we need. You only change institutions, I think, by getting broader diversity in, because people have a huge impact on the institutions and also what’s acceptable behaviour. And so I’m all for more women in politics. I’ve said across party lines, I’m happy to support women in politics. I did a campaign, Run Like a Girl, which is, you know, just supporting women and girls who want to get into politics. And you might say, “Well, girls, how are they going to go into politics?” Well, at one of the events we had, we had a girl who stood up and said, “You know what? I think I’m going to run for my student council as president.” And she won! And then I met her later on and she was really excited. And at that same event, a woman stood up and said, “You know what? I think I’m going to run for mayor.” And she I think she felt the solidarity of all these women in the room. She slightly regretted it, she tried to take it back, but then she ran anyway, and she won. And so I think it makes a difference. I think it makes a difference in the tone of conversation. I think it makes a difference in the experiences that women bring. That doesn’t mean all women are the same. But I think that we just need diversity and that’s broader than just women. I mean, you know, Parliament needs to look like the way Canada looks, and it’s not the way it looked 100 years ago when it was all men sitting in Parliament or even a decade ago, or even now, where it’s still predominantly male. We haven’t reached 50 percent. And we need way more diversity in terms of racialized Canadians, in terms of Indigenous [Peoples]. And that’s really important because I think you make better decisions and you’re better able to reflect the will of Canadians.

“Parliament needs to look the way Canada looks, and it’s not the way it looked 100 years ago.”

David: So proportional representation has been shown to make governments or Parliaments much more inclusive. I know the Liberals at one point were in favour of that; is that worth looking at again?

CM: Well, originally the idea was to have the last — I think it was 2015 was going to be the last first-past-the-post election, and for a variety of reasons that didn‘t happen. But I think we need to be looking at all the different mechanisms for building a Parliament or a system that reflects more the will of Canadians. So whether it’s looking at electoral reform or I mean, in my case, I was just talking online about why can’t we do a hybrid Parliament where if you’re a parent and you’ve got to be home with a sick kid, you’re able to participate virtually? Systems are only going to change if you change the system; you can’t expect something better. I mean, you can tweak it. And so I think that these are important conversations. I also participated in something very fascinating, or I mean I saw it in action, and this was a citizen’s assembly. And this was a group of Canadians that were a representative sample of Canadians who decided to step up and participate in an assembly looking at online harm and how to address social media companies. And it’s a model that’s been used in different countries where you bring together, you know, regular Canadians to have real discussions about issues to provide input to government. And I think we need to do that more. I think we need to consult in a different way where we don’t … you know, in some ways, I think the tendency is to kind of have a sense of what the question is, maybe even the answer, and then bring people in, and they’re generally stakeholders or people who care greatly about this issue. And so you’re not getting a representative sample of Canadians. And I think that you just make better decisions when you bring democracy closer to people. To, you know, regular people who are going through their day, but who actually care greatly about these issues and issues that impact their lives. So whatever we can do to do that is something that I’m very committed to and making people recognize how important democracy is and how fortunate we are to live in Canada and to really own their democracy.

David: So looking at your two terms in office, and you were minister of two fairly large portfolios, Environment and Industry. Despite the trolling, what were the positives for you?

CM: You know, there’s so many positives being in politics. First of all, you’re a Member of Parliament, so you represent your riding and have the ability to make a difference in your local community, to respond to people who are, you know, it could be they’re trying to get a family member or spouse into the country and they’re having issues with the immigration system. Or, you know, we brought in a lot of refugees and helping them resettle, or through the pandemic supporting members of your community, little small businesses that were really struggling. So there’s the very local piece, and then there’s the huge piece. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I was the first minister of Environment and Climate Change, where we had a government that prioritized climate change and we were able to do really big, difficult things like get a price on pollution. And I think a lot of people thought it could never be done. And now it’s been upheld in the Supreme Court. The legislation was upheld, the ability of the government to have a price on pollution because pollution knows no borders. I think those are really important things. Some of the most special moments, though, were definitely on the land with Indigenous Peoples. It was just so special going to places, whether it was Thaidene Nëné where we established a new national park, or going to a whole range of different places in Inuit Nunangat with Inuit. That was really special because you really appreciate your country, but also you hear from Indigenous Peoples what the land means to them and their relationship with the land. And I think that is part of reconciliation; until we can bridge this divide and really understand, you know, the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and work with them — and the land is certainly very important to Indigenous Peoples, and often they are a lot closer than regular Canadians to to the land, to the animals, to the water — I think that, you know, there’s going to be this divide. So that was incredibly amazing, especially when we were able to protect some very special places based on a model of Indigenous Conservation Areas. So based on what the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples on the land wanted.

David: I’m curious about your thoughts on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act that passed in the last Parliament? What impact do you see that having on the environment?

CM: Look, I think it’s really critical. It’s not just a declaration. I mean, obviously having, you know, legislation, declarations are important. It’s actually, how do you approach things? So, you know, whether it’s working in real, true partnership with Indigenous Peoples to protect the land or on the development side. I was also I was the minister who was responsible for reforming how we approved major projects and really thinking about what is consultation with Indigenous Peoples? What is free and informed consent? Those are very critical issues. And it’s not just what the law says, it’s how do you approach things, and how do you get better outcomes? I always focus on outcomes, and I think you can get to a much better place if you’re actually working in real partnership with Indigenous Peoples. And that, I think, is is a critical part of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

David: In terms of the environment, we’re clearly in a decade that a lot needs to get done. Within that realm, what gives you hope?

CM: What gives me hope is I think people are reasonable at the end of the day. It was Jean Chrétien who said to me, “Canadians are reasonable, be reasonable!” And I always thought about that when we were trying to do hard things. You know, whether it was putting a price on pollution or bringing together a whole range of different stakeholders to protect nature or bring in a new Impact Assessment Act. I think, you know, people, they value the land, the water, the air. Canadians understand that climate change is real. I mean, I think at the end of the day, people want action, but it’s really up to governments to be brave. And so as optimistic as I am, I think that, you know, governments need to respond and they need to lead and they’re going to have to make some tough decisions. But in a way, it shouldn’t even be tough because there is no economy if you don’t have a planet to live on. But beyond that, I think we all we have the opportunity right now to choose solutions that will help ensure sustainability. That will mean cleaner air and cleaner water, but most importantly, will ensure a sustainable future for our kids and grandkids. So that’s what gives me optimism. I also am very optimistic because young people care greatly about the environment and climate change. I mean, it’s sad that they’ve had to grow up with the threat of climate change, and that’s always been present. But at the same time, they look at the world very differently. I have three kids and, you know, sometimes they just think it’s bananas, what adults might focus on without missing the key issue. The issue is climate change. We all need to wake up every day and figure out how we’re going to save the only planet we have.

David: Just keeping an eye on the clock and I know you need to get going. Just two quick questions for you. One is I was watching- I follow you on Twitter and was watching with interest as you were swimming the various coasts of Canada to celebrate a big birthday this year. We have a sauna and a lake and we plunge in our lake, but you actually swim distances in cold water. And I’m just curious where that started and and and why.

CM: Oh, I just love the water. It probably started, my love for, I guess, colder water swimming started when I was very, very young. My dad is Irish and all my cousins on his side, everyone lives in Ireland and we would go swimming in the Irish Sea. And I will tell you, the Irish Sea is not warm.

David: That’s bracing.

CM: And so I just, I love open water. I mean, I love pools, too. I was a competitive swimmer. But just being out in the water, whether it’s in lakes or oceans, and your head’s down and you can’t hear any noise except for kind of the churning of the water. I find it meditative. People try to do mindful meditation; I’m very terrible at that, but just get me in the open water where I can swim, I find that just very calming. And it also reminds me, it does remind me how fortunate we are to live in Canada. We have five Great Lakes, we’ve got three oceans. We have the longest coastline in the world and we really need to do everything we can to protect it. And also, we need a commitment to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, to swim, drink and fish. And so it’s just something I love, I will continue to do. It was actually very fun during the pandemic and I was like, Gosh, what can I do for my 50th birthday? And so swimming the Great Lakes and then adding as a bonus, I was able to do the Atlantic, Pacific and the Arctic — where I did not swim a long distance in the Arctic, because one of the rules of my swims for this challenge I set for myself was to make sure that I didn’t wear a wetsuit. So it was a shorter swim in the Arctic, but it was still great. And it was also for a good cause for a great organization, Swim Drink Fish, that’s committed to clean water, including working with Indigenous Peoples. So it was fun. It was a fundraiser.

David: That was off Baffin Island?

CM: It was off … I was in Nunavut and it was just outside of Auyuittuq, one of our national parks.

David: Wow. Well, that’s brave. Very brave. And my last question, which I ask everybody is, can you tell us your favourite place in Canada? It may be happy place that you go to in your mind or have fond memories of or a place you like to get away to?

CM: The Arctic is very, very special to me, in particular Inuit Nunangat because of the time I’ve spent there, not just in beautiful places, but also with Inuit. I’m so worried about these incredible places where you have ice, you have animals and you have an amazing culture. As you look at climate change, what is going to be the impact on these areas and then the people who live there? And will Canadians, my kids or grandkids in the future be able togo visit and meet with Inuit living in these places? I think that’s very special, but I think all our parks too. I love our national parks. I’ve been to so many of them. I’m not going to single any out; I think they’re all very special in their own unique ways.

David: Awesome. Well, Catherine McKenna, thank you so much for coming on the Explore podcast.

CM: It’s great. Thanks very much.


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