When I caught up with Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna after Question Period in mid-May, she had just given impassioned arguments in the House about the costs of the climate crisis being passed down to youth. In the half hour we spent together, McKenna talked about the biggest challenges she faces as a leader, and how she keeps going at this critical time.
Swimming in the fast lane
LSW: I was watching your iconic conversation with the Members of Parliament during Question Period just now, and I just wanted to ask you, what is it like to be you right now?
Minister Catherine McKenna: Gosh, that's a good question. (Laughs).
Look, it's funny, because I’m now the second longest serving minister to David Anderson. A complete surprise that I’m in this job. I ran because I really did not like the Harper government. I did not like what they were doing internationally. I also didn’t like how they were treating Indigenous peoples, a whole range of issues. And I was lucky enough to be asked by the prime minister to take on this position. I almost fell off my chair. He said in a few days you’re going to be going to COP21, and I actually had to say — I was very excited — 'Okay, what’s a COP?' (laughs).
That’s where I started in this job. OK, Conference of the Parties — my first act was to ban acronyms. But I had a steep learning curve. I was not a politician before, and I was not an environmentalist. In that, I mean, of course I care about the environment but I didn't wake up every day thinking about it. I thought about human rights. Actually, I thought about my kids, I’ve got three kids. But I've learned a lot in this job. Look,it’s funny — I can fight if I have to.
LSW: That was obvious (in Question Period) today.
CM: I’m Irish. My grandfather fought for Ireland’s independence. I’m from Hamilton, a Hammer. I'm a competitive swimmer. So I can do that. But I spend most of my time trying to think about how to bring people together and how you call out conservative politicians. I prefer not having to do that, but look, I feel really fortunate to be in this job. I need to remind myself that every single day I have the opportunity to move the dial, to talk to more people about why we need to act on climate change, to make differences in the lives of people....protecting the environment is so fundamental to people. The decisions we make about land, air water, animals, ice, that impacts on real people. I'm very fortunate.
So, the Conservatives mocked me for being mad today. Oh yes, I am mad — mad on behalf of our kids and grandkids and the future they deserve. Conservative politicians need to stop fighting climate action and join us in fighting climate change. pic.twitter.com/2PwOHkSyHx— Catherine McKenna 🇨🇦 (@cathmckenna) May 15, 2019
"I feel the weight of the challenge"
It's tough. It's tough. Sometimes, I feel the weight of the challenge. I take the hits on social media. Don't look at my twitter feed.
It's actually not that so much as the weight of the responsibility I've been given. In this job over the three and a half years, the world has changed. And I'm worried. I look at what happened in the U.S. We had an agreement with Obama, where we were taking all these actions. We're still following through on them.
The toughest methane emission regulations in the world in the oil and gas sector. Vehicle emissions standards. We've still moving ahead on all these issues. That's not what's going on with President Trump. And then I look at France with the Gilets jaunes (Yellow vest movement) I was just at the G7 in France talking to them. It's very hard for them to make progress on climate change because people are worried about affordability. Then I look here. When we negotiated our climate deal after a whole year and it was very hard negotiations, we had all provinces but Saskatchewan on board. It is very different now with conservative politicians.
"We have an opportunity but we have to win. We have to win the fight against climate change."
So, look, it's a hard job. We have an opportunity but we have to win. We have to win the fight against climate change.
LSW: You know, I just was reading that you were the first woman to be elected as MP in your riding.
CM: I was!
LSW: You have encountered some things since you’ve taken office that were particular to you as a woman. You were demeaned with a title on social media. "Climate Barbie" you were called and I’m sure there’s a lot that we don’t know about that you’ve gone through. I’m just wondering, how in this environment do you get up every morning and what do you do to keep yourself focused and on track and not get reactive to al that?
CM: It's kind of funny because I did have my Climate Barbie moment. I was actually at the UN, which was kind of funny in retrospect. It was a meeting with the Secretary General and countries around the world to talk about climate change. I got back to my hotel, I remember we were just sitting in the lobby. I looked at my twitter feed and it exploded. And I had been called Climate Barbie before, by Rebel Media. My team had said don’t call it out, don’t do anything, and I said OK. It’s actually quite female tendency to not…like you don’t want to be shrill so you don't call it out. But it really bugged me. I don’t even like Barbies. It’s kind of funny.
LSW: But they should make a Climate Barbie.
CM: My daughters… think it’s ridiculous. But I noticed that Gerry Ritz, who is a former minister, had called me Climate Barbie on twitter (laughing). And I was like, OK, now I’m done. My team was like, don’t do it, don’t do it. But I just called him out. And I try to call people out in a way that there’s a learning around it. I said, would you use that kind of term for your mother, your sister, your aunt, your wife, your friend?
"One thing I tell myself and my friends and family: make sure I don't lose being who I am"
In some ways, I guess I’m tougher in this job. People always say that, that you get tougher in this job. One thing I tell myself and my friends and family is: make sure I don’t lose being who I am. I got into this job. I will not be in this job forever, and I have to retain Catherine McKenna. Just a real person who’s passionate and cares about things. But I’ve become tougher. I don’t look at twitter and at comments that are terrible. But it’s because of my kids. I’m actually lucky. I live in Ottawa Centre, so my kids are there. And I wake up in the morning — this morning we made pancakes.
LSW: How old are your kids?
CM: They are 10, 12 and 15. And they’re awesome. They don’t really care if I’m Minister of the Environment. They just want me to be Mom. I play basketball with my son. He’s only 10 and he does not love politics. My daughters are pretty cool. They are like all in for this. That’s a huge outlet. It just reminds you why it’s important, but it grounds you. I’m also a swimmer. So I go to the pool and I do laps. I’m on a swim team. There’s something therapeutic about just doing laps. You can’t - thank God - I can’t access my phone and do phone calls (while swimming).
"This is like being on a team where you have a long term goal"
LSW: I hear you swim in the fast lane.
CM: I swim in the fast lane. I am a little bit competitive. It’s a good group of people. Swimming is good because there are clear goals in swimming. I was captain of my swim team at University of T and I always laugh: this is like being on a team, where you have a long term goal. Our long term goal is figuring out something really hard. How do you tackle climate change, but in a way that bring folks together who are legitimately worried about affordability and jobs...and also really worried about climate change?
And you have a whole group of different people who have different perspectives. But you always have to remember the long term goal, and not get distracted by all the daily stuff. And just put your head down and work really hard.
LSW: Can I ask you something about today? You mentioned before we started that audio that the Conservatives said you were 'triggered' today. So, first of all, were you? And second of all, what does that even mean? And third of all, I'm asking you too many questions. But what’s the difference between being passionate and being angry in your mind and do you think, as a woman, you’re unfairly judged for that?
"We should all be mad"
CM: It’s kind of weird. I was really mad. I was legitimately mad. They were talking about costs and how I didn’t care about the costs. I thought, what about the costs of climate change? If you really care about debt, this is the biggest debt we’re leaving our kids. And they talk about me being 'triggered.' First of all, it’s not even cool to use that language. Also, it felt like it was a gendered thing. And even on my team people were like, 'just calm down.' To go back to what I was saying before, I’m going to be me.
We all should be mad. That’s why kids in the street. They are mad — they’re holding us to account. Sometimes I am going to get mad. This is a game. [Politicians] try to demean you in the House. You can’t get too offended but I thought using that particular language in that particular moment…climate change is not a game. What we’re trying to do is serious, and it has serious implications for our planet and the economy. But sadly, people play games. They’re playing games with our planet. They’re playing games with our future, our kids and grandkids.
LSW: You called out Jason Kenney and Doug Ford. You used the word disinformation or misinformation.
CM: You can use them interchangeably.
LSW: In this environment we're in right now, there's so much disinformation going on about climate in Canada, can you just say a little bit about how you get the story out in a real way?
CM: So I've been thinking really hard about that. I actually used to think that we’re immune to these things. This is Canada, that Canadians care, that we have good media outlets and that we can get news across. But we’re impacted just like anyone else.
"It is literally like a George Orwell novel"
Now look at what’s happened in Ontario. You have Doug Ford who is literally taking $30 million of taxpayer money while he cuts a whole range of programs. And imagine what you could do with $30 million in healthcare or education or planting trees…which he also cut — and using it to spread misinformation?
I said lies in the House of Commons and I got called out, so I will say misinformation. Literally saying what we’re doing is a tax grab, which it explicitly isn’t by law. We have to return the money to the province. Ninety per cent goes to the people and 10 per cent of it goes to municipalities, universities, high schools, schools, to make sure life is affordable, that we’re making energy efficiency possible. They‘re doing stickers. They're putting stickers on pumps. They’re forcing small business owners to do it on the penalty of a (maximum) $10,000 fine. If you don’t mislead people you get fined $10,000.
It is literally like a George Orwell novel. You have Jason Kenney talking about we’re going back to coal which we also see with Donald Trump. We're not going back to coal. The disinformation, misinformation, and flat-out lies sometimes is a real problem. The challenge we have sometimes is that we think people will just understand, or that they'll even hear us. Sometimes it's really hard to reach people. So my focus now is how do we activate all the people who care? And talk to average people who I think are actually very concerned about the extreme weather they're seeing.
LSW: This is my last question. We've touched on it, but what’s your hope for the future?
CM: What's my hope for the future? I actually get emotional because of course it relates to all our of kids and future generations.
My hope is that we actually come together. And I think we can do this. Canada can be a model for the world about how you can make a just transition when it's hard. It's hard when you have an economy that has benefited from natural resources and you have to transition to a cleaner future… That we figure this out in a way that brings folks together. That we have clean air. That we have clean water. That we have protected the only planet that we have. That we have snow in winter. That we don’t see these extremes. That people have good jobs. And that life is prosperous.
The next five-and-a-half-months is so important, because the world is actually, literally, watching. I have had so many progressive international colleagues come up to me [when I'm travelling] and say: "Canada, we're watching to see if you can do this. Can you come up with a just transition for coal workers in a way that is real? Can you figure out how to put a price on pollution when so many of us have lost it?" Australia has lost it, now they’re thinking about doing it again. France has had to backtrack. Look at what’s happening in the United States. We have to have policies. Are you able to show you can do that? But we have to have sticky policies.
A lot of people say: 'we'll just pass laws and regulations.' But my view is that the next government can come in and ruin it all. Sticky policies are ones that people support through different governments because people believe in them. And I think we can do it, but it's going to require the same focus I had when I was a competitive swimmer looking at the nationals a year from down the road and figuring out how we're going to work hard every day to develop good policies but most of all bringing Canadians together around the biggest challenge we face.
LSW: Thank you, Minister McKenna. We're going to be watching you swim.
Updated on May 23, 2019 at 9:30 p.m. to include transcript. The headline was also changed.