Catherine McKenna leaving politics, but staying in climate fight

·5 min read

After six years of pushing for climate action at the federal level, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna will be focusing her future efforts not on running for re-election, but on helping to tackle climate change as a citizen.

McKenna announced Monday that her decision to step back was motivated not by the sexist attacks she has received during her time in office, but by a desire to spend time with her children and continue the fight against climate change.

“I will be 100 per cent focused on climate change,” she said. “There's many ways to serve. And I will continue serving, just in a different way.”

Over the summer, McKenna said she will think about how she can contribute to the climate fight as a mom and as a private citizen.

McKenna plans to continue her role for as long as needed and said she offered to assist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at COP26 meetings in Glasgow, Scotland, this fall, but did not elaborate on what her role might be.

“That's really up to the prime minister and (Environment and Climate Change) Minister (Jonathan) Wilkinson,” she said.

Although ample criticism for Liberal climate policy exists across the political spectrum, Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said McKenna has done some really good work on climate change and is excited to see what she does next.

“This was the first environment minister who started doing the really, really hard stuff on climate in Canada, which is going to be really challenging for anyone,” said Abreu.

“I think she has a lot to be proud of, and played a really huge role in changing the game when it comes to Canada's action on climate change.”

Within her first hours as environment and climate change minister in 2015, McKenna helped negotiate the Paris Agreement and land the improved 1.5 C pledge.

McKenna also brought national carbon pricing to Canada, something Abreu said was made difficult by the constitutional challenges brought by Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Alberta.

“It didn’t happen perfectly,” Abreu said. Climate Action Network would have liked to see national carbon pricing happen sooner and start at a higher price, but with the confirmation that it will rise to $170 per tonne in 2030, Abreu said, “we’ve landed in a workable position.”

McKenna hasn’t been perfect, Abreu notes. She has advocated for fossil fuel infrastructure like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and the Pacific NorthWest LNG project.

But Abreu said the disconnect between prioritizing the climate crisis and supporting fossil fuel infrastructure is not specific to any one government or politician.

“I don't think it’s necessarily because of her as a person, but because of the nature of this government's stance,” she said.

In the 2015 election, every political party promised to build fossil fuel infrastructure, including the Green Party of Canada, which proposed creating new jobs in Canada’s oil and gas sector by refining the product domestically.

“It is an endemic problem to the Canadian federal government that we are going to have to sort out if we're going to be able to get the job done on climate change,” said Abreu.

In her current role as infrastructure minister, McKenna is heading up Canada’s first national infrastructure assessment examining Canada’s infrastructure through a climate lens to support a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Abreu said the infrastructure assessment is a big deal and could be consequential for Canada.

She also described McKenna as a “strong, committed public politician who was active in the fight against climate change” and whose visibility as environment minister and commitment to fighting climate change exposed her to vitriolic personal attacks.

“I do think that her relentlessness, and her commitment to the cause meant that some very, very challenging, unprecedented things when it comes to Canada's action on climate change happened,” Abreu said.

Annamie Paul, leader of the federal Green Party, commended McKenna for serving as a member of Parliament despite being “subjected to much more vitriol than most politicians.”

McKenna has faced misogynistic attacks both in-person and online — in 2019, someone spray-painted a misogynistic slur on her Ottawa Centre campaign office, and her Twitter account has been inundated with similar messages.

“I just hope that for the next woman, or the next politician in general, (who) chooses to stand up and put their name forward to be elected and serve in that role that it is easier, that it is more respectful, and that the culture of politics can change to make sure that we don't lose out on the talent of people who might consider running,” said Paul.

At her announcement, McKenna said the hate and attacks she received were outweighed by millions of people supporting her and stressed that her decision should not deter other women from going into politics.

“To the girls out there — go run like a girl. Do it on your own terms… And I honestly will be cheering and supporting you all the way.”

She said she wants girls, Indigenous people, Black Canadians, new immigrants and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community to feel safe in politics.

“We need more diversity in politics, it's the only way it is going to change,” she said. “If you feel it in your heart, if you've got something to contribute, something you want to achieve, then get into politics. We need new voices.”

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

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