Women leading on climate: Catherine McKenna’s vision for a clean Canada
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Leader Interviews
Mar 8, 2022
Emma Jarratt

For International Women’s Day, Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change and minister of infrastructure and communities sits down with Electric Autonomy Canada for an exclusive interview on harnessing female talent and taking meaningful climate action in transportation

Catherine McKenna discusses the reality of the climate crisis and the boon female talent brings to today’s most pressing problems.

For International Women’s Day, Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change and minister of infrastructure and communities sits down with Electric Autonomy Canada for an exclusive interview on harnessing female talent and taking meaningful climate action in transportation

Skoki is awake.

A curious brown and white nose, just visible on the screen, is sniffing hopefully at the edge of Catherine McKenna’s desk. Skoki’s search for an ear scratch is the the only distraction Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change and infrastructure has allowed to break her train of thought in nearly 30 minutes.

Flights need to be caught, texts and emails are piling up and given the hour of the day children will need to be collected from school soon, but McKenna is deep into an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada on women, clean transportation and the climate crisis. It’s a theme that is McKenna’s professional purpose since she left government last year.

“The climate crisis is real. Real people care about climate change, but they also are worried about putting food on the table and their jobs,” says McKenna.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how do we win the climate revolution. There’s people, polarization and populism. We need to be really thinking hard about that. How do you fight disinformation and populist politicians who may be inclined to spread this disinformation?”

The power of the misleading word is something McKenna knows well. While a minister in government, McKenna successfully negotiated Canada’s Carbon Tax, put together the largest investments in green public transit and infrastructure in Canadian history and led the creation of the first National Infrastructure Assessment to help Canada map a path to zero-emissions by 2050.

But take a tour of the comment section on any social media that mentions McKenna or on most articles that quote her and the volume of online abuse is staggering. Ranging from from sexist diatribes to conspiracy theories it is impossible to refute it all and increasingly challenging to be heard above the noise.

The desire to address the global problem of informing about the climate crisis and mapping solutions is so strong for McKenna that it propelled her out of private sector law and into parliament in 2015 and then, after six years, factored significantly in her decision last year to leave her prominent cabinet position and back into the advocacy sector to, McKenna said at the time, “be 100 per cent there, focused on tackling climate change.”

Catherine McKenna supporting the world at COP26
Catherine McKenna at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland after launching Women Leading on Climate. Photo: Catherine McKenna/Instagram

In the four months since leaving government, McKenna assisted Canada as a private citizen at COP26, launched two climate-focused organizations (Women Leading on Climate and Climate and Nature Solutions), became a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York and will soon be taking on a project at the United Nations.

“Climate and Nature Solutions is a company that I’m running that helps scale climate and nature, working with different partners from not-for-profit to companies. We’re doing a range of different things and have taken a portfolio approach to climate,” says McKenna.

At Columbia as a Distinguished Fellow, McKenna “plans to work on practical solutions to help scale climate action,” according to her university biography page. And just around the corner from Columbia, is the UN where McKenna has some upcoming projects.

By design, threaded through each of these initiatives is, in addition to the obvious common topic, another top-tier concern for McKenna: mobilizing and empowering women to join the climate file. It is a concern so prominent in McKenna’s mind that it requires its own dedicated organization.

“I created Women Leading on Climate because I do think that we need to be supporting women. Women are ambitious on climate,” says McKenna.

“One of the biggest challenges is the pipeline: they start and they get in but then they have real challenges succeeding, getting the same opportunities and making it to the top. I think that it’s such a waste of talent. And one should never waste talent.”

Women in negotiations

McKenna grew up in, Hamilton, a hub of Ontario manufacturing and automotive industry.

Colloquially known as Steeltown, many Hamiltonians are raised in view of the city’s enormous waterside metal factories that still belch clouds of refinery exhaust over the area.

Hamilton’s steel industry isn’t the powerhouse it once was, but its factories still account for 60 per cent of Canada’s steel supply and employ 12.9 per cent of the city population (as of in 2019). The local lullaby in Hamilton homes for the last century has been a cautionary, “protect the industry, protect the jobs,” and there is often suspicious community side-eye at things that could disrupt the precarious balance.

So, the climate crisis sometimes presents a conundrum: transitioning to zero-emission transportation and industry is an uncomfortable upset to the status quo, but, at the same time, the sectors that don’t evolve don’t survive.

“Canada makes cars, we know how to make cars, certainly in southern Ontario. We’re going to be focused on electric vehicles,” says McKenna. “[Steelmaker] ArcelorMittal Dofasco just announced that it was going to get rid of their coal-fired ovens and replace them with electric ones. [Canada’s cars] will be built with steel that is made through electric processes. I think that is where we need to be going.”

Catherine McKenna plugs in an electric vehicle to charge
Catherine McKenna (right) plugging in an electric vehicle while announcing the federal EV purchase incentive rebate in 2019. Photo: Catherine McKenna/Instagram

Despite Dofasco-type success stories, a zero-emission future is not always an easy vision to sell and getting parties to come to the table to negotiate can be difficult — let alone getting them to agree to pivot. Companies face huge expenses to overhaul their infrastructure and it is intimidating for a workforce to have to upskill.

“We need to think very, very hard about where the opportunities of the future are,” states McKenna. “We need to really figure out how are we going to transition because, otherwise, we will lose [the] jobs. If we aren’t quick and nimble and focused on the transition, and how to enable the transition, other players will take our place.”

Having cut her teeth in the art of negotiating in “The Hammer,” McKenna imbibed the talent of speaking to real people about controversial topics not so much shooting from the hip, but more running you over in a steel (hopefully battery-powered) truck of truth, fresh off the local assembly line.

“Women have a different way of getting to an outcome,” says McKenna. “We’re going to be now moving on to some programming for Women Leading on Climate including training women negotiators (as part of a Gender Action Plan through the UN process) and how do you train women negotiators so that they can be lead negotiators — which makes a difference.”

Real talk extinguished some conspiracy and populist rhetoric along the climate file path, but it made McKenna a target of online and real-world vitriol for being a female leader on a polarizing subject. For six years McKenna largely adopted a tune-out-the-noise attitude that harkened back to one of Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s sharp quips, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

But the experience of being publicly dragged day after day while trying to be the point person to avert one of the biggest humanitarian crises and be one of Canada’s busiest negotiators left an impression on McKenna about what must be done so other women in leadership roles don’t feel abandoned.

“[Women Leading on Climate] wants to support women who are in positions of leadership positions, where it can be very challenging,” says McKenna. “In my role I was just trying to act on climate change and suddenly I had to deal with all these attacks, because of my gender. It was great to have a network of other women who understood that — and men who supported women.”

He for She

McKenna joined federal government at a moment of peak (for Canadian politics) He for She allyship.

Half the members in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s inaugural cabinet were women, of which McKenna was one. She says it was clear that there is “no shortage” of female leaders ready to lend their personal experience to the job of making the decisions that run a country. Yet in many governments, companies and society at large, women are still being shut out of decision-making or decision-informing roles.

“You need diversity and [that group] brings their own personal experience,” says McKenna. “[Is society] fostering women? Are we mentoring women? Are we giving them opportunities? We need to step back and really figure out how are we empowering women — especially in male-dominated professions where there may be barriers that people don’t even recognize.”

Catherine McKenna stands in front of an electric bus
Catherine McKenna as minister of infrastructure makes an electric bus announcement in 2021. Photo: Catherine McKenna/Instagram

In speaking with McKenna one example of women not being proportionally represented in climate issues occurs in zero-emission transit and infrastructure. McKenna highlights two key female leaders in the transportation space — Jennifer Keesmaat, who was the City of Toronto’s chief planner from 2012 to 2017, and Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of CUTRIC — who brought key personal experiences to the table that help to inform policy.

“I remember hearing Josipa talking about her mom. Her mom was a cleaner and she would take a train and two buses to get to work,” recalls McKenna. “You need people who can bring their own personal experience to the job, which I think is really important. Women are more likely to take public transit, should they not be at the top making the decisions?”

It’s puzzling then that of Canada’s roughly 156 transit agencies, there are around 20 female heads, meaning female representation in the top job at public transportation agencies is hovering around a paltry 12.8 per cent.

Of that number, today, only three are head of a transit authority with more than 500 vehicles: Erinn Pinkerton, president and CEO of BC Transit; Renée Amilcar at OC Transpo and Ann-Marie Carroll at York Region Transit.

“It makes no sense,” says McKenna, clearly provoked by the gender gap. “Look at how many women are graduating from university across fields and professions. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have head of transit agencies that are women. What message does that send to the younger women? It’s not just about women: it’s men supporting women.”

Breaking the hamster wheel of gender inequality is the crux of much of McKenna’s work today. There is no silver bullet to solve the climate crisis, but there is one critical way to help right an imbalance in the working world.

“People will say — most companies will say — ‘we want as many women as possible.’ But they will say things like, ‘we can’t find them. We can’t find the talent,'” says McKenna. “The problem with that is, one, I just think it’s not true; and two, talent begets talent. So, if you have women role models, they will support other women and you will see women going through the ranks.”

Getting women to the table

In 2012, leading Sudanese climate scientist Balgis Osman-Elasha authored a report that was published by the UN called Women…In The Shadow of Climate Change.

The study looked at gender segregated data through the lens of the climate crisis and found, “Women are increasingly being seen as more vulnerable than men to the impacts of climate change, mainly because they represent the majority of the world’s poor and are proportionally more dependent on threatened natural resources.”

It’s a finding that was echoed in 2017 by the UN in a separate study and, again today by McKenna.

“Women in Canada are more likely to be lower income. If you’re lower income, you’re going to be much more impacted by a by catastrophic event that’s linked to climate change, whether it’s flooding or forest fires,” says McKenna. “In developing countries women are the ones that often have to go get the firewood or the water and they’re having to go a lot further.”

Catherine McKenna meets kid at climate change rally
Catherine McKenna (left) speaking to a child participating in a climate strike in 2019. Photo: Catherine McKenna/Instagram

Women being able to draw a straight line from climate catastrophes to the impact on their own lives gives them, McKenna believes, an edge.

“Women tend to see climate change as a very personal issue, which I think is also more motivating. I mean, if you only see it as an abstract issue it’s just a different level of motivation,” she says, pointing to the Paris Agreement talks as a case-and-point example of women fighting their way to the table and achieving a better result.

“I think the Paris Agreement would not have been as ambitious as it was, if it wasn’t for key women that were leading and engaged with the negotiations and also supporting younger women. That’s why you need diversity of perspectives. There have been many studies to show that more diversity…leads to better performance.”

Hope for the future?

Some days the climate file can be, to say the least, bleak.

Shortly after her interview with Electric Autonomy, McKenna boarded a plane to New York to give a fellowship speech at Columbia University’s Climate School. The topic of her lecture was “Winning the Climate Revolution: People, Polarization and Populism.”

For her speech McKenna wore a “stubborn climate optimist” T-shirt and is quoted by one attendee as saying, “There is a pathway to success [to solving the climate crisis]. It’s narrowing, but there is a pathway.”

Despite trying to measure the width of the exit ramp to avoid the worst case scenario of the climate crisis during her speech, McKenna exudes the same sense of hope and resolve she held while chatting at her desk in Ottawa. Maybe it’s just the shirt in New York or the coziness of Skoki settled at her feet in Ottawa, but the impression McKenna gives is one of a person who believes in their role in the mission and their dream of a better future.

At the core of her message, McKenna seems hopeful.

Catherine McKenna meets young environmentalists at a distinguished fellows dinner
Catherine McKenna (centre) with a group of women at Columbia University while speaking at the climate school in 2022. Photo: Catherine McKenna/Twitter

“You can’t make every decision now for the future, but you have to have a vision of what we want the future to be. [For me] it would be all electric,” reflects McKenna in her interview.

“Taking action on climate change in the transportation sector is a very significant chunk of our mission. There’s all sorts of ways to think about transportation that includes electric autonomous vehicles, rideshares and public transportation from buses to trains. There’s an opportunity to be smarter about how we do things, and I think the technology enables us to do that.”

And to the end, despite the trolls and foul graffiti and inane name-calling she still endures daily, McKenna continues to champion other women who want to jump onto the climate file. The benefit of the next generation’s expertise, experience and passion greatly outweighs the noise, and, with enough new members, perhaps the trend will evolve from novel to the norm.

“There are so many talented women out there and we should be really making sure we foster them and give them opportunities. They’re half the population and we also know they care greatly about climate change,” says McKenna.

“But we need to make it so it’s not exciting to have a woman in a job — where we don’t have to point out that it’s a woman — that it’s just someone who’s really good at the job and happens to be a woman.”

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