On an unseasonably cold morning, Catherine McKenna enters her Gatineau office after an early morning practice with her competitive swim club. With flushed cheeks, and carrying an assortment of briefcases and sustainable bags, she explains that for her, “the best days always start with a swim.”
During our hour-long conversation, McKenna points to the years she spent becoming a swimmer as something that defines her. Crediting twice daily swims in high school as what kept her organized, driven, and distracted from typical high school drama, she said her role as captain of the University of Toronto swim team further instilled the importance of both teamwork and resilience.
“People always ask what prepared me the most for politics and I think maybe it was law… or maybe it was working for a United Nations peacekeeping mission. But I actually believe it was swimming. It teaches you that you need to work really hard, set long term goals and that you will have setbacks.”
Over the past four years, things haven’t always gone, well, swimmingly for McKenna.
She became one of the most recognizable names in the Trudeau cabinet — but also one of its most criticized members, having been repeatedly subjected to extensive vitriol online, in person, and most recently, through the defacement of her constituency office.
While serving as the environment minister, she in many ways became the public face of the Liberals’ most ambitious climate policies, from the national carbon price to controversial new assessment rules. In this role, she drew praise from some corners, but also derision from angry online trolls who labelled her with the unflattering and sexist name, “climate Barbie.”
In fact, the criticism and threats directed towards McKenna became so great that she was eventually assigned an RCMP security detail — a rarity for a Canadian cabinet minister.
Asked if she fears for her safety or considers her position dangerous, McKenna is reflective, citing her experiences in East Timor working on peacekeeping missions and her time in Indonesia. “Once I got caught in the wrong place and students were shot. I have been in situations which by definition are more dangerous, but it is jarring in Canada to have people write words like c%&* on your office, or to be with your kids, going to see a movie, and have them scream at you,” she explains, referencing the defacing of her constituency office shortly after she won re-election in the Oct. 21 vote.
“Do people sometimes say things that are violent, or do they harass me? Yes. I hope it isn’t something that is dangerous because we do need people to go into politics and this is going to be a huge disincentive,” she continues, adding that she worries about her family, especially her young children who “didn’t sign up for this.” While McKenna says she believes most Canadians are completely reasonable, it’s the unknown that is worrisome.
With an especially divisive election in the rear view, and a new appointment as minister of infrastructure and communities, McKenna is determined to continue to speak up and use her experiences and platform to “change the tone” and improve politics for women, and in general.
Believing that it is incumbent on social media companies to step up and be more responsible, McKenna thinks the ability of people to hide behind fake names on social media and say whatever they wish without any repercussions has the potential to cause even further harm. “If you start normalizing the fact that people can say all of these terrible things online, then it suddenly starts coming offline. Where people think, ‘Well if I can say that, why can’t I just go tell her how I feel?’”
Beyond the Twitter-sphere, she also won’t accept that this type of behaviour is protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Free speech is incredibly important. I am a human rights lawyer and I believe in free speech, but this isn’t free speech. This is people without real names saying mean aggressive hateful things.”
A place ‘you couldn’t be fancy’
The eldest of four children, McKenna says growing in up in Hamilton, Ontario, is also something that defines her character, calling it a place “where you couldn’t be fancy.” Her parents embraced Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s policies of multiculturalism and bilingualism and insisted that their children attend a French school. “We are an Irish Catholic family…there were a lot of politics at the table. My dad would take either side of an argument and you would argue the other side.”
McKenna also shares a childhood story about a boy on her soccer team who told her that she ran like a girl. Only ten, and one the best players, she remembers feeling deeply insulted – and later motivated – by it. “I never really distinguished myself between being a boy or a girl. I just did stuff.” Laughing she adds, “…and I didn’t even really play with Barbies,” which to her makes the nickname “climate Barbie” even more annoying.
When McKenna decided to enter politics in 2013, she was running an international charity called Canadian Lawyers Abroad. Through the charity’s work with Indigenous youth and communities in Canada, she says she “…realized there was no possibility of being able to do what I wanted to do without changing the government.”
Before running as the candidate for Ottawa Centre in the 2015 federal election, McKenna canvassed her children. Her eldest told her that she had to run for the Indigenous youth that she cared so much about. Her middle daughter told her that she “must run” because there weren’t enough women in politics. And her youngest, who was five at the time, said he would go along with it if there was food. During her re-election campaign, McKenna’s kids and their friends did some door knocking and volunteered at events; they also attended her swearing-in.
Never expecting to be appointed to a cabinet position so early in her political career, McKenna admits that earning her chops as the environment minister was a huge learning curve. “It was totally new in the sense that I wasn’t an environmentalist. I cared about the environment, but I didn’t know a lot about it.”
Within days after her appointment to cabinet, McKenna found herself on a plane heading to Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) and drowning in lingo. She says that being comfortable saying, “no acronyms, we are going to talk like regular people” and “I have no idea what you are talking about” were two phrases that helped with her file.
Once she got over the initial learning curve, McKenna began to understand that success would require equal parts science and empathy — both head and heart. “Empathy means understanding where people are at and why they react to [a] situation in different ways.” Explaining the dichotomy of her role, she asks rhetorically, “Why are young people out in the streets [demanding climate action] and why do you have [oil and gas industry] workers who are angry?” She concludes, “…the science is the science and you can’t change science.”
Given all the challenges she has faced, McKenna says what motivates her to push forward is a passionate belief in the importance of politics.
“The decisions politicians make impact people’s lives,” McKenna insists. “I see this in my constituency office where people are struggling to bring in their spouse because of some problem with the immigration [process]. You can reunite families. We can’t get jaded about politics.”
Asked about what legacy she hopes to leave, McKenna says she would like to be remembered as a strong woman, and as “someone who really cared about making a difference for Canada.”
Green Party in turmoil, leader resists calls to step down
Canada‘s Green Party was increasingly mired in an internal dispute over its position on Israel on Tuesday, and a news report said the bloc would hold a vote next month on whether to oust its leader, Annamie Paul, who was elected just eight months ago.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) reported that the Greens had triggered a process that could remove Paul, the first black person to head a mainstream Canadian party, beginning with a vote next month.
A Green Party spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but said the party’s “federal council” would meet later on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Paul, 48, rejected calls from the Quebec wing of the party for her to resign after a member of parliament left the Greens due to the Israel controversy.
“I believe that I have been given a strong mandate. I believe that I have been given the instructions to work on behalf of Canadians for a green recovery,” Paul said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Paul herself is not a member of parliament. The Greens – who champion the environment and the fight against climate change – had only three legislators in the 338-seat House of Commons and one, Jenica Atwin, abandoned the party last week to join the governing Liberals.
Atwin has said that her exit was in large part due to a dispute over the party’s stance on Israel. Atwin on Twitter has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while a senior adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, has posted on Facebook that some unspecified Green members of parliament are anti-Semitic.
The party’s executive committee voted last week not to renew Zatzman’s contract, local media reported. Paul converted to Judaism some two decades ago after she married a Jewish man.
While the Greens are the smallest faction in parliament, they perform well in British Colombia and hold two seats there. The current turmoil may favor their rivals ahead of a national election that senior Liberals say could be just a few months away.
The Greens would win about 6.7% of the vote nationally if a vote were held now, according to an average of recent polls aggregated by the CBC.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Hope, anger and defiance greet birth of Israel’s new government
Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
“We’ll be back, soon.”
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, SPOKESMAN FOR PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER VIA TWITTER
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to
@naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all.”
TOR WENNESLAND, U.N. MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY VIA TWITTER
“I look forward to working with the Government to advance the ultimate goal of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to Prime Minister @naftalibennett and to Alternate PM & MFA @yairlapid for the swearing in of the new Israeli government. Looking forward to strengthen the partnership for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace & stability.”
FAWZI BARHOUM, HAMAS SPOKESMAN
“Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back.”
BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER
“With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel’s security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man.”
CHUCK SCHUMER, U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
“So, there’s a new Administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA
“Congratulations on the formation of a new Israeli government, Prime Minister @NaftaliBennett and Alternate Prime Minister @YairLapid. Together, let’s explore ways to further strengthen the relationship between Canada and Israel.”
MANSOUR ABBAS, ARAB MEMBER OF NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT
“We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government.”
DAPHNA KILION, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“I think it’s very exciting for Israel to have a new beginning and I’m hopeful that the new government will take them in the right direction.”
EREZ GOLDMAN, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“It’s a sad day today, it’s not a legitimate government. It’s pretty sad that almost 86 (out of 120 seats) in the parliament, the Knesset, belong to the right-wing and they sold their soul and ideology and their beliefs to the extreme left-wing just for one purpose – hatred of Netanyahu and to become a prime minister.”
SEBASTIAN KURZ, CHANCELLOR OF AUSTRIA, VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel’s side.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)
Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.
Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.
But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.
“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”
The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.
“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.
Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.
The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.
Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.
Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.
Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.
“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.
Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.
“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)