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PaRx People: A Conversation with Catherine McKenna
Catherine McKenna is the founder and principal of Climate and Nature Solutions. She was Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Non-State Entities in 2022, is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Columbia University's Climate School, and launched Women Leading on Climate at COP26 in Glasgow.
As Canada’s former Minister of the Environment and Climate Change she was a lead negotiator of the Paris Agreement before introducing and successfully defending landmark legislation that established a carbon price across Canada. She also led efforts to phase out coal, reduce plastics in oceans and waterways, and doubled the amount of nature protected in Canada in partnership with Indigenous Peoples.
As Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, she made historic investments in public transit and green infrastructure, leveraged private sector investment through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, and led the development of Canada’s first National Infrastructure Assessment to drive to net-zero emissions by 2050.
While in government, she helped establish the Powering Past Coal Alliance, the Ministerial on Climate Action, the Women Kicking it on Climate Summit and Nature Champions Summit, was Co-Chair of the World Bank’s Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, and helped develop the Ocean Plastics Charter adopted at the G7 hosted by Canada in 2018.
Before entering politics, she worked as a competition and trade lawyer in Canada and Indonesia, served as a senior negotiator with the United Nations mission in East Timor, and co-founded Canadian Lawyers Abroad. A mother of three who is also a passionate open water swimmer, she is focused on scaling climate and nature solutions to drastically reduce global emissions by 2030 and ensure a sustainable planet for future generations.
PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Catherine to hear her perspectives on why empowering women to develop nature-based solutions for climate change is essential, the importance of improving access to nature across Canada, why health professionals are key to inspiring people to protect the planet, how her early connections to nature still influence her life and career today, and more.
Research tells us that kids who spend a lot of time in nature tend to grow up into adult environmentalists. How did your early experience in nature influence your career and interests today?
When I think about growing up, there were two ways. First of all was water. My family was obsessed with water. My dad was from Ireland, and he loved going to the ocean. We would travel to Ireland—there were four of us kids, so we couldn't go every summer because it got expensive, but we would go to the ocean and swim in the waves and body surf, even if was freezing cold. We'd also drive to Florida in our wood-panelled station wagon. There were a lot of connections with water that brought up a love of swimming, and in particular, open-water swimming.
But nature experiences also happened in our own backyard. I grew up in Hamilton, in a house on a ravine with the woods behind it—and we just ran wild. We had no play dates. All our activities involved collecting what we called seaweed from the water and putting it in jars so we could throw it at other people, or building forts, or searching for salamanders, or just hanging out. It was a great way to grow up, but also a healthy way. We were able to really disconnect and make up our own games.
And sometimes—I mean, you can't go back in time—but I look at my kids, and screens have become ubiquitous. I really think there's a downside to that. There are upsides, obviously, of technology, but the ability we had to go out and just play, and connect with nature, was pretty awesome. I'm always trying to get my kids, who are teenagers, outside, which is sometimes harder. But we have a dog, so we go for walks, and kick a ball around, and of course do a lot of swimming.
When I was in university all my friends loved camping. We would try to go canoeing and portaging every summer throughout university. I worked abroad so sometimes it wouldn't always happen, but we’ve kept it up. Two very good girlfriends and I are still pretty hard-core about it.
When I was in politics, one thing I felt was sacred was getting away with my girlfriends in a canoe in Algonquin Park, away from other people and just being in nature. I always felt a thousand percent better—of course because I saw my best friends—but also because it reminded you that there was stillness.
You could just look at the sky, and the stars, and it was so dark and beautiful. You’d see a whole range of different animals, and if you were lucky, maybe you'd see a moose. I always felt so rejuvenated.
Because I was Minister of Environment and Climate Change, I was also responsible for Parks Canada. So I would use every opportunity to bring my kids to national parks, and we would spend our dollars in Canada at national parks, because I thought they were so amazing. A lot of my favorite moments are being outside in nature.
I actually trained to do dry suit diving, because when I was Minister of Parks we were responsible for the Franklin ships, so I thought, I’m going to go dive them. It didn’t work out, because they didn’t really want to take a Minister there in case something happened. I am a pretty good diver because I lived in Indonesia and East Timor, and have done hundreds of dives. But I'll go diving anywhere. I’ve gone in Tobermory, which is really beautiful. You don't even have to dive. You can snorkel, which you can do without training. Get a mask, or goggles, and just go down.
After being a Federal Minister you could have done many different things, but you chose to found Climate and Nature Solutions. Why are nature-based solutions for climate change so important to you?
It's interesting, when you work on climate change, that there's kind of a divide. Climate people and nature people are seen as working on different things, but they’re completely related. Not only do we need to protect nature, which of course is under serious threat because of climate change, but biodiversity loss is also happening that is not just climate-change related.
Nature can also be a solution for climate change. Planting trees, peat lands, mangroves—all of those play a really important role in absorbing carbon. And so it just made sense to me that we would do both. One area I continue to do work in that is very important to me is large-scale nature conservation in partnership with Indigenous peoples, and led by Indigenous peoples.
You also created and hosted a global summit, Women Kicking it on Climate, in 2018, and continue to be a champion for Women Leading on Climate. Why is it important for women and girls to be empowered to take action on climate and biodiversity?
We know that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change. You see that often in developing countries—they're on the front lines, collecting firewood and water in environments where they have to travel farther and farther to find them. They're also often the most vulnerable during natural disasters, particularly single mothers. In Canada as well we see that women who are Indigenous, marginalized and low-income are less able to withstand the impacts of climate change.
But at the same time, when you look around, women aren't just the victims of climate change. They're actually the ones who are finding the solutions in a far more practical and ambitious way.
Sometimes it gets lost that this is all about people. I've always found when I'm in negotiations with women, or I'm working with grassroots women, and Indigenous women, that they are very aware of the impacts of climate change on real people, whether it's their family members, or members of their community. I really think there will not be a solution to the climate crisis unless we enable women. We will get far more ambition if we elevate women’s voices, amplify their actions, and support them.
Right now I'm really feeling it because we see so many men leading countries, and COPs (UN Climate Change Conferences), but we're not seeing the action and ambition we need. On the other hand, I see all these amazing women, whether it's girls marching in the streets, or women who are working in labs coming up with solutions, who are not getting the air time or the opportunities they need. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. If we're leaving out half the population—who polling shows tends to be far more supportive of climate action—then we're missing a big opportunity.
In the health profession, like whether it's the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, or Melissa, what you're doing with Park Prescriptions, it's often women who are pushing the envelope and doing innovative things that are bringing unusual partnerships and suspects together.
You are no stranger to appearing in the media and talking about the importance of acting on climate change in a really compelling way. Can you give us some tips on how to communicate the benefits of nature to patients and the public effectively?
Just identifying the health benefits of nature is a really amazing way to lead people in to understanding the importance of valuing nature. I mean, what could be more important than nature? What do you do if you lose green space? What do you do if you lose species? What do you do if there's no clean air or clean water? These are real challenges right now.
When I was Minister for Parks I always said that if you are in nature you will want to protect nature. Sometimes we use climate language like net-zero, mitigation and adaptation, and people have no idea what we're talking about.
We need to motivate people in a way that resonates with them—and the nature connection is so critically important and very real. That’s why I hope doctors continue prescribing nature and reducing barriers to nature access.
There's also a socioeconomic dimension. We’ve done studies on who comes to Parks Canada places which are more remote, and it was wealthier people. We need to make parks and green space accessible to folks who don't have backyards, and who don't have cottages, but would really benefit from and deserve to be out in nature like everyone else.
Before you moved on from federal politics, you were Minister of Infrastructure. How do you think we need to redesign our urban and rural infrastructure to reduce barriers to nature access?
Being Minister of Infrastructure during COVID, I knew that we needed to invest to create jobs, to create opportunities. It was also clear that we needed to provide more opportunities for folks to get out to green space.
But what was really weird to me was how people didn't understand that natural infrastructure is still infrastructure. We always think of infrastructure as being things made out of concrete, but there are greenhouse gas emissions associated with that. With roads, there are definitely more emissions with getting more people into cars.
The idea that natural infrastructure was just as important, and far better value for money, was key. Not only that, but it’s not that expensive. It just requires some creativity. And so we created the first-ever Active Transportation Fund, which was really about trails and cycling paths, and any way for folks to get out more accessibly in their communities. It didn’t have to be a national park that was super far away.
Take an example in my community. We had an old railway line that I helped transform into an active transportation link to two communities, between Gatineau in Quebec and Ottawa in Ontario. I went there, and it was amazing—everyone was walking, running, cycling, on their rollerblades, and so happy. It was quite fun, because people stopped me and said, “You did this,” and I said, “No, we did this!” because the community really wanted it.
If you consider the cost of that versus building a new road, it is far less, yet the enjoyment people get out of it is incredible. It provides something else fun to do, or a better way get to work, than sitting in your car. And it also opens up your imagination as to what you can do in your spare time, and what is important.
When I was running for election the first time no one knew me that well, and I was running against someone very popular and high profile, so I made local promises, which is a bit unusual. I said, we’re going to get another footbridge everyone's talked about built between what's called the Glebe, where I live, and Old Ottawa East. And we got the footbridge built, which meant that kids could ride their bike or walk to school easier because it was a lot safer. It was also a great connector route for work commuting, and meant that people who wanted to shop in both communities could easily get back and forth. That was amazing. It was the most popular thing I ever did, even though it wasn’t something that was the most glamorous or big—it was a footbridge!
The federal government is also committed to creating more national urban parks. We're very fortunate to now have Rouge National Urban Park, which I was happy to be able to expand and complete. We opened up this area to millions of people who now can access the park for free in an urban way, so it's easy to get to. There are opportunities for free public transit, and programming where you can go around with our amazing parks people and see Blanding Turtles. And there are plans to create five more national urban parks.
We have the chance to do things differently and really think about what is important. If nature is important, how do we make it easy for folks to get out to it, and how do we create new opportunities?
For example, I'm super into open-water swimming. So I think we need to look at all the different ways we can get people to water. If you go to Europe, in many places they've cleaned up their canals that were heavily used for shipping and industry, and now people are swimming there.
We also created massive investments in public transit. One day I hope some kid will be on a new subway line and think, how did this ever get here? During the COVID-19 pandemic there were folks who thought, we need to invest money and create jobs in a way that's inclusive and good for the environment, out of something that was obviously terrible. Moving forward, I hope people continue to recognize the importance of building a more sustainable and equitable environment for everyone.
You’re a very busy person, yet you still manage to find time to head outdoors regularly. Do you have any tips for people trying to fit nature into their lives?
I don't know—how can you not fit nature in? Sometimes I feel like if I didn't have access to nature, if I didn't make the time to go swimming, I would go bonkers. For me it’s a physical need. When I was younger I did more pool swimming because I was a competitive swimmer. But now there's nothing I like more than open-water swimming. Now going to the pool seems kind of sad. I mean, I do it because it gets cold in the winter, but it's just so beautiful getting into a lake, and worth getting up early for. It actually will enhance your day, and give you more energy.
But like anything important, you have to book it in, right? We're always booking meetings, or watching a show, so just book in getting into nature, and make it fun. It shouldn't feel like a chore. It should feel like something that's just really awesome to do, whether it's swimming or hiking or cycling, or just going for a walk with your dog. It actually will make you feel better.
On that topic, can you give me a few tips on how as a parent you've worked on connecting your kids to nature and getting them outside?
It was easier when they were younger, because they didn’t have a choice (laughs). As I said, we would go to national parks, and different outdoor places. As they get older, I think you have to be a little more creative. We're fortunate to be in a position where we can go diving as a family. I love diving because I just love the quietness of it, but it’s also extraordinary what's under the water. I hadn't actually paid so much attention to it when I was younger because I was a swimmer—I was always on top of the water. But it might be something your kids like.
My kids also like things that are less formalized. Swimming lessons, for example, feel like a bit of a drag. So on Sundays, we’ll just go for a long walk with our dog—our dog is a Brittany Spaniel, so she needs to get out in nature and run like heck—so we have to go to places that are open. That's so fun. This summer we went for a walk along the Flora footbridge to Old Ottawa East, and we hung out and had a picnic and listened to music. That was all they were up for, so I couldn't force them to do more, but that was okay.
My kids have also had the opportunity to do a lot of camping and portage and canoeing. But they have different levels of interest in that. I have one daughter who hates bugs now, so she’s not into that though she loved doing it before. So she goes for walks and runs and does her own thing.
It doesn’t always have to be rehearsed and organized. It can be a little more organic. I think it's just important to create this love and appreciation for nature because you're not always going to be there with your kids. They're gonna’ grow up. And so you want them to feel connected.
I don't really care how people engage in nature—I just want them to get out and enjoy nature, and then want to protect it.
We participated in a panel together at the 2023 Canadian Medical Association Health Summit this past summer on building a movement towards a net zero health system in Canada. What role do you think health professionals have to play in inspiring people to protect nature and the planet?
Well, first of all, health professionals can actually do the work themselves, because the health system broadly, including hospitals with their supply chains, is a large source of emissions. There's a lot of money being spent you can redirect. I always say to folks it’s about reducing emissions now, and moving money to clean now. In terms of doing all that, doctors are in a very unique place.
I'm also always thinking, how do we talk to people, and how do we reach people? Everyone's tuning things out, and there's so much going on. But if you go into your doctor's office, that's a touch point. If you’re having mental health challenges, for example, and your doctor suggests you get out into nature—and by the way, nature is so important that we need to protect it—there's an opportunity, not in a hard-core way, but in a softer way, to link climate and nature and what we love and what we value.
Everyone has their own window onto this. I think doctors can play a huge role in helping people understand the problems, but also the solutions, because we need to be positive and outcome oriented. So I really hope doctors use that opportunity.
Last but not least, what is your favorite nature spot in Canada?
Oh, you can't ask someone who was a politician about that (laughs). The places I have found the most amazing are because of the people I've been with. In particular, Indigenous peoples have been very generous in the places I’ve been able to visit. I've been to Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is absolutely beautiful, and where I got to learn more about the history of forest relocation. I went with Natan Obed, who’s the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and is from the area.
I also went to Haida Gwaii with my kids, to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. It's so stunning. And such an amazing story, where the reason it was made a park, an Indigenous-led park, was because the Haida were trying to protect the area from logging. During one part of our visit we were in one of their canoes, and they were singing and drumming, so that was pretty awesome.
We also created a new park in the Northwest Territories, in Thaidene Nëné, and I was up there with the communities just celebrating. We camped out one night, which was super fun. I went swimming—it was really cold so they thought it was hilarious—but it's these opportunities to go with people who are often much more connected with the land that are so meaningful.
But I can be happy anywhere. I'm from Hamilton, and the Bruce Trail is behind my parents’ house. I go running and hiking there. It doesn't have to be the most far-flung place. It can be your local park because you have a chance to get away from things.
There's lots of awesomeness out there. If I didn't say your place in Canada, it's awesome too. (laughs)
Learn more about Catherine's Climate and Nature Solutions work here.