IWD 2017: Talking shop with Canada’s feminist, pro-trade environment minister

Capitalism versus the climate?
Not quite, says Catherine McKenna. On International Women’s Day, the Canadian minister discusses how conversations around climate, economic growth and
gender have shifted.

By: /
8 March, 2017
Canada's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna takes part in a news conference during the First Ministers’ meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

With her appointment as Canada’s minister of environment and climate change — a new title for the ministry — Catherine McKenna joined Justin Trudeau’s cabinet in early November 2015, just weeks before a large Canadian delegation appeared at the Paris climate negotiations, showing the world that Canada was “back.”

Since then, Canada has been both applauded (for its investment in clean technology, for instance) and criticized (for its recent approval of pipeline projects, for instance) when it comes to the environment.

Despite Donald Trump, who once said global warming was created by the Chinese “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” in the White House, McKenna says there is still much to celebrate on this year’s International Women’s Day: the many women leading climate negotiations, the way a Canadian gender-balanced cabinet is inspiring other women around the world, and how the impact of climate change on women is being considered now more than ever.

This week, McKenna, also the member of parliament for Ottawa Centre, and former executive director of both the Canadian Lawyers Abroad and the Banff Forum, shared her thoughts on the best way forward for Canada-U.S. cooperation and the women in the environmental field that inspire her.

Do you subscribe to a feminist foreign policy? What does that mean to you and your ministry?

I certainly subscribe to it, as does our government. I think that you have to assess the potential impacts of policies and programs and services on women and men, and really understand [whether] we are ensuring that, for example, women and girls can enjoy their fundamental rights.

[For] all of our policies, when they go to cabinet, there is a gender-based analysis that they go through. And you know, I actually tweeted out that climate change disproportionately affects women and girls and I thought that was uncontroversial, but that generated a fair bit of controversy. I had to explain that when you look at the impacts of climate change, we know that in developing countries, for example, there is more drought. And who generally are the people who go and get water? Disproportionately women and girls. That means they have to walk further, girls are less likely to go to school because they’re helping out to get the water, so there’s impact.

I think it’s really important, whether you’re looking at immigration policy, you’re looking at environmental policy, or you’re looking at defence policy, that you actually think, okay, there’s this policy, it’s not neutral and what are the impacts? Then you can design a better policy that will ensure women and girls can enjoy fundamental rights.

Specifically, what kinds of questions are asked in a gender-based analysis?

You can take any policy, it doesn’t really matter. But if you were to take a policy, [let’s say] a resource-based project, what is the impact on the community? Will it mean more men will be working in the community? How could that impact increase rates of violence or other issues? You could do that across the board.

So it’s a much more nuanced tool, it’s not just all women and girls are the same; if you are poor, your education level, your age, your background, they all have an impact. It’s the idea that you’re making sure that you really understand a policy because if you don’t do that, you might not see that it could be exacerbating a negative impact on the rights of women and girls, or in a more positive way, you could design it better, so that you could ensure that women and girls are better able to enjoy their fundamental rights.

I used to live in East Timor working for the United Nations peacekeeping mission and there were issues of sexual assault on kids. We know, the numbers show, that if you have more women involved on the police side and on the military side, that is less likely to happen. 

How has it been to be out in the world representing a gender-balanced cabinet?

It has been great. We know that diverse cabinets — just like diverse boards, and we’re like a board — make better decisions. So having so many women really enhances our decision-making ability and leads to more nuanced discussions.

The number of people I meet, both leaders and also just regular people, abroad that know that we have a gender-based cabinet and are really excited about that is amazing. I was just in China and I met a young female president of one of the leading companies and she was just so excited, “I can’t believe, first of all, that you are a minister and that you guys have half women, half men in a cabinet.” It was so far from what the situation is in China. These models, they give hope to women and girls and that’s okay, but they could be the norm.  

McKenna 2
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C), Finance Minister Bill Morneau (L) and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna take part in a meeting with members of the China Entrepreneur Club at Willson House in Chelsea, Quebec, Canada, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

There are so many amazing women voices in the environmental movement. Who has inspired you?

Certainly, when I was at the Paris negotiations [in 2015] there were many women at the forefront. Christiana Figueres, who is the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was the lead climate negotiator for the UN. Laurence Tubiana, she was the French climate ambassador. They were the hosts; they played a very important role. Mary Robinson has always been a hero of mine and is now really focused on climate justice and on how we make sure women and girls are part of the conversation — that we’re bringing them to the table and we’re thinking about the impacts of climate change on women. 

And to be honest, in the negotiations, so many women ministers were involved. I don’t even know if it was, you know, that in some countries people think environment is soft, which I don’t think it is at all, so they put women in there, but it was women who were really at the forefront going hard, helping to get through very thorny issues and get to an ambitious Paris Agreement which is obviously critical for the future of our planet.

Do you see gender politics at play when it comes to how we care for the planet?

You just see the conversation has really shifted and it’s women who have pushed the shift in the conversation. G7 environment ministers — and I’ve pushed pretty hard [on this] — recognize that climate change affects men and women differently and that women must be included in shaping climate change policies. I don’t think there would have been that receptiveness a decade ago.

Mary Robinson’s work has been really important. She brings together what she calls the Troika+ — women and men that that are willing to push for a gendered perspective on climate change. She’s absolutely committed to having more female climate negotiators, and that’s a technical skill, you can’t just be a climate negotiator, you have to be trained. So we’ve committed — Canada has committed — to playing a training role, and I have to say, definitely more than half of our climate negotiators are women. These are really hardcore, technical, sometimes bruising negotiations.

The second thing is just making sure we bring in the voices of indigenous women, women that are more grassroots that may not be at the table, because it’ll change how you approach climate negotiations. It’s great to be really technical but you also need to be able to translate that into the real lives of people. So, hearing from women on the ground and talking about the impacts of climate change in their communities and what it means is really important, because it reinforces the importance of the work but [also] makes for more nuanced policy. 

How do you see the relationship going forward between Canada and the United States on climate action?

First of all, I’m as much of an economic minister as I am an environment minister. That’s just a reality, you always have to make the economic case as well as the environmental case, and I think the environment and economics do go together, so it’s easy to make that connection.

So, in the conversations that I have with my U.S. counterparts [a call with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt took place March 1], certainly I emphasize the importance of the trading relationship. Because if a trading relationship is not strong, it’s going to be very hard to [work on] climate policy.

But in terms of the environment, well, the new U.S. administration is committed to clean air, clean water; they’re committed to making sure that [the economy] grows, that there’s innovation in the clean energy area. That was noted in the statement between the president and the prime minister, and I’m certainly going to continue emphasizing that climate action just makes good business sense. When you look at the growth rates of the clean energy and renewables sector, you look at how competitive solar and wind is — I think Texas is the top state when it comes to wind, a Republican state, and there are many Republican states that are leading the way. It’s just as good an economic opportunity.

[The U.S.] wants to create jobs, and we want to create jobs and grow the economy, so we’re going to keep doing that, and internationally that’s the real focus.

I just met with my European counterpart Miguel Cañete and we talked about how we’re moving forward because the market has moved. One hundred and ninety-five countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement, which gives a clear signal to the market. So you’ve seen business recognizing that this is the direction the world is going, and so they are moving forward, they are investing, they are looking at how they can help their bottom-line by reducing emissions and by their investments.

We’re going to continue working with everyone who is committed to serious climate action, and as Minister of Natural Resources [Jim Carr] and I always say: The environment and the economy go together, they have to go together. That’s a real opportunity for Canada. We see the opportunity in China, a $30 trillion market. I did the first trade mission of an environment minister [there] because it’s good business.

But there is tension between environmental protection and the kind of trade Donald Trump wants to increase, his promise to reduce regulations, etc.

Look, you don’t choose who you’re going to work with, you find common ground and that’s what we’re doing. There is often such a focus on the new administration, forgetting the governors, forgetting Congress, forgetting the role of states, forgetting the role of business in municipalities. There are a lot of players in the U.S. moving forward very quickly, and we’re working with them as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us