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Hurricane Leslie: We're going to be all right

MP Megan Leslie

A feature interview with the Deputy Leader of the New Democratic Party

Hurricane Leslie is a vortex of energy, a force of nature, sweeping aside obstacles, drawing energy from her surroundings and channeling it right back into the landscape -- and then there is the meteorological event of the same name.

It's a torrentially wet day on the shores of Halifax Harbour with the remnants of Hurricane Leslie buffeting the Nova Scotia coastline. In a neighborhood bistro I'm sitting across the table from Megan Leslie, Member of Parliament from Halifax, the New Democratic Party Environment Critic, and the deputy leader of the NDP.

Full disclosure: I'm a close friend of Megan Leslie's. In the last four years since her election as the MP from Halifax, I've watched her grow from political neophyte, wet behind the Parliamentary ears, to deputy leader of the official opposition. In the finest traditions of representative democracy, I've seen her fashion a synergy between elected representative and constituent, a politics greater than the sum of its parts. In the arc of her political development she has drawn strength from the members of her constituency, plowing that same strength, energy, and commitment right back into the community. It's a cycle of nourishment and growth where what you sow bears fruit that feeds the collective effort.

Leslie understands that a politician without a deep grounding in community is as powerless as a tree bereft of roots. At the same time, without eloquent, articulate, and forceful Parliamentary expression, the voice of citizens is radically muted. Together, representative and constituent, close a political circuit that creates power where hitherto none had been. I am one of the many people who have been the beneficiary of this charged vision of political engagement, an opportunity for constituents to grow in parallel with their representative, each spurring one another on. And it is this vision of political engagement -- which she has fostered, cultivated, fed, and nourished over the past four years -- that animates Leslie's view of where we, all of us as Canadians, go from here.

While the spirit of democracy is alive and well and living in Halifax, I nevertheless begin our conversation with a sense of dread (having nothing to do with the dark skies and hurricane fragments buffeting across the Halifax skies). Dread, since after a year and a half of majority rule by the Harper Conservatives, I fear what the next session of Parliament may bring. It's a sense a foreboding that I hear from many that I speak with.

Christopher Majka: After the attacks on unions, on women, and on the environment; the contempt for constitutional democracy and the power of oversight of Parliament; the elimination of independent ombudsmen and fora like the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy; the assault on reason, the disparagement of statistics, and the so-called "death of scientific evidence"; the shuttering of vital scientific research institutes such as the Experimental Lakes Area and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, and the concurrent muzzling of federal scientists; the robocall scandal and attempts to gerrymander election results; the elimination of the gun registry and the "get tough on crime" agenda (in the face of dramatically falling rates of crime); the Pandora's Box of the omnibus budget bill (C-38) and what Harris Decima's Allan Greg terms the "willful dissemination of misinformation", what further Orwellian horrors await Canadians in the next session of Parliament?

Megan Leslie: I have an analysis about that feeling of hopelessness you are talking about, that dread about the coming session of Parliament.

MPO Megan LeslieLooking back, it's been an extraordinarily difficult year and a half. Even our victories have been challenges. Becoming the official opposition was an incredible thing to happen, an absolute gift, and it's a privilege to be there -- but it was really hard. Doing the work of the official opposition put us behind the eight ball -- but we did it. We held the government to account, we cast a critical eye on their policies, we told the Conservatives what we were hearing on the ground, something they refused to listen to. So a victory, but difficult. 

Then Jack became sick, and then he died. And then speculation as to who would run, speculation that began even before we had buried him. And then a new leader. And then this omnibus budget bill that completely eviscerates all that we recognize as Canadian environmental law -- and Tom Mulcair navigated us through that. It's been a very difficult year and a half, and on every step of the road, from the moment that the election results came in on May 2, 2011, the predictions began about our failure. We've constantly been under the microscope. But we've done it; we came through; we navigated it.

So now we're about to go into our fall session and I actually feel really good, from a personal perspective, as an MP. I feel motivated and excited because for once we're not in crisis. I feel excited to be working with Tom as a leader. I feel excited that we have a firm shadow cabinet in place. However, if I take off my NDP MP hat and put on my hat as someone who cares about the future of Canada, I am also filled with dread because I've watched what the Conservatives did with the omnibus budget bill. We still don't really have a handle on what happened as a result. It touched on too many things. For example, we changed the legislation for the Assisted Human Reproduction Act. I can't fully tell you what the changes were because they were buried in this giant document. So not only do we not know what all the changes were, we certainly don't know what all the impacts will be.

These Conservatives are ruthless and relentless and they don't respect democracy. And so I am filled with dread about this coming session. Part of me thinks, "What else can they do?" And then I realize that there's a lot more that they can do. And I'm starting to not recognize the Canada that they are trying to create. 

Living in Ottawa, seeing up close and personal everything that the Conservatives are doing, I find it so disheartening. I find it demoralizing. I find it scary. But the second that I am back in the community and I see what is happening there, I am re-inspired. And when I say "community" I'm not just talking about my community here in Halifax. When I travel across Canada I see the good work that people are doing. I go to community gardens, I attend town halls on democracy, I see people awakening to the possibilities of collective action, and I realize we're going to be O.K. Because people are good, and they know what's right, and they make their communities strong. And that re-inspires me with the energy to go back to Parliament and keep at it. There's a lot of emotion there. September 17th (when Parliament resumes) will be an emotional day for me. If we can stay connected to what people are doing in communities, I will find that energy and it will push back the dread and make me realize that we can work together towards a collective future. It is achievable.

Christopher Majka: Lately I've been waking up at nights thinking about the environment. It's been a record year in terms of the melting of sea ice. Climatologists are profoundly alarmed. Never in recorded history has there been so little ice left on the Arctic Ocean -- and the melting season this year has not even concluded. Andrew Weaver, a key contributor to the work of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has shown that this year's sea ice melt anomaly is between six and seven standard deviation units from the mean. The odds of this occurring by chance are on the order of one in 10 billion. I'm filled with a sense of dread; it keeps me up at night. Is there any way that the Harper Conservatives can be made to see reason about climate change before the Greenland ice cap melts and the coastal zones of the world are flooded?  The Conservatives have just announced that they have canceled 2,970 environmental assessments across Canada as a result of measures in Bill C-38. Do we now have an open season on the environment where anything at all is permitted?

MP Megan LeslieMegan Leslie: What we need to remember [about Bill C-38] is that this was an attack upon democracy. Bill C-38 was a pipeline budget. If you could think of any barrier to putting in a pipeline as quickly as possible, that barrier has been eliminated. You don't want science to get in the way, so you make cuts to Environment Canada. You don't want evidence to get in the way, so you axe the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy. You don't want democratic participation to get in the way, so you limit who can testify at the hearings. You don't want regulatory oversight, so you gut habitat protection in the Fisheries Act. You repeal the entire Environmental Assessment process -- not tinker or tweak -- repeal the whole Act. You don't want dissent, so you find $8 million to go after environmental charities. You don't want pesky rivers and streams to get in the way, so you declare that a pipeline is no longer a "work" under the environmental assessment process. And just in case you missed something, you give final decision-making power to the cabinet. This cabinet: Peter MacKay, Tony Clement, Joe Oliver, and until very recently, Bev Oda. They are the ones who get to say "yes" even when an environmental assessment says that "this is too risky" or "we need to make changes about how this project happens." This cabinet gets to overrule that.

We need to focus our efforts. This is how Stephen Harper wins: he divides us. Environmentalists worry about changes to fish habitat; health care activists worry about transfer payment changes. It separates us into these little camps. But the narrative that's missing is the narrative that pieces all that together, that talks about the attack on democracy. All these changes were put in one budget bill for a reason, and that reason is anti-democratic. It was about not getting public feedback, not engaging in proper consultation, and not having real, honest debate in the House of Commons. It was about trying to pull a fast one on us.

Christopher Majka: So, to quote the nineteenth century Russian social democrat Nikolai Chernyshevsky, "What can be done?"

Megan Leslie: A few weeks ago Stephen Harper said that the [Northern Gateway] pipeline will only go forward based on science. And everybody laughed, because it’s a bit of a joke, right? First of all, there are hardly any scientists left, thank you very much Mr. Harper. But I didn't laugh. I saw that as an incredible watershed moment. I saw Harper hedging -- just a little bit. I saw Stephen Harper recognizing that the pipeline project might not go ahead. That the tides of public opinion have turned in western Canada, and in particular in British Columbia, and that it might not be possible to push this pipeline through. That's not admitting defeat -- he certainly didn't admit defeat  -- but he opened the door just a crack to be able to slither out if he needs to. And I do believe that that's because of collective action in British Columbia.

Christopher Majka: I am particularly interested in what is happening in relation to the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal. It seems to me that opposition to the project arises from two wellsprings. On the one hand, there are the many important concerns about the project itself: the possibility of harm to the land, the waterways, and the ocean, not only from the construction of the pipeline, facilities, and related infrastructure, but also from potential leaks and spills; the disruption of pristine wilderness habitats, the impacts upon native flora and fauna, and the infringement on the ancestral lands of the many native bands who live along the proposed corridor.

At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly in the long term, there is a growing understanding that this proposal represents something that is fundamentally wrong. That the notion of ruthlessly exploiting our natural resources for short-term corporate gain, which doesn't benefit the broad swath of Canadian people, let alone the climate and the environment, is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. That at a moment in history when our attention should be focused with single-minded determination on developing renewable energy, transitioning from fossil fuels, using our natural resources wisely, sustainably, and equitably, this pipeline proposal is an illustration of the wrong kind of development. And people are starting to articulate that concern...

Megan Leslie: I had the pleasure of going up to northern British Columbia, to the area of the proposed pipeline path and the proposed tanker path. I talked to city councils, first nations governments, and regular folks from many communities. I met a handful of people who were neutral about the project -- and that's as far as it went. The opinions ran from deadly opposed "we'll-do-anything-to-stop-it" to neutral, I met no one who was even mildly supportive. Then I was in Victoria, at the opposite end of the province, and I don't think I even met anyone who was neutral. Everyone I spoke with opposed the project. The unanimity of opinion on this pipeline project in British Columbia is staggering.

MP Megan LeslieSo, while it hasn't happened yet -- I don't want to point to this as a shining example of public opinion winning in the end -- but I can see it happening. So when I look at people who do care about our planet, who do care about our environment, and they feel that science isn't getting through to this government, that evidence isn't getting through to them … well, we can get through to the government. 

People in communities ask "What can we do?" What we can do -- and this is something that we all absolutely can do -- is speak out. Evidence isn't working any more. Evidence doesn't work to convince the Conservatives. Reason doesn't work to convince the Conservatives. Science doesn't work to convince the Conservatives. All that works with them is public opinion. And so this is actually the perfect time for us to band together and push back. What we have is our voices, building a community consensus around the fact that these changes are wrong.

This government has stopped being about conservative values and has become a party about power: the exact thing that they loathed about the Liberals. I can respect conservatives when they [talk] about smaller government, or entrepreneurship. But what the Conservative Party is doing is not about that -- it's about keeping power. And one upside is that public opinion does work with them. So I think we are at a moment when we can have a tremendous impact on this government, on shaping their policies. But the only way we're going to be able to do it is by coming together and pushing back. And I really believe that we have to do it, both on the big-picture issues, as well as the smaller pieces that were in the bill [C-38], like environmental assessment, fisheries, and employment insurance.

Christopher Majka: And what should the NDP, as a party, be doing to lay a groundwork for change? You just had a caucus meeting in Newfoundland and Labrador, the first time the national party has ever met in the province, and Tom Mulcair announced a two-year timetable for the NDP to prepare for the next election. What are the important objectives that the NDP needs to work towards over that time frame? 

Megan Leslie: I think there are two pieces to that. The first is presenting ourselves to Canadians as a real alternative. How do we do that? We go into communities, we talk to them, we show them what the NDP is all about. We talk about social democracy, about our values. We also turn a critical eye on our policies. We try and flesh them out and make them as robust as possible. For example, the NDP has policies on renewable energy, but do we need to revise them in the current context? For instance in relation to pipelines proposals or energy security? So we will be putting that current contextual lens on our policies. Peggy Nash, the NDP's finance critic, Peter Julian, our natural resources critic, and I, as the environment critic, will be working on developing a pan-Canadian energy strategy, a green energy strategy. Tom Mulcair has tasked us with that and has said that that is a priority for him, and for us as a party. So we're going to start using the solid policy base that the NDP has but making it more robust for the current political context.

We also need to expose Conservatives for what they are. They are bad managers. They are anti-democratic. They are … well other words come to mind, but I'm on the record so I'll keep it clean … [laughter]. That is part of holding them to account. We need to expose the Conservatives for who they are.

We, the NDP, also have to showcase what it is that we have to offer. Showcasing policy is about treating voters with respect. I'm seeing an increasing tendency by people to walk away from the political process altogether because they are so jaded. When they look at Parliament, when they look at the Conservatives … I don't think the Conservatives are treating voters with respect. They are shying away from policy. They are not even staying true to their Conservative values. They are refusing to engage. The Prime Minister comes to Nova Scotia and the only people he meets with are those at a Conservative barbeque. Nobody can access the Conservatives. They are not allowed to access them. The press aren't allowed to access the Conservatives. That's not respecting Canadians. That's not respecting people in our communities.

I believe that the NDP's approach of going into communities, and of developing a robust platform, is about offering an alternative. But it's also about giving people respect. We're not going to agree with everyone, but we [want to engage them]. "Let us know what you think about this. Let's talk about how we could change our policies. Let's talk about why we disagree, or why we do agree." That's the whole basis of our democracy. Members of Parliament sit in the House of Commons. We are the common people. We are supposed to represent the common people. We're not special. We shouldn't be cordoned off at secret barbeques that only party insiders are allowed to attend.

MP Megan Leslie

I believe that elected officials are powerless unless they have a constituency behind them. I don't think that even the Prime Minister can wake up in the morning and just make a decision to do something. He needs a constituency. That constituency might be big oil or big banks. It might not be the constituency that I have behind me, but we can't do anything unless there's a community behind us saying, "That's the direction we want to go in." And so for me, as an opposition member, while I can stand in the House of Commons and talk to the government about their failure to do anything about climate change, it doesn't mean anything unless that [sentiment] is also present in the community. For me to be able to do my job in the House of Commons, I need the community behind me. And I'm seeing it -- it is happening.

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On the way out, the bistro owner stops us and tells Leslie about his campaign for municipal politics (he's running for mayor). He shows us his fundraiser -- a hand printed, silk-screened shopping bag made of natural materials and fully recyclable. Grassroots politics, art, and environmentalism together in Leslie's community, only a stone's throw from her home. Outside the rain is still torrential. A hug goodbye. "We're going to be all right," she says, smiling through the raindrops. I believe her.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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