By Maureen McEwan
Catherine McKenna is exiting the federal political arena after serving two terms as the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre.
In late June, McKenna announced she would not be seeking re-election so she can spend more time with her family and she can focus on climate action.
“I’ve been in politics, really, for eight years because I ran for two years: one year for the nomination and then over a year in the lead up to the 2015 election. And on the kid side, my kids were four, six, and eight, and now they’re almost 13, 15, and 17. So I don’t have a lot of years left with them at the house, and I just wanted to spend more time with them,” she said. “And then on climate—look, we really have a decade to make a real difference.”
“We need every country to do what Canada is doing. We need them to put a price on pollution; we need them to phase out coal; we need them to tackle emissions across all sectors and make investments in clean energy, green infrastructure,” she added.
Since 1979, Ottawa Centre has gone back and forth between Liberals and the NDP. In early 2015, the riding was represented by NDP MP Paul Dewar who held the seat since 2006. McKenna said she knew it was “winnable under the right conditions.”
In October 2015, she won the election with 42 per cent of the vote, according to Elections Canada, and Dewar came second with 38 per cent.
In 2019, McKenna won again with 48 per cent of the vote, and NDP candidate Emilie Taman came second with 29 per cent.
During her time in legislature, McKenna took on two ministerial roles. She was named Minister of Environment and Climate Change in November 2015, a role she held until November 2019, when she was named Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
One of the accomplishments she’s most proud of as an MP was the federal government’s efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2015-2016.
McKenna said the Ottawa Centre office was involved in helping people navigate the immmigration process, reunite with their loved ones and access services and funding, adding that residents “really stepped up” during that time.
Recently, she’s been proud of local infrastructure projects like Flora Footbridge, Chief William Commanda Bridge, the super library at LeBreton Flats, efforts to create more local affordable housing and public transit pieces like the second phase of the LRT.
Looking back, if she could have done anything differently, she would have “worried less.”
“When you get into politics, you feel like there are things you need to do as a politician — sound a particular way, say things a particular way. I realized I probably could have chilled out a bit more,” McKenna said.
“People don’t expect you to be perfect in this business but they expect you to work hard,” she added.
Throughout her federal career, McKenna has repeatedly been the target of hate and harassment in person and online. She’s been verbally assaulted, her campaign office has been defaced, and her staff have been accosted, to name only a few incidents.
“It was a problem because it was definitely a targeted campaign to discredit me, and that is challenging when you’re trying to land a climate plan,” she said.
“Those people are trying to drive you out and, for me, it just made me double down and work harder,” she said, adding that she’s not leaving politics because of the hate and harassment.
During the pandemic, McKenna has been writing a book called Run Like A Girl. It isn’t a “tell-all,” the MP said, but a reflection on lessons she’s learned and how to support girls and women who want to get into politics.
“Often, women are on the front lines: they’ve got kids, they’ve got aging parents, they’re contributing to their community, and we need to make sure it’s possible for women to have the space to run,” McKenna said.
“Broader diversity” is needed as well, she said.
“We need more Black politicians, racialized politicians, LGBTQ2+ politicians, Indigenous politicians because we will make better decisions if we look like the folks we’re representing,” she added. “And there’s still, actually, a lot of work to be done on that front. I’m going to try to do what I can because it is really important to me.”
McKenna will serve as minister until Sept. 20. This fall, she’s supporting Liberal candidate and former Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi. She said she worked with Naqvi on multiple projects in the city, and that “he’ll continue the work.”
As for what’s next professionally, McKenna is still mulling.
“I’m going to take a little bit of time to figure out what the best fit is and where [I am] going to make a difference,” she said.
“I’ve got another chapter in me, maybe a few,” she added. “But we’ve got to bend the curve on climate change in the next decade…We’ve got a lot more work to do so that’s just something I’m very committed to doing.”