Say what you will about Justin Trudeau, but you must concede he is a man who is not afraid to surround himself with strong women. We have seen this in the past week in incidents involving Catherine McKenna, his environment minister, and Julie Payette, the astronaut/scientist whom he chose as Canada’s governor general.
Let’s start with Catherine McKenna. A bilingual lawyer with a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, McKenna was elected for the first time in 2015 in Ottawa Centre, making her the MP for Parliament Hill. Her biggest political challenge is the climate change file.
As a feminist and mother of two, she deeply resents being stereotyped as a brainless blonde by a few sexists and climate-change deniers in the Conservative opposition who put her down as “Climate Barbie.” It is not clear which they resent more: her conviction that global warming is a reality; or the fact that the government’s response to it is being led by a female – a woman who is smart, tough and more accomplished than most of them.
Her detractors draw inspiration from Rebel Media, the far-right website founded by Ezra Levant, a Steve Bannon wannabe. Rebel Media loves the “Climate Barbie” label it invented.
On Friday, McKenna took them on at a press conference in Vancouver. She refused to answer a question from Rebel reporter Christopher Wilson unless the website agreed to stop insulting her.
“So you're the Rebel Media that happens to call me ‘Climate Barbie,’ I certainly hope that you will no longer use that hashtag,” McKenna said, adding later in the testy exchange, “The reason I'm asking you not to do this is because I have two daughters. There are lots of girls that want to get into politics and it is completely unacceptable that you do this,” she said.
She did answer Wilson’s question after he insisted he does not use the term – although he does. Next day, his boss, Levant, doubled down with this tweet: “Appointed to fill a gender quota; unable to control her emotions when criticized; spends taxes on vanity photo shoots. #ClimateBarbie fits.”
McKenna may not have had the last word last week, but she earns high marks for standing up to abuse from the purveyors of ignorance and misinformation.
Two days earlier, at science conference in Ottawa, Governor General Payette demonstrated – if such demonstration were needed – that she has no intention of being a figurehead, the Rideau Hall equivalent of a Walmart greeter, or a dispenser of platitudes to visiting dignitaries.
Like McKenna, she is a smart, accomplished woman. She has been a leader, on the space station and in the lab; a computer engineer, she has a master’s degree in applied science. When she thinks something needs to be said, she speaks out.
So she ruffled a few feathers last week when she urged former colleagues to take responsibility for shutting down the flow of misinformation on digital media about everything from health to, yes, climate change. “Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the earth warming up or whether even the earth is warming up, period?” she asked.
She ruffled more feathers when she turned to evolution and creationism: “And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”
People who believe the Queen’s representative should never, ever harbour bold thoughts, let alone utter them aloud, were appalled. But those days are gone. Some fine people have served as governor general – men like Ray Hnatyshyn, Romeo LeBlanc and Ed Schreyer. But can anyone remember anything they ever said while at Rideau Hall?
Canadians will not have a black hole in their memory with Julie Payette – or over on Parliament Hill with women like Catherine McKenna.