Catherine McKenna Is Nobody’s Barbie
Fighting back, shaving her head, and what she really thinks of the c-word: A sit-down with one of the most powerful women in government.
Our second-annual 29 Powerhouses ranking is a celebration Canadians who changed the game in 2019. One of them is the unstoppable Member of Parliament Catherine McKenna, who sat down with executive editor Carley Fortune in November.
Three days after winning her seat in the federal election, incumbent Liberal MP Catherine McKenna got a phone call: Her campaign office had been vandalized, the word "cunt" spray-painted in red all-caps lettering over a poster of her face on the building's front window. It was far from the first time she had been a target of hate, but it might have been the most visible: an in-your-face reminder of just how brutal politics can be for women.
"Look, I'm tough, but I'm really sick of this," said McKenna, who represents Ottawa Centre, surrounded by female staffers at a press conference the following day. She was referencing the torrent of harassment and threats she's faced since becoming the Climate and Environment Minister in 2015, part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's famed gender-balanced cabinet and her first time serving as an MP. First came the nickname "Climate Barbie," then came the memes that attacked her gender and her intelligence, and then the threats, first online and then in person. During the recent election campaign, the severity of harassment against her and her family increased, and she was assigned a rare personal security detail. At one point, someone yelled "Fuck you, Climate Barbie" at her while she was with her children (she has three: two girls and a boy).
But McKenna remains unwavering in her belief in the importance of politics, and the need to make it better for women, more diverse, and enticing to young people. Earlier this week, I met with McKenna at her office in Gatineau, QC, to talk about the vandalism, the moment she decided to start calling out sexism, why Don Cherry's firing was a good thing, and what she really thinks about the c-word.
It’s so great to meet you.
Nice to meet you, too. I know Refinery29 [readers are] all the hipsters. Well actually, not hipsters — all the young people. I feel like “hipsters” is lame. My daughter is like, “Stop saying hipster. That’s not hip.”
I’m glad you’re familiar with us. I want to start with election night. How confident did you feel for yourself and for your party?
Look, you take nothing for granted in life, and we worked really hard, so I felt pretty good about Ottawa Centre, but as we say in politics: No poll matters except the one on election day. I wasn’t entirely sure. It was a weird, really negative, divisive campaign. I was desperate for us to win because I was so worried about our climate plan, and for me that really weighs. We have more work to do. In the end, I was happy to see the result.
How did you celebrate? You won by a healthy margin in a competitive riding.
I went to Craft [Beer Market, in Ottawa]. It was fun because my parents were there, my brother and sister-in-law, who have four kids, and my kids, were there. All my volunteers were there. It was very different than the first time [I won the riding], where that was kind of a shock. This one, I was just so happy.
That celebration didn’t last too long. A few days later, your office was vandalized with the word “cunt” painted on the window. What was that like?
I was walking my son to school — I was trying to be a normal person and took a few days off — and I got a call from my campaign manager saying, “I hate to tell you this but…” He sent me a picture, and I was like, “Really? Seriously?” It was just such a hard election, and then it was like, “Okay. Phew. Over.” And then that happened. The things that really hit home were: One, my volunteers were shaken. There were a lot of women volunteers for whom I think it was really shocking — for the first time, it was in their face. They kind of felt that it was against them too. Then I got home, and my kids knew about it because everyone is on social media.
I didn’t really think so much about who did it. Then I was talking to my mom afterwards, and she asked, “Why would someone do that?” And I was like, “It’s probably just a teenager.” She said it was not a teenager. In her view, it took someone older, who is angry and male, to write that.
What happened yesterday should serve as a reminder that, more than ever, we need women in politics. Some people clearly want to chase women out of politics, but that's not going to make anything better. This isn't going to chase me out — it's going to make me work even harder. pic.twitter.com/HJ0qyoiFhm— Catherine McKenna 🇨🇦 (@cathmckenna) October 25, 2019
Canada has a reputation as a progressive, feminist country, but this incident is so counter to that. Do you think misogyny is on the rise here?
I don’t know if misogyny is on the rise, but it certainly exists. I can’t tell if it’s just something that’s been hidden and social media has brought it more to the fore, or if it’s something that’s now gaining more traction. But there’s certainly misogyny when it comes to women in politics, also women in media. There are a lot of negative comments about women, and then when you layer in climate change, that’s a whole other level.
I’m pretty tough and I’m getting a bit tired of all this. But I know you can’t let haters get you down.
I watched the press conference you gave following the vandalism. You seemed calm, but didn't you just feel like losing your shit?
Yeah, I mean, look: I’ve learned that it is much better to be calm. It happened to me also when I had my Rebel Media incident. [Ed note: In 2017 at a press conference, McKenna butted heads with a Rebel Media reporter when she asked that he and his organization stop referring to her as Climate Barbie.] You just have to be very focused and calm because I know if I look like I’m really upset, I’ll be portrayed in a particular way.
For women, everything you do is dissected: what you look like and how you react. But it is emotional for me. Anyway, [the vandalism] wasn’t really about me. It’s about what we want for women in politics. It sends a very negative signal, even for me, and I’m pretty tough and I’m getting a bit tired of all this. But I know you can’t let haters get you down.
You said that the incident would not chase you out of politics, that it would make you recommit to getting more women in politics and diversity of all sorts. What does that commitment look like?
I guess I haven’t really thought about that. I did an event a couple years ago for any woman, young or old, who was thinking of joining politics for any party. It was really great. It was a discussion about politics — some really practical things. Like how do you run? What does the nomination look like? A number of people stood up and said, “I’m running.” I had a high school student who said, “I’m going to run for my student council,” and she won. Then I had a friend who decided she was going to run for mayor of a small town. I think that’s the power. We need women in all parties, at all levels of government including high school because they’ll probably think about running later on.
We need better tools to support women and diversity more broadly. That’s the one thing I’m very proud of: There’s often a lot of focus on a feminist government, but we have a lot of diversity in our government. I think that’s important, that’s what Canada is about, and that’s why the whole Don Cherry thing was good, because people were like, “Wait a minute: It’s not them vs. us.” That’s not what we’re doing here in Canada.
I realize it is powerful to call things out; for a long time I didn’t because I thought it would make me look weak.
I want to ask about the term Climate Barbie. I think it was coined by former Conservative MP Gerry Ritz back in 2017 on Twitter…
I think it was probably coined in 2015, two minutes after I was named cabinet minister. My team said, “Don’t do anything about it. You’ll give it more attention.” For a long time, I sucked it up. The funny thing is I didn’t even want to play with Barbies as a kid, so it felt like that made it even more irritating. I didn’t say anything until Gerry Ritz used it. I was at the UN, sitting on a couch after a really long day with world leaders talking about climate change, and my Twitter had exploded, and I looked and there was Gerry Ritz’s tweet. I was like, I’m done. I took my phone and I did take one second to think about [my response]. I just said, “Would you use that language with your mother, daughter, sister, girlfriend?” The point is that all of this isn’t about me, it’s about what is acceptable. I realize it is powerful to call things out; for a long time I didn’t because I thought it would make me look weak.
After that, the nickname Climate Barbie never went away. Ritz apologized on Twitter, but did he ever talk to you face to face?
I don’t think he did. I think Andrew Scheer eventually called me.
A recent Maclean’s piece suggested that more so than your gender, your file and fear around climate change is the root of the harassment and abuse you've faced. What do you make of that?
I spend a lot of time thinking about this: Is it me? Is it my file? Is it my gender? I think climate change [is part of it]. People are worried about their jobs and their way of life and then they look at me like, “Who are you to tell me?” The reality is I’m not telling people about their way of life. My job as environment minister is to take action to protect the environment and reduce emissions. That’s just what it is. I am definitely sympathetic towards this idea that we have to have empathy for people who are worried about how they fit in the transition.
We also have to have empathy for young people. We also have a lot people calling out young people marching the streets who are legitimately concerned about their future. I have young people come to my office that are like, “I’m never having kids.” They’re very stressed.
I think it’s really hard. It really hits home when they’re so disappointed. I think we need young people marching in the streets. It’s not just an environment issue or a climate change issue, it’s an overarching issue. We need to take it as seriously as that. Every day we should be thinking about it. The reality is, though, we do have to think about workers. People are still driving using oil and gas, and that’s going to be the reality for decades. Young people — I understand their impatience and their anger.
Justin Trudeau announces his new cabinet on Nov. 20. If you're moved off the climate file, will you feel relieved or disappointed?
I just feel lucky that I had this job. I was not an environmentalist, but I cared about the environment when I came into this file. It was a huge learning curve, and it was amazing. When the prime minister decides — if I’m even in cabinet — he’ll make decisions about who he thinks is best placed. Whatever the file is, climate is such a cross-cutting critical issue, so in some ways it would be good to have a different angle on the file.
I’m not having other people define how I dress or what I look like. Forget it.
Beyond climate, so much of the harassment you face is tied up in gender and how you look. Has it ever made you…
Want to shave my head?
Ha! Has it ever made you second-guess how you put yourself together in the morning?
I literally don’t have time think about putting myself together. I have three kids. I go to swim practice. I have no makeup on. When I come back, my hair is all soaking wet and then I make breakfast and hang out with my kids. Then I come to the office. I don’t define myself by how I look. I’m too old; I’m 48. I gave up caring about whatever everyone thinks about me. At this age, I’m not having other people define how I dress or what I look like. Forget it.
Speaking of clothing, I saw a cute T-shirt online with a rainbow and the words “insufferable cunt” written on it. I thought about getting it for you. Too soon?
Ha! It’s funny because the c-word is just… I would never… it’s one of those words. Although, I can see in some ways the attraction of expropriating it for your own purposes. Look, put aside that word because I really hate that word. I think it’s such a derogatory, condescending word, but Climate Barbie? At first I was like, ignore it. Then I was like, fight it. Maybe it’s like, own it. Maybe they should do a Climate Action Barbie.
This interview has been condensed and edited.