The Ugly Rage Against Catherine McKenna

As the face of the climate change file, McKenna has endured a torrent of vile abuse. Behind it is a powder keg of anxiety, resentment, and a lot of anger.

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Catherine McKenna hugs a member of her team after speaking about a misogynistic slur spray painted on her constituency office.

(Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Three days after the federal election, a dozen reporters, cameramen and photographers were waiting outside Catherine McKenna’s campaign office in Ottawa’s trendy Westboro neighbourhood when she strode across the parking lot with her campaign manager, Kyle Harrietha.

She walked quickly, head tucked down, only glancing up once at the foot-tall letters spray-painted across an enlarged photo of her in the window: “C-NT.” The “U” obscured most of McKenna’s face, and the “T” sprawled across the metal window frame and onto the door.

A couple of hours earlier, McKenna had been walking her 10-year-old son to school—”Trying to be a normal parent”—when Harrietha called to tell her what he’d discovered when he arrived at the office. What would most annoy her afterward was that she had just been heaving a full-body sigh of relief that the nasty election campaign was over. “I thought that that was all going to end,” she said.

Her staff had already sent her a photo, but she tried not to look at the graffiti as she and Harrietha ducked past it into the office with the cameras trailing them.

The headquarters for McKenna’s campaign in the riding of Ottawa Centre was in teardown mode, but the noisy disassembly of cubicle walls had been temporarily halted for an impromptu press conference. The campaign office used to be a consignment shop for children’s clothes, and cheery preschool-style paintings still bedecked some of the walls. A sign above the coffee station declared it “a non-political talk zone.”

McKenna stepped in front of the cameras, surrounded by a half-dozen female volunteers and staffers, with hundreds of campaign signs heaped like firewood behind them.

“We’ve just been through a really divisive campaign with a lot of negative rhetoric, and this is really beneath us as Canadians,” she said. The newly re-elected Liberal MP was obviously unsettled, but her overriding reaction seemed to be a tired sort of exasperation.

“It isn’t about me, it’s about what kind of politics we want in our country. That someone would do this—I don’t even have words to describe what kind of person would do this. It’s the same as the trolls on Twitter. It needs to stop,” she said flatly. “We need to come together as a country and have real discussions about real issues, but doing it in a way without vitriol, without hate, without anger.”

“Anyway, I am a bit shaken,” McKenna acknowledged, then added in a clipped, impatient voice, “Look, I’m tough, but I’m really sick of this.”

She’s entitled to be. Here’s a quick, random sampling of the obnoxious and abusive responses she received on Twitter over the last week:

@LiberalsSuck321 wrote, “I’m a female and I can’t stand her. My 5yo granddaughter is smarter than her.”

In direct response to the graffiti, @CJSparks9 wrote, “Shoe fits….”

@DavidQuint35 replied, “awww climate Barbie is sad because most of Canada can’t stand her. Get over it lady and go pound rocks.”

And @Ryan61665295 wrote, “F–king c–t Prob put there by sombody who list there house and everything they own and can’t feed there kids because of the changes you’ve made so abruptly to the way people make a living in this country. So ya f–k you you f–king joke of a human. Lie some more.”

And the sewage doesn’t stay online anymore.

Canadian Press reported in September that in recent months, McKenna has required a security detail, as a result of threats to her family and incidents of real-world abuse. Once, she was outside a movie theatre with her kids when someone driving by screamed, “F–k you, Climate Barbie!”

There is no mistaking the misogynistic bent to many of the attacks she faces, and much of the blowback is undoubtedly driven by the fact that she is an accomplished woman occupying an influential political role (before she was elected in 2015, McKenna worked internationally as a lawyer and co-founded the human rights charity Level Justice).

But the sheer heat and fury of it all has another, even more potentially destructive, source of fuel.

It is her file—at the dissolution of Parliament, McKenna was minister of environment and climate change, the walking and talking embodiment of her government’s efforts to combat climate change through the federal carbon tax—that causes the backlash against her to rocket from garden-variety hideousness to vicious lunacy.

“It’s not a reasonable file,” she says in an interview. “It’s a transition that some people want to happen overnight because they’re very concerned, and some people don’t want maybe to happen overall, either because they’re worried about jobs or some entrenched interests. I think there are both—I think there are corporate interests, but I think there are also some people reasonably worried about how they fit into this. It’s a very personal issue to people.”

Climate change has become a full-blown culture war in Canada. And as with all culture wars, the debate has tipped long past being about the issue itself or the best policies with which to address it, and has become instead about all the other sprawling, simmering societal fissures that have been grafted onto it.

As a Canadian right now, you are not merely for or against a carbon tax or a resource development project or a real plan to address the howling crisis of climate change; you are instead a patronizing, coddled elite who knows and cares nothing of normal people with real bills to pay, or an ignorant hillbilly who will stuff your oil-streaked fingers in your ears and hum loudly until the planet burns away beneath your cowboy boots. You either hate the swath of the Canadian map labelled “Alberta” and “Saskatchewan” and everyone who lives there, or you loathe an entire generation of children and teenagers terrified of their impending annihilation. You must either want to kneecap the economy or the environment.

And at the centre of this maelstrom of regional resentments, bone-deep fears and genuinely difficult policymaking stands McKenna and a handful of other prominent women working on the same file, subject all at once to both the smouldering resentments that still cling like barnacles to powerful women, and to the seething tensions around climate change.

When the CP story about McKenna requiring real-world security was published, Conor Anderson, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Climate Lab, began an analysis of her Twitter replies, dating back to Nov. 4, 2015, when she became environment minister. By far the largest volume of tweets directed at her came on April 1, 2019, Anderson found—the day the federal carbon tax took effect in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Anderson performed sentiment analysis to categorize the use of language and overall tone in replies to McKenna, and he found an unmistakeable downward slide over time. Sometime in the early months of 2017, the proportion of negative tweets McKenna received outstripped the positive ones, and the angry red line tracking the nasty tweets continues to march sharply upward.

Anderson found that the word “Barbie” appears in about three per cent of all replies to McKenna, or nearly 7,000 tweets, for which she can thank Gerry Ritz, the former Saskatchewan Conservative MP who slapped the insult “Climate Barbie” on her in 2017. That ratio might seem slight, but Anderson points out that “climate” appears in only 10 per cent of replies to her and “environment” in about three per cent.

“I don’t think that there’s anything more noisy than climate change at this point,” he says.

Anderson’s findings mirror what McKenna has felt viscerally: things are getting darker and more fraught. “I didn’t really get it offline until about a year ago, and then people just felt the need to stop me and tell me what a horrible person I was,” she says. “In one case, I’m wandering with my kids—like seriously, I’m wandering on a Saturday night, my kids are on their skateboards, I’ve just gotten off my bike—and they feel the need to shout and scream at me and take a video.”

After one particular incident spooked her, she just stopped going out for a while and only had friends over to her house. “I’ve tried to stop that,” she says. “Because it’s not even a matter of it getting me down, it’s just wanting to have a life.”

Her kids are 15, 13 and 10. The youngest hates politics and probably sees the least of things that might worry him, but her eldest of course knows about it all. After the graffiti, she came home and said “Oh yeah, I saw it. How are you doing, Mom?” This pattern kicks in a lot: McKenna isn’t worried about herself when something happens, but someone close worries about her, so then she worries about them. Her middle daughter decided that whoever held that spray paint can was just mad because she won again.

When McKenna talked to her mom, she initially brushed off the graffiti as the work of teenagers. No, her mother said, no teenager would paint that word on a window; this was an angry adult. “Then I was like, ‘Oh. Why does someone hate me so much?’” McKenna says. “I hadn’t actually processed it, I had removed it from me.” Speaking about this the day after it happened, she does not seem crestfallen or offended; there is, rather, an ironic lightness as she riffs through her reactions to these incidents.

And then she continues, landing on something that is probably key to coping with it personally, but also to understanding this as a broader Canadian political force: it’s not really about her, she’s just the one standing there.

“But I don’t know if it’s true. I think the polarization around my file, and the way the last four years it’s been like this, you kind of become vilified,” she says. “It happens on all sides on my file. Lots of people have issues with me personally, even though I just think I’m a regular person just trying to do the best I can.”

***

Katharine Hayhoe has spent a lot of time thinking all of this through. A Canadian now working as a climate scientist, professor and director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University, Hayhoe occupies the same doubly-fraught territory as McKenna (a third member of their inadvertent sorority is Shannon Phillips, an Alberta MLA who previously served as environment minister in Rachel Notley’s NDP government).

Hayhoe experiences most of her backlash on Twitter and Facebook, though some people take the extra trouble to send emails or real letters, too. If it’s not insults or outright abuse—”I wonder if anybody shot at your window lately, Dr. Hayhoe?” is not a friendly question, she points out—it’s people who claim to agree with her but then condescendingly explain her own area of expertise back to her.”For me to be called an idiot is a good day,” she says. Ninety-five per cent of them, she estimates, are older white men.

Despite being on the receiving end of this river of garbage for years, Hayhoe’s theory about why it’s happening is both remarkably cogent and implicitly empathetic.

She and McKenna offer the same diagnosis of what is the deepest root of all of this: fear. “And then the fear is manifesting itself in anger against people who symbolize what you’re afraid of,” Hayhoe says. Where climate change slots into that is that part of what she and people like McKenna are saying is that the way we do things now and the way we’ve been getting energy for hundreds of years is no longer good for us and has to change.

“And a lot of people are like, ‘You are going to rip my coal and my truck and my gas out of my cold and dying hands, because…it was good enough for my daddy and it was good enough for my grandaddy and by heck, it’s gonna be good enough for me, too,’” she says. “The whole climate change thing represents a symbol of the old ways aren’t any good anymore, we need new ways, and that’s what people see as a threat. So there’s this huge emotional attachment to it that they haven’t even fully recognized or articulated or made conscious themselves.”

On top of that, there are specific ways in which reactions to climate change and to women in positions of power compound each other.

Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, has found in her research that women with more stereotypically male personalities—measured in traits such as assertiveness or willingness to take risks—were more likely to be sexually harassed than those with more feminine personalities that included traits like being warm or sensitive to the needs of others.

She also found that women in male-dominated occupations were targeted with more sexual harassment than those in female-dominated workplaces, and women with so-called masculine personalities in male-dominated workplaces got it worst of all.

“It’s the women who are really threatening the status quo who get harassed the most,” she says. And while she does not have specific data on this, she surmises that phenomenon could be at play in reactions to McKenna and Hayhoe’s work.

“Women who are advocating to mitigate climate change are likely much more threatening to the status quo of our society, so they might be particularly likely to get targeted. We see this with Greta Thunberg. I mean, she’s not a politician, but even she as a 16-year-old girl is experiencing tremendous amounts of misogyny. Basically, your enemies will cut you down wherever they think they can, and gender is a really easy method for women, to cut them down.”

Jennifer Bosson, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, has done research on what’s known as “precarious manhood.” This is the tendency in many societies to view masculinity as something that must be earned and then re-proven repeatedly, whereas womanhood is viewed as a more stable, innate state of being. And if someone’s masculinity is threatened, they often resort to risk-taking, aggressiveness or sexual promiscuity in order to compensate and prove themselves once again. The real-life application of this academic finding will be familiar to anyone who’s witnessed a drunken brawl outside a bar, sparked by nothing more than a sideways look.

One study Bosson worked on examined people who had recently lost their jobs, asking them if they believed that people viewed them as less of a man or less of a woman as a result of their unemployment. The men experienced this worry while the women did not, and the more men subscribed to that belief, the more likely they were to say they had been depressed, anxious or low in self-esteem recently.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a not dissimilar sort of economic and identity distress across an entire industry or sector of the economy that has been cast in direct conflict with climate action in Canada’s current culture war. This country was buffered from the worst effects of the Great Recession, but not unscathed, and between that recent memory, falling oil prices and a general, ongoing hollowing of manufacturing jobs, male-dominated sectors in this country have ample reason to feel under siege.

“In Canada, it seems to me you could be sitting on a powder keg of anxieties and fears,” says Bosson.

And then, standing right beside that powder keg, is a woman—an outsider in geography and class, no less—in the form of McKenna, talking about the need for everything to change in ways that are guaranteed to be disruptive and difficult.

“To me, those are all ingredients that when you add it up causes a lot of anxiety and resentment, a lot of anger, a lot of ‘Who do you think you are telling me how to run my business, telling me that what I do is bad for the planet?’” Bosson says.

***

Asked if there is any part of her that will be relieved if she gets a new portfolio assignment on Nov. 20 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet, at first McKenna retreats to a standard upbeat politician’s response: I like new challenges, I’m a policy wonk, climate change is at the heart of every file now anyway.

But then she heads somewhere a little different. “Who knows? It might be good for everyone that we’re able to make it a little quieter. Just tone it down,” she says. “Some days, I’m like, ‘Yeah, for everyone’s sake, for my family’s sake…but I love this too and I’m deeply committed.”

Of course, if fear calcifying into rage is the root of the spittle-flecked vitriol swirling around climate change, as McKenna and Hayhoe persuasively argue it is, there is an obvious and all-encompassing fear blanketing everything right now: what Bosson calls the “existential terror of living on a planet where human life will soon be not tenable.”

That is the biggest psychological threat imaginable, and people find different ways to cope with that and stay sane, she points out.

“Humans have always had a really large capacity to deny that which terrifies us, especially if we don’t see evidence of it in our face every day,” she says. “So some people cope with that terror by just digging in their heels and refusing to believe that it’s a real thing.”

“It’s like we’re rats on the Titanic,” Bosson says. “And how do you cope with that terror?”

So far, the answer from the terrified rats has been ripping each other limb from limb.