Through my work and travels as a physician and mother, I can mark the months and years of my son’s life by the Canadian towns we have explored as he has grown. At 32 weeks he kicked in my belly as we watched the blazing sunset over the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove. At three months I carried him up the snowy, forested slopes of Mont Royal. At ten months I laughed as he commando-crawled through lush grass by the Rideau Canal. At two we hiked up majestic Oak Bluffs on Pender Island to gaze out over the ocean while I was on call. And at almost three, we danced together on the blue-green edge of Hidden Lake near Yellowknife after a long day of clinic.
But today the beauty of these places, and the ability of other families to safely live and work there, are threatened by the effects of climate change. Nova Scotia is actively planning new regulations for coastal construction as sea levels rise. Last year 93 people died in a heat wave that gripped Quebec during the hottest July in almost a century. This month the nation’s capital was submerged under flood waters, surpassing records set only two years ago. Plumes of smoke from the worst B.C. forest-fire seasons in history have choked residents of the Southern Gulf Islands for the past two summers. And in the North, which is heating up three times faster than the rest of the world, the permafrost melts and sea ice thins, threatening local food security.
As another Mother’s Day approaches and the earth continues to warm, know this: as mothers, and Canadians, we have a unique responsibility — and ability — to rapidly move our country in a healthier direction on climate change.
Channeling energy into action
Galvanized by concern for the health of their families, North American mothers have channelled this energy into successful action on other major public health challenges before.
In 1971 Clara Gouin, grieving the death of her father from lung cancer and homebound due to her daughter’s severe tobacco allergy, hosted the first meeting of the Group Against Smokers’ Pollution (GASP), which rapidly established chapters across the United States and helped enact the first state ban on smoking in public places in 1973.
In 1980, after losing her 13-year-old daughter to a drunk driver, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — a grassroots public-health advocacy organization that is now largely credited for shifting our attitudes towards and reducing fatalities from impaired driving.
In April, Naomi Baker of Langley, B.C., worried about the effects of second-hand smoke on her 10-month old daughter, presented the provincial legislature with a 17,000-signature petition to ban smoking in condos, gaining the support of multiple health organizations and politicians.
Mothers also hold enormous economic power, which is particularly relevant given the huge role corporations play in both carbon emissions and government policy.
Canadian women control almost 70 per cent of household spending, and over 90 per cent are either the primary or shared decision makers for everyday financial decisions. By 2028, a CIBC report estimates that women will control $3.8 trillion, or one third of financial assets in the country.
Yet it has never been more urgent for mothers to turn their advocacy skills and economic heft to the public health challenge of climate change, which has been called the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that we must slash our carbon emissions by 45 per cent below 2010 levels within the next 11 years, and reduce them to net zero by 2050, to avoid devastating effects on humanity and the environment. We have already seen some of these results in Canada, which to date has warmed 1.7°C — twice the average rate of the rest of the world.
Some argue that Canadians contribute very little to overall global carbon emissions, so any efforts to reduce ours would be meaningless. Though we do produce under two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, we nevertheless rank in the top 12 absolute emitters in the world. Canada especially overachieves in emissions per capita, landing in the top three — primarily because of outputs from our transportation sector and fossil fuel industry.
The power of parenting
Nonetheless, finding the time to fit climate action around the demands of work and home life can be challenging.
Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, who grew up in Canada’s most famous environmental family, now has three young children. In an interview, she revealed how frustrated she felt during the wildfire smoke that blanketed Vancouver last summer when her twins were nine months old.
“When the forest fires were raging I didn’t want them to go outside. Their little lungs are working so hard, and you have this outrage, this instinctive mother outrage that you want to have a better and cleaner world, but you don’t yet have the time.”
She also, however, pointed to new skills she has acquired through parenthood that will bolster her re-entry into the workforce as an environmentalist, including the ability to multitask and persist through adversity.
“With kids and twins you are forced to be patient on a level that seems superhuman. They teach you to be resilient — you’re going to have tough days but they’re going to pass. It’s a rollercoaster but you’re going to get through it.”
Motherhood can likewise serve as a powerful motivator to effect change. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, said to me that becoming a parent intensified and made much more personal her lifelong dedication to working on environmental issues.
“My daughter is now 27, and by the time she’s my age she might not be living in a world that’s habitable. This is terrifying, and should make everyone wake up and become more active, motivated and committed.”
She further highlighted the influence of women across generations, in both direct activism as fearless grandparents and inspiring action in their own children. Her own mother began her tireless campaign against nuclear weapons testing when May was a baby.
“I learned from my mother that getting involved in society could actually achieve change — a really important lesson I think my daughter also learned from me.”
Eat plants. And vote.
As a family doctor, I have had the privilege of caring for women from diverse backgrounds and means. I know the obstacles they face and different skill sets they have in trying to do right by their families and communities. Not everyone can become the leader of a federal political party, but here are steps almost any mother can take to reorient Canada towards a healthier present and future.
Choose a plant-rich diet. Reduce your own direct greenhouse gas emissions by commuting via active transport (cycling or walking), public transportation and minimizing plane travel. Waste less of everything: food, clothing, electricity. Shift corporate priorities by voting with your dollar for more environmentally friendly consumer products. Connect your children to nature so they’ll be more likely to grow up into environmentalists.
Pick a cause you’re passionate about, think about the benefits to your friends and family, and support it with your own distinctive talents — whether it be advocating for more bike lanes in your neighbourhood or fundraising for a conservation organization.
As May said, “If you’re not grounding yourself in love you can’t be a good activist.”
Educate yourself on the environmental planks of political party platforms and vote; only 68 per cent of eligible women cast ballots in the last federal election, and the next one approaches this October. And finally, make climate change part of your everyday conversation. Leverage your social capital and be vocal about your support for a carbon tax and other climate-friendly policies.
But always bear in mind that perfection is not the goal. Some would say that if you fail to drive an electric vehicle and live in a solarized micro-house, or better yet off the grid, that it’s hypocritical to care about global warming. This is a false dichotomy — and one that we can overturn by seeing the real effects our coordinated, concerted efforts will have on Canadian values and policies.
In the end, my motivation for fighting climate change comes down to one reason: my son, and this country, are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
We protect what we love. And that is why, as Canadian mothers, we must wield our power now to safeguard the health of our children and these lands.