Making a travel documentary had been Steve Hulford’s dream, and after almost 60 days on the road in the summer of 1995, with three friends and a camera, the dream was falling apart in a bus depot in Mataram, Indonesia.
A backpack full of film footage had gone missing, a buddy of Hulford’s was screaming at an interpreter while a crowd of local men moved in close. A tense situation was rapidly shifting from unpleasant to ugly to potentially dangerous until the “diplomat” intervened.
The diplomat was 23 years old, whip-smart, brave, blond and sunburned. She had trekked the Himalayas, climbed volcanoes, battled dysentery, befriended baby goats, dined on wild dog, slept beneath the stars on rickety boats and witnessed at least one cockfight.
In a bus station full of men, she stood out, but she did not step back. Instead, she waded into the human tangle, using what little Indonesian she knew to defuse a potential powder keg.
Sure enough, the next day, the missing backpack reappeared. Hulford, the aspiring documentarian, completed his film, Real Travel: 60 Days in Indonesia. Listed among the credits as an associate producer is the diplomat, better known now as the politician Catherine McKenna, Liberal Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and current Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
“Catherine had this way of bringing people together on that trip, of calming tense situations — and of getting the results she wanted,” said Hulford, McKenna’s former housemate and University of Toronto varsity swimming teammate. “That’s why we referred to her as the diplomat.”
Saving a bag full of film and calming a surly Indonesian crowd could be a metaphor for McKenna’s current gig in infrastructure, a humdinger of a portfolio involving, among other things, theoretically making nice with hostile premiers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, meeting the nuts-and-bolts needs of major cities and rescuing the Liberals’ much-ballyhooed, frequently-criticized $188-billion (or so) plan to build infrastructure by actually getting something — be it public transit, bridges, sewers, solar arrays, transformers, broadband superhighways and more — built.
Point person for a plan to spend massive sums of taxpayer dough on projects that can take years to complete is about as high profile as it gets for any Canadian politician not named Justin Trudeau
Stir in an emerging global pandemic, wobbly stock markets, a stalled domestic economy, rail blockades and the rapid onset of worldwide financial malaise, and McKenna’s position, as point person for a plan to spend massive sums of taxpayer dough on projects that can take years to complete, is about as high profile as it gets for any Canadian politician not named Justin Trudeau.
Her lofty political standing, mind you, didn’t register with any of the customers at a trendy west end Toronto bakery café on a recent Saturday morning. People were engrossed in print editions of newspapers, and Marvin Gaye was purring over a sound system when the 48-year-old McKenna breezed in, unnoticed and unaccompanied.
She was staying at her sister Maureen’s place nearby, and admitted to being “brutally” jet-lagged after flying in from the United Kingdom the previous night. Her sister’s three young kids woke early, chasing their aunt from her sisterly refuge for a soul-cleansing jog in High Park.
Coffee, thereafter, was essential. McKenna opted for an Americano, no sugar. Dressed in a purple sweater, scarf, skinny black jeans, black boots and a black jacket, she looked pretty much like the rest of the weekend morning crowd: middle-aged, well-groomed and weary.
“With my sister, she’s like, “Politics? Whatever,” McKenna said, adding that being from an Irish Catholic family from Hamilton that “hangs pretty tightly” is part of what keeps her sane, since her relatively brief stint as a federal politician has been perfectly nuts.
A quick summary of her career could read something like this: A come-from-nowhere rookie Liberal candidate, a lawyer by trade, knocks on 100,000 doors (by her count) en route to beating beloved NDP incumbent in Ottawa Centre in 2015. She’s then appointed Minister of Climate Change and Environment, signs the Paris Agreement and trumpets Canada’s commitment to combating global warming, while frequently pumping out earnest, occasionally apocalyptic tweets about the urgent need for action — or else.
Sadly, the name Climate Barbie is going to be associated with me 30 years from now — the Wikipedia (entry)
Next, she becomes the face of the Liberals’ carbon tax, ticking off Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario — or at least their three right-leaning governments. The fringe media labels her “Climate Barbie.” A former Conservative cabinet minister repeats the slur on social media. Twitter trolls join in, calling her much nastier names.
In real life, it gets worse. McKenna is yelled at in the streets, while out with her kids. Her Ottawa campaign office is defaced by the c-word. Yet she wins re-election last October, crushing her nearest rival by a 15,000-vote margin, and is thrust into an equally hot portfolio: infrastructure.
According to McKinsey Global Institute estimates, every dollar a government spends on infrastructure can, in theory, boost GDP by an extra 20 cents, an enviable return on investment. With chatter increasing around the possible need for economic stimulus in the face of COVID-19, the reality is that the cash is already there, just waiting to be spent.
But this is Canada, where to get stuff built, the federal government has to contend with a Constitution that devolves a load of responsibilities to the provinces.
Provinces, in turn, are the financial keepers of our cities and municipalities, which are responsible for about 60 per cent of the country’s infrastructure, but only have access to about 10 cents on every tax dollar.
In other words, unless all three levels of government can agree to agree, nothing gets done, or the dialogue around what should get done becomes so hyper-politicized and partisan that the resulting pace of putting shovels in the ground is glacial.
Such is the pickle that your average Joe Blow, trapped for the umpteenth time on a delayed “because of signal problems” Toronto subway, or whiling away the hours in bumper-to-bumper productivity-killing traffic in Vancouver, contends with almost daily.
We have missed out on at least a generation of infrastructure investment
Matti Siemiatycki, interim director of the School of Cities
This is the sad state of infrastructure affairs that Matti Siemiatycki, interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, gets paid to think about.
“It is hard for us to move quickly as a country, and it is made much more complicated by the overlapping jurisdictions in the Constitution,” he said. “It is not that nothing is getting built. A lot is happening, but we desperately need more to happen, because we have missed out on at least a generation of infrastructure investment, in things like public transit and affordable housing.”
Canada is playing catch-up, and its GDP, plus everyone stuck crawling through their workday commute, bears the consequences.
One of McKenna’s challenges, Siemiatycki said, will be to define exactly what the federal government’s role is in relation to infrastructure spending. Does Ottawa exist to write blank cheques and hand them over to Premier So-and-So for such-and-such? Or are the feds there to spell out a grand vision, target spending areas, examine the quantitative evidence for the projects being pitched and ensure they are not signing off on any bridges to nowhere?
On this front, McKenna has a secret, something her colleagues in Parliament may be surprised to learn: she describes herself as a “fiscal conservative.” As she puts it, a “bad investment is a bad investment.”
In her view, the government’s role involves setting the vision. In the current environment, that translates into heavy investment in public transit and trade corridors — such as the Gordie Howe International Bridge spanning the Detroit River between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit — as well as so-called green infrastructure, like smart water meters, while also gauging whether there will be a measurable bang for every federal buck spent.
“My focus now is getting projects built quickly, but also that we are focused on what gets built,” McKenna said.
If whatever it is isn’t going to grow GDP, or ultimately provide some kind of broader social benefit, forget about it. Near the top of McKenna’s wish list, after she unsnarls urban congestion by spending big on public transit, would be taking aim at the heretofore impossible Eastern Canadian dream: high-frequency, high-velocity rail along the Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor.
“We have talked about this forever,” she said. “I just think it is time to get it done.”
But getting things done, of course, is never easy, because of the politics involved and because the public is left wondering where, why and how such huge sums of money get spent.
That is the question Luc Berthold, the Conservative infrastructure critic, and a former mayor of Thetford Mines, Que., had in mind in late January when he tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling upon the auditor general to inspect the Liberals’ infrastructure spending plan. The motion passed — the Liberals voted against it — and the auditor general’s office has since confirmed that it will, as Berthold told the Financial Post, be “following the money.”
As a former mayor, Berthold is familiar with how the infrastructure game historically gets played. City X identifies a need and haggling between levels of government ensues. Conditions are attached in exchange for City X getting access to the cash. Much time passes. Nothing gets built.
“The federal government must have agreement with all the provinces and then just get out of the way after that — forget about the red tape,” he said.
For the record, the Infrastructure Canada website indicates 38,800 projects, to the tune of $30 billion in federal funds, have begun since the Liberals unveiled the Investing in Canada Plan in 2016. To name a few: upgrading generators at a water treatment plant in Pelee Island, Ont. ($7,500); building a new highway interchange in Central Saanich, B.C. ($16,704,500); and buying a bus for Selkirk, Man. ($188,300).
Yes, there is much for the auditor general’s office to consider. To save time, it might want to give Marjorie Flowers a call in Hopedale, Nfld., a remote community on Labrador’s northern coast.
Flowers is the mayor there, and emerged from a staff meeting on a February afternoon where the top agenda item was internet service. Hopedale, among other Newfoundland and Labrador communities, fell under the “Connect to Innovate” broadband initiative, a $500-million Liberal pledge to deliver high-speed Internet to 300 far-flung places across Canada.
Ottawa committed nearly $1.3 million to get the job done in Hopedale, and other nearby communities, with a summer 2017 construction start date. Almost three years later, the internet in Hopedale is slower than ever, according to the mayor.
Here we are, with a federal post office using dial-up in 2020. It’s crazy
Marjorie Flowers, mayor of Hopedale, Nfld
“The money has gone somewhere, and we are certainly not seeing it in our community,” Flowers said. “Here we are, with a federal post office using dial-up in 2020. It’s crazy.”
Hopedale is but one potentially screaming headline/landmine example of what McKenna might tread upon wading forth on the infrastructure file, especially with an audit on the way and an opposition always looking to score easy political points.
With the cut and thrust of daily politics, it is important to have a happy place, which for McKenna means a swimming pool or, better yet, a lake. She was the co-captain of a national swimming powerhouse at the U of T back in the day, and even before that, she competed against her close friend, Rebecca Glennie, who is the ideal confidante for an MP in the Ottawa fishbowl.
“When Catherine starts talking to me about politics, I just kind of blank out,” said Glennie, a chiropractor and daughter of former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Brian Glennie.
Glennie’s father died recently. As he lay in palliative care, McKenna routinely checked in: Did the family need anything? Was Rebecca okay?
When McKenna isn’t okay, or simply craves escape, she texts Glennie to go swimming at Meech Lake in Gatineau Park.
“Just swimming beside one another is comforting,” she said. “The thing with Rebecca is, you are out of politics, and you can just be yourself.”
McKenna has tried meditation, but it stressed her out. Swimming is definitely her thing, and the athlete persona remains core to who she is. Besides, she is still a captain — of the Parliamentary swim team — a bi-partisan dip she organizes, complete with a coach and 6:45 a.m. practices at the Château Laurier pool.
“My goal is to get someone from every party,” she said. So far, the Bloc Québécois is the only holdout.
After all these years, the diplomat is still a diplomat. Hulford, her old travelling companion, describes McKenna as “relentless.” She never quits.
“We all knew Catherine was going places,” he said.
To a bus station in Indonesia, for example, to rescue a bag of film, or to a quiet coffee shop in Toronto’s west end decades later where nobody pays her any mind, and the dark side of a life in politics seems awfully far away.
“Sadly, the name Climate Barbie is going to be associated with me 30 years from now — the Wikipedia (entry),” McKenna said, smiling. “But, as my daughter said, as my kids all said, ‘Who cares? Barbie has gone to the moon.’”
Canadians would settle for something more terrestrial: quicker commutes, faster internet connections, new buses, better roads, safe bridges and a federal minister capable of delivering on the infrastructure file.