Three Female Environmental Leaders, Two Inspiring Quotes, One Birthday

Three Female Environmental Leaders, Two Inspiring Quotes, One Birthday

Each year, I’ve reflected on the wisdom I’ve collected from people and places I’ve been. As each year arrives more quickly, here again, I reflect on another lap around the sun.

This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a birthday week filled with strong, powerful, female environmental leaders. It’s as if the universe knew exactly what I would love for my birthday and aligned the stars (and the talks) to gift it to me. As a set out on my clean energy education path, it’s a pretty well thought out present. Thanks, Universe (and UBC)!

In my birthday week, I was fortunate enough to hear three such leaders speak.

Elizabeth May

On Tuesday, I enjoyed two separate talks at UBC featuring Elizabeth May. In the afternoon, she reflected on her life in politics followed by an evening talk on current environmental legislation.

Listening to Elizabeth speak of her life and environmental work is like having a crash course in the global sustainability movement. She pulls lessons from the major global conventions, weaves Canadian history and politics through rounds of legislation, and quotes leaders of every political stripe and nationality.

Elizabeth May speaking at UBC
Note: sorry for the terrible photo quality in this post.

With the raft of environmental issues in the world today and the challenges ahead to meet a goal of no more than 1.5C increase in global average temperature, she reminded us that “It’s hard work to be hopeful.” Yet, she still is. She says she’s genetically wired for optimism, but if anyone could see the dire straights we’re in, it would be Elizabeth May. Yet, she finds hope.

She draws inspiration from the nearly incredible World War II story of Dunkirk. She asked, “What’s the equivalent of every tiny fishing boat to rescue the entire British army?” Rescuing 300,000 men by fishing boats seems impossible. But it was done. Now, it’s our turn.

In order to meet the Paris Agreement at 1.5C, she simplified the task into priorities:

  1. “Get fossil fuels out of electricity generation everywhere.

  2. Get rid of internal combustion engines.”

It’s simple and incredibly complex. But so is rescuing the entire British Army.

A slightly better quality photo filled with even more inspiring women

In the evening, she wove a rollercoaster of a story of Canada’s environmental assessment process. From attending the first ever environmental assessment panel in Wreck Cove, Cape Breton(!) to today’s proposed legislation (Bill C-69). What should be an improvement on the gutted, broken assessment process from the Harper era doesn’t even get back to where the process was in the 90’s. Elizabeth May makes a powerful call for action, which you should read here.

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna spoke at the GLOBE Forum with a rousing speech to an audience focused on sustainable business. I disagree with some of McKenna’s moves around pipelines and the economic-environment balance, there was something special about hearing her speak. She is the first Minister with climate change in her title, holds a cabinet position from the beginning of her time in office, and is a strong, well-educated, articulate leader.

Catherine McKenna speaking at the GLOBE Forum

Her talk opened and closed with insights I thought were particularly thoughtful:

After recognizing the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations:

“Reconciliation is hard, but we need to be part of it.”

Recognizing the broad and sometimes unexpected parties who do and need to come together to fight climate change and grow a sustainable future:

“Unusual suspects working together is the only way to get things done.”

Annette Verschuren, O.C.

Annette Verschuren came a long way from a Cape Breton dairy farm. She’s lead major corporations and foundations and is chancellor of Cape Breton University. She spoke at the Walrus Talks Energy, offering a story of her eureka moment while on her bucket list trip:

“We found a way to store food. We found a way to store water. But we hadn’t found a way to store energy.”

Annette Verschuren speaking at the GLOBE Forum

Now, she’s founded an energy storage company, NRstor, to meet this need. And has a simple tactic for getting things done:

“I’m a believer in mediocre strategy and great execution.”

Wisdom in Pairs

Hearing thoughtful, clever, experienced women share their lessons and their thoughts on how we need to tackle today’s challenges was the best gift I could receive.

Vancouver View
Vancouver’s early arrival of spring ain’t a bad gift either.

The messages are potent, but even moreso coming from women. Women who have carved out space and created change in this messy world. It’s a reminder and an inspiration that I and other women can (and will!) follow suit.


What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

As I struggled with the idea of leaving my twenties behind, I scrambled to put together a list of accomplishments that allowed me to feel this youthful decade was valuable, fun, engaging, impactful, and overall worth it. I think it’s a common process that many 29 turning 30 year olds go through. And it’s disastrous.

There’s no grading scheme for a life well lived. There’s no meter to say “yep, you did alright, kiddo”, which I wish would be whispered in my ear by a wise old man with a southern drawl. It’s just life. Your decision, your stories, your relationships and that glimmering hope that you’re not screwing it all up.

In 29 years on the planet, one thing I have prioritized is travel. I was lucky enough to travel for work and for pleasure and for volunteering, and one of the reasons D and I decided to move to Budapest for his studies as it is a central point from which to explore. I believe travel is important to broaden your perspective, to understand the world and to try all the delicious things.

Barbeque lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
Barbecue lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
In my scramble to pull together what I’ve done in my twenties, I haphazardly had put together my list of countries I visited in my 30 years. Some I’ve explored thoroughly, and some I’ve visited only a city. It wasn’t planned, though that would have been clever (and I would have made 30!), but by adding in Canada (which I allow as I’ve traveled to every province and two of three territories) and remembering that afternoon in Monaco, my list totaled 29.

Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Here, I offer the distilled wisdom I’ve collected is from the from these twenty-nine countries, to be taken with many grains of salt.

Read more

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”

This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style.  Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.

It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.
Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.

A Viennese en route to Venice

We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.

Our train arriving in Venice
Morning rail arrival to Venice

He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.

Talking Dirty at the Biennale

This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.

Biennale entrance

The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.

Read more

Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

The other day I was walking home when a woman standing outside of my building stopped me and asked for help. She had a kind face that was toughened from what seemed to be a difficult life. She spoke to me in Hungarian asking for money or food, but then translated to the internationally understood hand signals for these essentials. I repeated, “No, sorry” and “Nem, bocsánat” and moved to walk past her and into my building. When people ask me for either, I never give cash directly, but if I have some food with me, I’m happy to share. Having none and thinking of the work I wanted to get done that afternoon I was about to continue on with my day.

Rakoszi Market vegetablesShe repeated that international sign for food, and then gestured to her belly. Only then I realized that she was quite pregnant, maybe five or six months. At that moment, I also pulled out my iPhone to stop the podcast I was enjoying. The two movements combined reminded and humbled me of my incredible luck in being born to a loving, wealthy (by world standards, not North American ones), Canadian family. I tucked away my iPhone and mustered my minor Hungarian to offer to buy some food for her at a nearby restaurant.

We walked together down the street. We continued to talk and negotiate in broken English and broken Hungarian, her  “hús” (meat), “krumpli” (potatoes) and me “nem pénz” (in my poor Hungarian the words ‘no’ and ‘money’, though it should really be something like nincs pénz, but I’m learning). She shook her head at the Gyros place (fair enough), and we continued to the corner grocery store.

Read more

National Aboriginal Day: Humble Learnings from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki

National Aboriginal Day: Humble Learnings from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki

Happy National Aboriginal Day!

This  post began with a whole series of false starts. How can I speak about National Aboriginal Day? Who am I to speak about National Aboriginal Day? As a Scottish/Irish/Canadian/Cape Bretoner, my connection to the aboriginal people in Canada is growing, but shaky at best. What could I share that was thoughtful or poignant?

I can only speak from my perspective, and the only thing I can say with certainty is that we need more discussion and encouragement of discussion around aboriginal issues in Canada. So here, I humbly offer my learnings as a ‘settler student.’

Earlier this year, I took part in the fantastic Cape Breton University initiative to hold its “first free, online, open-access, share-with-the world Indigenous course” MIKM 2701: Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki. The idea was brilliant and important, following directly from the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of course, in this era of busy-ness, I wasn’t sure I had the time or attention or timezone for it. I missed the first class. Thankfully, I had electronic encouragement from a very very wise friend to join her, trans-Atlantically, in the course. With the handy video archive, I caught up and I’m so glad I did.

The course was one of the first significant and purposeful steps in my personal efforts to better understand the indigenous community at home in Cape Breton, the Mi’kmaq. I had grown up with very limited knowledge of the Mi’kmaq culture and knowledge. As I grew older and discovered more of our island, I learned here and there about Mi’kmaq life, but never in a deeper way. I learned about indigenous history in academic ways, in school, and in media, but as a history somewhat removed from my own community. This course provided the first step in deepening my appreciation for a culture and a people who have shared their island with my people for hundreds of years.

CBU Mi'kmaq Course Studying in Budapest

The course, though in a scholarly setting, was a divergence from academia in its storytelling and intensely emotional and personal content. The format was dialogical. At first, this took some getting used to for me, as I was expecting more to standard academic lectures and the way I am used to receiving media in colonialist North American society. The story format of the lectures forced me to slow down and really listen. It was appropriate as knowledge has been passed down by oral history traditionally, and the course provided a kind of introduction to that educational format.

Hearing Chief Stephen Augustine tell the Creation Story was powerful, intricate, meandering and beautiful. The story has so many elements and each one has such significance that the whole Story can only be woven together by someone with a rich connection and understanding. The story pulled in the values of gratitude to ancestors and responsibility towards future generations. The Creation story shares a worldview so connected and holistic that it was humbling to hear.

In the classes to follow, the stories shared told of the residential schools, missing and murdered indigenous women, systemic racism, decades-long court battles, fear, pain, and hatred. These stories were so heart wrenching and difficult, it is heartbreaking to know that they are not ancient history. They are disturbingly recent or on-going, even today. These accounts were buoyed by stories of hope, success, knowledge, compassion and incredible resilience, in spite of everything Canada and Canadians did. The Eskasoni mental health successes after a devastating series of suicides in 2009. Albert Marshall’s Two-Eyed Seeing, intertwining the tenants of modern, western science with the tenants of Mi’kmaq traditional knowledge. These stories were a powerful combination that I heard. To paraphrase the Thomas King quote shared in class, now that I have heard the stories, I cannot claim that I have not.

Mi'kmaq at Lumiere Art at Night Festival

The course also helped me appreciate the importance of language. Living in Hungary now, I am learning Hungarian to better communicate with the local community. I put a personal value on learning the language of where I am visiting, and this course allowed me to realize the importance of learning the languages where I am from. I better understand the Mi’kmaq language, not to speak it, but how it developed, how it’s a noun-based language which indicates the connection between the speakers and the world around them, how much work there is yet to be done to allow the language to be as common as it should be as the first language of the Island.

I understood more the power of words.  It was surprising to me to hear Eleanor Bernard say, “Don’t indiginize us. Please.” I had thought this term was a proper, modern one. However, she highlighted that this term groups large and distinct groups of indigenous people together under one phrase:  it doesn’t show the real understanding that the term would like to indicate. The history and needs and concerns of the Mi’kmaq are different from the Cree, and are different from the Squamish, and so on.  To cast broad strokes over the groups does not push to the nation-to-nation-to-nation conversations. It’s these sweeping statements that we should be breaking down. For her, decolonizing was a clearer term. Her statement reminded me that words are important. Be thoughtful because your words are powerful.

This course gave me a deeper understanding of Mi’kmaq knowledge and taught me how much I have left to learn. On National Aboriginal Day, I am thankful to the aboriginal communities across the country for their rich culture and their literally incredible resilience. Reconciliation will be a long process, but learning the truth and listening to the stories is powerful. Our modern excesses have caused and continue to cause damage to our society and our environment. Aboriginal communities have a connection to the Earth from which we can learn a lot. The Mi’kmaq Creation Story’s lessons are deep and layered and we would do well as Canadians to listen.

Margaree Vally in Unama’ki

I highly recommend this course and it’s still available for free(!) online. You can register (to let CBU know you’re using this valuable resource) and  access the classes video archive. Perhaps you’ll celebrate NAD with the first class. Or with the first Mi’kmaq language lesson!

How will you celebrate National Aboriginal Day?


A Christmas Abroad in Prague

A Christmas Abroad in Prague

Prague Old Town Square Christmas TreeI never thought I’d say “I’m going to Prague for Christmas” but that’s what happened this year. Just a seven hour train ride from Keleti Pályaudvar to Hlavni Nadrazi and we arrived in the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic. This was the second time that I have been outside of Canada for December 25th. I am lucky as I most often spend Christmas in Cape Breton with my family or, in recent years, in cozy Manitoba with the Robinsons. Being abroad at a time when most people’s hearts are at home is strange, challenging but full of new opportunities.

Prague has been at the top of my ‘To Visit’ list for years. I’ve heard magical descriptions of the city’s impressive and well-kept architecture hugging the Vltava River, it’s inexpensive and delightful food and drink and rich cultural scene. Prague was as promised. In December, the city was vibrant with Christmas markets and the bustle of happy faces with mulled wine and chimney cakes. We explored and celebrated and discovered Christmas abroad. Here are some reflections on what made this expat holiday a happy one.

Read more