Special Edition: 15 Minutes with Canadian Policy Maker Heather McPherson

Episode Transcript

Barbara Grantham (00:00): Hello, and welcome to a special edition of 15 Minutes to Change the World-where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn more about the world and how you can help change it.

Barbara Grantham (00:24): I’m Barbara Grantham, President and CEO of CARE Canaad, and today I’m excited to launch a series of special edition episodes where I’m speaking to Canadian international assistance policy makers. These discussions focus on Canada’s role in achieving a global gender-just recovery from COVID-19. Today I’m really pleased to welcome Heather McPherson, Member of Parliament for Edmonton Strathcona and Deputy House Leader of the New Democratic Party. Ms. McPherson is also a member of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Heather, welcome, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Heather McPherson (01:08): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Barbara Grantham (01:11): It’s great to have you. So first off, that’s a bit of a mouthful, the name of the committee. So could you tell our listeners about the Committee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Development? What’s its mandate? What’s your role as a member and what are the current priorities of the committee?

Heather McPherson (01:30): Yeah, well thanks for the question. The committee is a subcommittee, so it does report to Foreign Affairs and International Development. And then of course, that committee will table our reports, our studies, information that we gather to the House of Commons, to all of the Members of Parliament. Now the subcommittee plays a really important role and it’s a really interesting committee. It’s a great committee to be on. Actually, one of the things that’s interesting about it is it is a consensus-based committee and the reason it’s so important that it’s consensus based is human rights can’t be something that becomes partisan. The issue of ensuring that we are protecting human rights around the world, not turn into a political football, it has to be something that we all agree on. So I love being a member of this committee.

Heather McPherson (02:16): Some of the really important work that we’ve been doing recently that I’m really proud of actually is some of our work around women human rights defenders and celebrating and acknowledging some of the really important work that human rights defenders are doing. And the women that are doing this work take on a particular risk take on a particular, a lot of pressure when they do this work and how important it is for us to recognize that. But we’re also looking at, you know, what’s happening in Ethiopia in the Tigray region, we’re looking at what’s happening in China, we just tabled the report on the genocide against the Uighur people in Xinjiang . So that’s important work that we’re doing. You know, looking at what’s happening in Cameroon. Looking at the results of COVID-19 on refugee populations around the world, it’s another one that we’re studying at the moment.

Barbara Grantham (03:16): Wow. That’s a huge range. And so interesting. No wonder you’re so happy to be, or pleased to be, on the committee. Are there, what would you say is Canada’s role in the world at this time when we’re dealing with this big crisis at home? How do we, how do we find our way to articulate our role in the world? What does that look like for you?

Heather McPherson (03:38): It’s important that Canada recognizes the vital role that we play in the world. And I mean, I have to say I’ve, I have been disappointed over the last, you know, 10-15 years at the diminished role that Canada has played in multilateral discussions, in national and global discussions increasingly in the world. We’re seeing the majority of the big challenges facing humanity. The majority of the big challenges facing Canadians are global in scope, you know, climate change, COVID-19, the global economic challenges that we’re going to face. These are global in scope, and they will require a global response. And COVID-19 brings up a really big challenge for governments around the world, because of course, a government’s first priority has to be to take care of its own citizens, but there needs to be a less simplistic view of this. You need to be also a player and Canada has always historically played this important convening role, this important role in terms of pushing for human rights, you know, punching above our weight. The diminishment that I’ve seen is very disappointing. And I certainly hope we can recommit and actually be back, not just say we’re back.

Barbara Grantham (05:02): What are the consequences for Canada if we don’t sustain that leadership role in the global effort to recover from COVID-19?

Heather McPherson (05:12): I mean, there’s consequences for us. There’s also of course, global consequences. The consequences for us is that we, we become irrelevant. We become a country that is not seen as a fair actor, that is not seen as punching above our weight, that is not seen as contributing. I mean, these are just in terms of our reputation. There are substantial effects that will happen for Canada. You know, for example, if we don’t ensure that there is an equitable rollout of vaccines around the world, if Canada doesn’t take a leadership role in that, that means that 30% more people in the world will die. That means Canadians will be extremely vulnerable to dangerous variants that will develop in the meantime. That means that it will take four or five years longer for Canada’s economy to recover. And so we know that it’s the right thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do, but it’s also really important for Canadian health and Canadian economy.

Barbara Grantham (06:13): Yeah. Where does your personal passion and commitment to international development come from?

Heather McPherson (06:20): Yeah, I’ve been doing this work for a really long time. So I, I actually started doing international development work even before I had finished my undergraduate. You know, I was a volunteer with MSF. I had worked with Canada, World Youth, a number of different organizations. So I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and I’ve had, you know, the incredible privilege of meeting people from all around the world and seeing the incredible gains that can be made when we, when we work together, when we work in solidarity. So a lot of my passion comes from that. It also comes from this idea that there is a better way for us to be doing things. There is a better way for us to be going forward, whether you want to use the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals, or, you know, the lens of what we hope to see from our feminist international assistance policy, or, you know, any number of different ways of looking at it. There is a better way that makes the world a more, just more sustainable place for everyone, including for Canadians. And so I think having that long-sighted, that long game plan is so important. And that’s what, that’s what drives me, certainly. That and this anger about how slow, slow change is happening and how much benefit could be done if we could just speed up the rate of change.

Barbara Grantham (07:41): Let me kind of dig into that a little bit. How would you describe, or what are your thoughts about Canada’s current approaches to Official Development Assistance, and what do you think we should be doing?

Heather McPherson (07:52): Well currently, we are saying all the right things, um, and we are not doing them. I mean, flat out. And currently we lack courage and we lack ambition in terms of our Official Development Assistance. I was part of the sector, the international development sector, when the feminist international assistance policy was developed. I was one of the hosts of one of the six round tables across the country, and fed into that policy, really proud of it. I think it’s a great policy. But if there are no dollars backing it up, it really doesn’t mean very much. You know, if we are truly committed to what we’ve got in that policy, we need to be much more ambitious. We need to be much more courageous about how we, how we move forward. We’re in a global health pandemic. We need to have a much stronger response globally.

Heather McPherson (08:45): I am ashamed that Canada is the only G7 country taking the COVAX vaccines. I’m fully aware that we have a legal right to do so, but we also know that that the COVAX vaccine program was developed to help low and middle income countries access the vaccines, not so that wealthy countries could access ten times what we need in bilateral agreements and then access COVAX. You know, there are a lot of challenges with intellectual property that we’re going to see in the next little bit around how vaccines can get out in, in countries that are low and middle income. But there’s, there’s so many things we could be doing right now, and we’re not. The other thing I would just say really quickly too is that we need to have a long term strategy for how we do development. And that means that when we are working in the country, we stick with, with our partners in those countries. Like we’re looking at Afghanistan right now, which all the gains over the past decade could be lost because we’re just going to walk away. You know, we need to be predictable. We need to be long-term, we need to be strategic, and we need to be smart about how we do this, and we need to be committed to it.

Barbara Grantham (10:02): So if we look at the impact of COVID and the very clear evidence that shows the disproportionate impact that it’s had for women here in Canada and worldwide, what does that gender-just recovery look like from your perspective? What are some specific things that we should be doing to address that issue of ambition and courage? I love those words.

Heather McPherson (10:24): Well, I think one of the things that we need to recognize is that absolutely women and girls have been disproportionately impacted, but the impacts that we’re seeing on women and girls are not new, these are not things that just came out of the woodwork. These are things that were already happening. So we need to recognize that the work was already being done to make sure that girls could stay in school, that they were safe in school, for example; to make sure that we were working with communities around the world to stop early marriage; to stop female genital mutilation; to stop some of the violence against, against women and girls. That work was already being done. So we need to amp up those efforts. We need to make sure that we’re working both with our multilateral partners, but I would say increasingly with Canadian civil society organizations as well, because they have long, deep relationships with communities that they work with.

Heather McPherson (11:24): So, so that’s one thing we need to do, is we need to commit a greater amount of money, a greater amount of resources to those organizations already doing the work because they’ve been in the field, they’ve been doing it, they pivoted during COVID. The other thing I think we really need to recognize is that COVID-19 is going to have a very long tail. We are not going to recover from this fast, and there are going to be impacts felt for very long time. Now, unfortunately, the way that Official Development Assistance often rolls out is in one-year projects, two-year projects, three-year projects. And that’s not good development sense. That doesn’t, that’s not the smart way to do things. So we need to be looking at the recovery and the recovery for women and girls over a very long time frame and ensure that the programs we put in place can actually do that support in the long term.

Heather McPherson (12:19): And some of it would be things like the refugee education program that was just announced by the government. It’s a great initiative. If we can get, if we can get that moving forward and have it be long-term-not three years, ten years. The other piece that I think is often lost is that we need to be making sure that women and girls are at the table making decisions on how these programs are implemented. They need to be the ones that we are consulting with. You know, we’re well past the day when donor countries got to decide what was best for developing countries, that is not where we should be anymore. And if you want to find out how to best support, a young girl, ask a young girl.

Barbara Grantham (13:11): And she’ll tell you!

Heather McPherson (13:11): That’s what needs to be done. She’ll tell you, and she’ll know.

Barbara Grantham (13:11): If you could say one thing to our listener today, the message of what that one Canadian can do to take one tangible action, what would it be?

Heather McPherson (13:20): It really does depend where people are at. So for some people that means learning more about what Canada is doing around the world. For some people that means learning what’s happening in the world and, you know, finding out where women and girls are not able to meet their basic needs. For some people it’s sharing, making sure that you’re talking to your neighbours, that you’re talking to your community, that you’re participating in these discussions on what Canada can and needs to do in the world. And for others, they’re there and they’re ready to take action. And that action may very much look like writing to Minister Freeland and saying that we think 1%- just 1%-of our government’s spending should go to help people around the world. Or maybe it means writing to the Subcommittee or the International Development and Foreign Affairs Committee, and you know, tabling something for the committee to read. Maybe it is reaching out to their Member of Parliament and saying, I know how important it is that we’re protecting Canadians, I know how important it is that we’re having a fulsome COVID response in our country. But as a Canadian, as your constituent, I know how important it is that we have a global response as well. Or, all of those things if they’re feeling energetic.

Barbara Grantham (14:43): Well you’ve given our listener today a wonderful menu of opportunities to choose from. And I want to thank you very much, both for your perspective and your advice. And I mostly want to thank you, Heather, for taking the time to talk with us today. And I want to thank all of you, our wonderful listeners, for tuning in. I look forward to bringing you more special edition episodes of 15 Minutes to Change the World with Canadian policy makers. And as always, you can find all the episodes of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify, iTunes and on care.ca/podcast. Thank you for listening.