Richard Cannings

Richard Cannings

New Democratic Party

Q&A: A scientist elected to Canada’s Parliament shares his hopes as Trudeau prepares to take power

Justin Trudeau will be sworn in as Canada’s new prime minister on Wednesday in a ceremony at the palatial Rideau Hall in Ottawa. The event, which will also include the swearing-in of the Trudeau government’s ministers, will mark the formal launch of the nation’s Liberal government. During the campaign, Trudeau promised to emphasize science-based policy in an effort to draw a contrast with the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, which had drawn extensive criticism from Canadian scientists.

Canada’s newly elected Parliament, meanwhile, isn’t expected to reconvene until early December, although members are holding meetings this week in Ottawa.

One scientist will be among the new faces in the 338-member House of Commons: Richard Cannings, a bird biologist, author, and former curator of the vertebrate museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Cannings, a member of Canada’s left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP), will represent British Columbia’s (BC’s) South Okanagan—West Kootenay riding, or district. The NDP now holds the third-largest number of seats in Parliament, behind the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Cannings recently took a break from a Sunday afternoon mayonnaise-making session to talk with ScienceInsider about how he hopes to improve the lot of science and environmental issues during his time in Ottawa. (The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Q: What made you want to run for office?

A: Well from my ecologist side I felt that science in general had been really ignored, at best, or discounted by the previous government and I wanted to help change that, I wanted to be a voice of science in Parliament. I don't know how many scientists there are in Parliament, but there aren't many.

It was very obvious that governing a country based on facts and reason didn't seem to be happening. The NDP and I think the Liberals as well ran on a platform of getting back to fact-based decision-making. So bringing science back to governing, having a proper environmental review process in place, tackling climate change, those were really the important things for me.

Q: How do you think the relationship between science and the government is going to change now that the Conservatives are out?

A: Well it couldn't get much worse, so I think it will improve. A lot of us are very relieved that the Conservative government is gone, because it was a very difficult time, especially for federal scientists. I worked with Environment Canada scientists on a daily basis. [There] was very, very low morale and a lot of people weren't very happy. And so I think it can only improve, and I hope it improves quickly and by leaps and bounds.

Q: Are there any local ecological or scientific issue that are important to you?

A: We have a national park proposal in the South Okanagan region that has been on the books now for about 13 years, and I've been involved with it from the start. All the federal parties tend to be in favor of it, but the provincial government is dragging its feet. So that is something that I would certainly like to try to help move forward.

There's the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty [between the United States and Canada], and there's a lot of agencies, and the United States, that want to bring in ecological integrity and ecosystem function into the treaty, so that also interests me.

Q: What are your main goals in Ottawa?

A: Obviously I'm with the NDP and we're the third party now, so I don't know how much influence I might have. But I am very much interested in what the federal government will be doing around climate change action, and around the environmental assessment procedures that have been really weakened under the Conservative government. I'd like to see that changed. And the Liberals have pledged to do this, so we'll be keeping an eye on them and pressing them to move forward.

Q: What can you do, as the third party, to encourage the Liberals to live up to their promises?

A: Well I'm new at this so I'm not really up on all the mechanisms that are there, but we have a committee system that I think was really abused by the Conservatives in terms of not allowing a lot of debate in committee, not bringing in experts or when they did bring in experts they ignored their testimony and advice. They didn't allow a single opposition amendment to any bill. So I'm hoping that in committee there will be a lot of opportunity now to really discuss these programs that the Liberals will be bringing forward, and making sure that these programs are going to be effective and efficient and happening as quickly as possible. And if there are better ideas out there that we really listen to them carefully and choose them if it's appropriate.

Q: Are you hoping to join committees related to science and the environment?

A: Well that's what I will put in for. I'm a rookie [member of Parliament] so I'm really at the bottom of the totem pole in some ways, but I will make it known, and I think it's fairly well known within caucus and the party what my strengths are, where I can best be used. Hopefully I can get on to committees that have that kind of focus, whether it's environment, fisheries, or anything like that, or just a general science-type committee that I could really use my expertise to the best of my advantage.

Q: You're one of the few members of Parliament with a scientific background, how important is it to have more diversity of experience in Parliament?

A: I think it's very important. I don't think that just applies to scientists, I am sure there are other backgrounds and job descriptions that are woefully underrepresented in government as well.

I don't know why that is. I think just speaking as a scientist, when you're in your career doing whatever projects you are doing, a lot of those projects are ongoing and you're very reluctant about giving that up. They're very rewarding careers from an intellectual point of view and from feeling that you're accomplishing something for society as a scientist. So it is a big decision to give that up, because even just to run as a candidate you have to step out of that for a year or more. A lot of people just aren't willing to take that chance to do something they've never done before.

A lot of it was very much beyond my comfort zone. I do a lot of public speaking about nature and things like that, and I'm on CBC radio regularly here in BC answering questions about birds. So I was comfortable with that, but giving political speeches is something really beyond my comfort zone. But it turned out that once I'd done it for a while I really quite enjoyed being a candidate.