Student Meet-and-Greet with Catherine McKenna

Posted: March 18, 2024

Reflections by Portia Garnons-Williams

IR students meet-and-greet with Catherine McKenna

Left image (left to right): Professor Michael Kessler (Director, Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program), student moderators Claire Parish and Ensi Cullhaj, and the Honourable Catherine McKenna (photo by Braeden Szucs). Right image: Catherine McKenna addresses the audience at the student meet-and-greet (photo by Portia Garnons-Williams).

Trinity College students from the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One, Ethics, Society & Law, and International Relations programs were treated to a special conversation with Catherine McKenna, former Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, on January 29, 2024.

McKenna, a graduate of Trinity College’s International Relations program, had returned to the College to deliver the Margaret MacMillan Lecture in International Relations 2024 “Where Change Comes From: My Time in Politics, the Paris Agreement and the Future of Climate Action (see recording below). Prior to that evening’s talk, she spent an hour with Trinity students and faculty for an informal conversation.

An energetic and passionate speaker, McKenna began the conversation with a photograph from her first week as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, when she represented Canada at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, in Paris. “I want to let you all know today that you can also at one point in your life be a Cabinet Minister – I want you to think that you can do what I did,” McKenna told the student audience.

In her undergrad, although she had little idea of what her career path would look like, McKenna knew that she wanted to make a significant and positive impact. “I just wanted to do things that mattered. I wanted to make sure that we were going in the right direction,” she said.

After acquiring her law degree at McGill University, McKenna went on to work for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), known today as Timor-Leste, a region that struggled for independence from Indonesia in 2002. McKenna said that later in her career, she wanted to return to places she had previously visited on her tour around Southeast Asia, where she had seen tragedies unfolding. “It was right after President Suharto fell… I was at an event and the military had live bullets and they killed those students… those students died in front of us,” she recalled. “I realized that is what fighting for democracy looks like.”

McKenna’s need to change the world took on renewed focus when she became a mother. “I had three kids. I really had to evaluate: What am I doing with my life? I have to do things that matter. I want to make sure that we’re going in the right direction, not the wrong one, for my kids’ generation,” she said. She felt increasingly driven to make a prosperous and positive future for the world her children would live in.

Shortly thereafter, McKenna transitioned from being a corporate lawyer to starting a charity called Canadian Lawyers Abroad. She also organized Dare to Dream, a program to inspire Indigenous children and youth to follow their career aspirations of being lawyers, court workers or judges. She was later invited to teach at the Munk School of Global Affairs. “Meeting students who were so bright and hardworking and trying to solve global challenges in a real way… really inspired me,” she said.

Now, having experience tackling issues like the rule of law and Indigenous human rights and believing that the government was going in the wrong direction, McKenna decided “it was time to step up.” In 2015, McKenna ran for Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and won her riding in the national election, joining the 50 women in Trudeau’s Liberal caucus. Within the same year, McKenna was appointed the first Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. She openly admitted that she had little experience in environmental issues at the time, but her legal background, her drive, and her commitment to a sustainable future for her children made her the right person to do the job. She spearheaded Canada’s participation in the Paris Agreement, led Canada at the UN Climate Change Conferences, and fought for Canadian environmental policies. Her term in office was significant in resetting Canada’s environmental policies.

Although McKenna always approached climate issues in the spirit of collaboration, especially with opposing parties, she said she faced sexism from her parliamentary colleagues across the floor of the House of Commons. “I was labelled Climate Barbie; and while that might have a nicer connotation today, it was an insult then,” she said. But this did not stop her: “I’ve got a job to do and I’m not going to stray away from it. I’ve got to fight.”

Some of McKenna’s greatest challenges in her position as Minister of the Environment and Climate Change came when she sought domestic political bipartisanship on divisive climate issues. Despite the challenges, McKenna advised students to remain optimistic. “I have no doubt that we will be able to overcome [climate change], but it’s all about the timeline,” she said.

In her closing words of wisdom, McKenna advised students to get involved in politics and to support parties that resonate with them. To students wanting to get into politics themselves and hoping to run as an MP or even become a Minister someday, McKenna gave this piece of advice: “Be a politician, but don’t act like a politician. It’s okay to be yourself. Do your thing.”

To all undergraduate students McKenna emphasized this final message: “I’m relying on you. Use your degree to do good and just fight for the planet. Just fight.”


Trinity College student Portia Garnons-Williams is an International Relations Stream Mentor in the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program. Portia is a second-year student, studying Political Science and International Relations.


The Margaret MacMillan Lecture in International Relations is one of Trinity College’s most prestigious lectures, which draws its audience from students, alumni and faculty of the International Relations program at Trinity College, the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.