The Natural

There’s no riding quite like Edmonton-Strathcona—and no Alberta politician quite like Linda Duncan.

By Katherine Govier

Confederation Building, Parliament Hill, Ottawa. It’s dead quiet, not a soul in sight. This place is gothic, its long grey hallways a series of closed doors, each bearing a small number plate. I’m in a convent, or a story by Franz Kafka. But no, I’m in Ottawa, during Harper’s proroguement, mid-winter 2010. And here we are, Room 925, the office of Linda Duncan, New Democratic Party MP for Edmonton-Strathcona. The only non-Conservative elected federally from the fair province in 2008 and only the second NDPer ever elected in the province that birthed the party.

The door opens to light and life, a huge painting of prairie blue and gold. A bright-red wooden fish with a pipe in its mouth. “Do you know what it’s called?” she asks. “Smoked cod.”

Linda’s clear and effervescent laugh welcomes me. She’s wearing one of her trademark tropical colours (today it’s watermelon) under a grey suit. Her curly hair is an Atwoodian halo. It’s also a political issue—some voters love it; another wrote that she “could never vote for its owner.” I wonder how it offends: full, curly and silvery grey. By being natural, I suppose. 

That’s pretty much the story all around. Instead of the usual family-with-kids desk photo, there’s a shot of herself with native leaders standing outside a tent. She’s friendly, she’s hearty, a woman of a certain age and not afraid to show it, bound by neither convention nor temperament, and she would have had a full career even if she hadn’t been elected at age 59 to represent the constituency in which she grew up. 

 In a nutshell, here’s Linda: with a law degree from the University of Alberta and a masters in law from Dalhousie, she founded the Environmental Law Centre of Alberta. She went to Ottawa, where she was chief of enforcement for Environment Canada; in the Yukon she was assistant deputy minister for renewable resources. She has worked in environmental enforcement in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Jamaica. She has served on many volunteer boards, including the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. As a member of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, she co-authored a community self-help planning manual and helped found the Society for the Protection of Architectural Resources in Edmonton. She has been active in protecting Lake Wabamun, where she spent childhood summers. She is particularly concerned with water. Before her election she took an aerial tour of the tar sands with Jack Layton. 

Representing Alberta in Ottawa, Linda is an anomalyboth by political stripe and life experience.

Inside her impressive credentials are more dramatic realities. In the Yukon, her work centred on First Nations’ rights and opportunities, leading to her lifelong ties with Aboriginal peoples. She lived in a place where “everyone takes a noon-hour break to ski or stays up way too late every summer evening hiking, canoeing, gardening because the sun doesn’t set.” Then there was Indonesia: her colleagues still talk about the day she laid into a senior military officer, chastising him for harassing displaced farmers. At the North American Commission for Environmental Co-operation she participated in a program to help track and punish those who harm wildlife through illegal trade. She handled large raptors. “They’re huge and intimidating!” she says. (Take note, opponents.) She heard tales of “wild and crazy” wildlife officers doing surveillance on illegal captors of alligators, endangering their own lives for the sake of threatened species. “I witnessed illegally captured, traumatized parrots,” she recalls. “Happily, I missed the session where they trained officers to detect shipments of snakes and tarantulas!” 

In Bangladesh, where she lived for five years, she had a rickshaw driver. “Mr. Washim would pedal me to visit his family, who lived in a one-room shack in a community being slowly crowded out by illegal high-rise developments on the edge of once pristine lakes.” She admits that languages are not her strong point. “When I worked in Mexico, I kept trying to give directions to taxi drivers in Bahasa Indonesian, and broken Spanish or Bahasa to confused rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh. Hopeless, but I still managed to get to my destinations and make new friends along the way.”

She has won accolades for both her local and international work. This is a woman who has done the environmental movement top to toe. But here in Ottawa, representing Alberta, she’s an anomaly, both by political stripe and life experience. How does an outsider like her crown her career with a job as Member of Parliament?

It is late on a winter afternoon and getting dark. One reason is that we’re on the top floor of this convent; the rooms have sloping ceilings with small garret windows. The other is that we’ve unplugged her lamp to plug in my laptop. I’m taking notes, but not as fast as we’re talking. She’s comfortable: we’re longtime acquaintances, with many mutual friends. But I’m here as a journalist. I warn her. Don’t tell me any secrets. Because if you do, it’s a problem. If I write them, I’m a bad friend. If I don’t, I’m a bad journalist. 

We talk about growing up in the Strathcona riding in the 1950s. McKernan, for Linda. Windsor Park for me. She remembers the wooded ravines where she played. “There was a farm below and the cows would come up the hill and people would chase them back,” she says. “There was actually a girl in my class who lived in a sod hut in those woods; her father was a ragpicker.” It was similar with me. A girl in my class lived in the gravel pit—now a golf course—below that hill; her father was the caretaker. My sister and I used to visit the hermit who lived in the woods near Lolly Bacon toboggan hill. Though Edmonton was a city, we ranged widely out of doors with a freedom unknown to kids today. Everyone went to the community league skating rink after school every single day of winter. There was a ski jump over Connors Road in the middle of town, in the river valley. 

“Did you know they used to have horse races on the river in the winter?” she asks. In her preservation phase in Edmonton, Linda wrote a book on history of the Saskatchewan River valley. I remember there used to be a brewery there, too. Bohemian Maid. The sign was on the 105th Street hill.

Then the nostalgia stops and Linda gets to her point: “It saddens me that we’ve grown distant from the thing that’s most beautiful about the city, which is the river valley… My niece at 15 is not seeing the Alberta that I’ve seen,” says Linda. “That’s part of the challenge when I tell people that we’re losing Alberta… They don’t have the experience of it. They think I’m being elitist.” 

Has it become a liability to have, as Linda does, “very deep Canadian roots”? Linda is straight out of a tradition that is rarely celebrated. Maybe she’s an outlier. Malcolm Gladwell defines an outlier as someone who is talented and works hard but whose success is related to the fact that he or she has benefited from a world experience that no one has noticed before but has become destined to produce outstanding individuals. 

“I wish to God I had met her,” says Linda of her great grandmother Sarah Duncan from Scotland, who as a widow ran two homesteads in Monitor, Alberta; that’s near the Consort home of k.d. lang. Another grandmother’s family came from a Father of Confederation, William Steeves from New Brunswick. Her great-grandfather left New Brunswick and started a farm in North Dakota, eventually coming by wagon to Millet, Alberta. His son, William Steeves, went back to the States and became US ambassador to Afghanistan. Duncan’s father, Darcy, was an Edmonton lawyer. “It was just a matter of time until one of us became a Member of Parliament,” she laughs.

 Her maternal grandfather, Frank Pike, came from Newfoundland in the 1890s because the fish were running out. One of her ancestors there was Sheila NaGeira of Carbonear, who, legend has it, was a great beauty, had magical powers (being the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter) and saved her community from pirates. “I grew up with those stories,” she says. “It was my favourite thing: stories shared and being exaggerated. I used to love Easter and Christmas dinners because my Dad and my uncle would tell these stories. Then to discover the reality…!”

That’s what happened when Linda visited last summer. The Carbonear house had been torn down—a travesty for someone who fights for architectural preservation. “All that’s remaining is a tombstone,” she says. “Someone had poured acid on it, so it can’t be read.” But she is proud to say the family was known to have had good relations with the native Beothuk. 

The last time I saw her, Linda was at the Sugar Bowl coffee shop in Strathcona, where half the opposition in the province hangs out. She was debating what to do next in life.

“At that point, I was working as a consultant,” she remembers. After her five-year contract in Bangladesh, she had helped the company get another five-year contract but had not committed herself. She was available, but hungry.

With colleague Frances Gordon in Jakarta

With colleague Frances Gordon in Jakarta. (Photos Courtesy of Linda Duncan)

The NDP had been asking her to run again. (The Liberals never asked, despite the fact that her father was president of the Edmonton Liberal Association.) She lost the riding to incumbent Rahim Jaffer in 2006. In doing so, she learned a few things about politics and about Strathcona. “I took the nomination [again] because I knew I could win,” she says. “I’d run so many community-based campaigns in my environmental work. What I needed to do was market myself as who I was.”

“We were doing Marshall Ganz before Obama was,” she says. Am I alone in not knowing about Marshall Ganz? “It’s all about storytelling,” Linda smiles. Later, I look him up. Ganz is a famous community organizer. He worked in Mississippi in the civil rights movement and with César Chàvez organizing Mexican migrant workers. He teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His theories identify three kinds of stories—stories of self, stories of us and stories of action—through which we can break through the inertia of habit to create change. He talks about outrage being a response to the contradiction between the world as it is and as it ought to be. The audacity of hope—you’ve heard that before—is part of this.

It is a stretch to imagine this kind of community-building in Strathcona. But it worked. Linda’s campaign manager and now constituency office manager is Erika Bullwinkle. Linda says of Erika, “I have total admiration for her unending energy, for fighting for democracy and rights for those too often forgotten.” It doesn’t hurt that they both love British acting, from TV’s MI5 to anything with Colin Firth.

“The second time, I had more confidence,” says Linda of her fateful run in 2008. And she campaigned hard on the eastern edge of the riding, meeting working class and new immigrant families—people that Linda says are at first automatically drawn to the Conservatives because they think that is how Alberta became rich. 

In the final days, voters and campaigners flocked to her from both ends of the spectrum. Liberals and Tories fed up with the status quo and the scarcely seen Jaffer joined her. Strategic voting efforts were launched. Her aunts stumped for her. Momentum grew. There were all kinds of shenanigans: “I had grannies contacting me… My sign-team guys were all in their 80s, making signs with scraps of wood and putting them up all down the road. They were just supposed to make the signs, but they ended up knocking on doors too!”

Linda likes to say: “I didn’t win the riding. They [voters] took it back.” Strathcona is unique in Alberta. It is a diverse constituency, from Old Strathcona, which Duncan fought to protect in the 1970s, to the eastern edge, with its nice little communities like King Edward Park, Strathearn, Ottewell, Hazeldean. Bonnie Doon has a lot of francophones. Park Allen and Pleasantview have young professional families.

Provincially, Strathcona has had two Liberals and an NDP representative, including Raj Pannu, the former provincial NDP leader. Linda campaigned with him. “People love Raj,” she says. Betty Hughes was also a very popular politician. Strathcona’s residents have always been very engaged. The riding includes two universities and a big piece of old Edmonton. 

Strathcona also has a high voter turnout, and in Alberta, the higher the voter turnout, the less chance there is of a Conservative winning. 

Duncan took the riding by 500 votes. Jaffer declared victory anyway. It took three days for Elections Canada to verify her win. A sample comment from a National Post article: “I live in Rahim’s old riding and was a Conservative forever. Rahim was invisible to his constituents and deserved to lose his riding. My vote shifted to Linda and the NDP. Linda Duncan is visible, involved and representative. What an incredible change!”

The change was not widely heralded. The day after the election, the Edmonton Journal ran Jaffer’s picture, not Duncan’s. Jaffer, married to Ontario MP Helena Guergis, was the first Muslim elected to the House and popular with younger Conservatives in Ottawa. He said Linda Duncan merely caught him off guard.

So how does it feel to be a New Democrat representing Alberta? “I’m an anomaly,” she admits. “But I find there are others who are the same.” By this she means NDs who are new to partisan politics. “In my party, we’re not dictated to. I have 37 colleagues… I’m just part of the opposition.

Linda Duncan with Bangladeshi colleagues

Linda Duncan with Bangladeshi colleagues. (Photos Courtesy of Linda Duncan)

“The harder thing is working out a way to work with this government. I have three decades of history of working with government. It’s totally normal to sit down at a table with people with diverse interests and work something out. [But] you can’t do it with Stephen Harper.”

As tricky as it can be in Ottawa, it’s tougher in Alberta, Linda says, where she has no colleagues. She finds it hard to get coverage or head table and podium time in Alberta because many groups and institutions (universities, for example) are afraid of losing Conservative patronage. While it can be an unpopular sell, Linda has never been afraid to question industry’s environmental practices in her home province. 

She’s been involved in hearings on the oil sands. “I had the great privilege of being appointed the NDP’s environment critic right away,” she says. She sits on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment & Sustainable Development and makes sure the members hear from the communities being impacted, organizing meetings to hear the elders from Fort Chipewyan as well as a range of people in Fort McMurray, Calgary and Edmonton. 

“So how well does that work?” I ask.

“The jury is still out,” she says. “I want to make a report on how the federal government can assert its authority.”

While many in this province want to keep Ottawa away, Linda’s mantra has been to bring the feds—as in federal standards—to Alberta. “I am all about governance,” says Linda. One of her great frustrations is government’s inaction on its duty to protect the environment. “We have signed on to observe the precautionary principle,” she notes. “Our duty to abide by this principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and yet in the instance of action on climate change, protecting our fresh-water resources, endangered species, addressing air pollution… the federal government continues to drag its feet. This is clearly the case with the tar sands, where they tout the economic value yet deny the terrible environmental and health impacts, despite their clear duty to intervene.”

She is well regarded by national media. And despite their differences, she even has a strong working relationship with members from other parties. She knows Alberta Conservatives; she works with them. She has good relations with Environment Minister Jim Prentice from Calgary. “As a result, I can just be my old Alberta self,” she says. “I travel often with him and his family. I maintain a sense of humour about it.”

But parliamentarians have to take a stand on many issues: “I’m used to having big agendas to take on, but Parliament is so tough. You’ve got to be ready to debate whatever’s on the table. And I insist on being informed, I’ve got high standards for myself.” Some MPs just stand up and speak, she says, whether the subject is daycare or free-trade agreements. “I always ask for a copy of the bill; I won’t operate from briefing notes.”

To the huge expectations, the travel, the pressing agendas, the difficulty of working with this particular government, add the relentless pressure of an election to come. “The Tories are already doorknocking in Strathcona,” she says.

The Peace Tower is behind us as we walk away from the Hill. I’ve put away the laptop; out of the official setting, our professional roles are dropping away. 

Linda is carrying two large sacks of papers to take home to Edmonton tomorrow morning. I ask her about her house: a close friend drops in every day to see the orchids. She has orchids…? “Actually, I’m terrible about raising orchids, but I’ve been given some,” she says. “I do love plants and suffer at their plight left untended in my absences from home.” She gets a faraway look; the peace and normality of that life compared to hers: Copenhagen, Fort Chip, committees… “I need a spouse!” 

We talk about our educated, housebound mothers and how unhappy they were. About how they urged us to get an education but how neither mother was quite prepared for what they would get. We laugh about our ambitions, which were to have careers but not to be them. To be independent. “I didn’t want to be a lawyer! I wanted to go to law school!” says Linda.

She walks home this way most nights. She looks at the people sitting in cafes and bars and thinks about more carefree times, times that seem long ago and far away. For now, the government has got to get its environment bill in.

At dinner at a little French restaurant we get back to storytelling. She explains the Marshall Ganz strategy for community reform: you ask someone who comes forward from a community, “What made you get involved in progressive politics?” And they tell their story.

Strathcona has high voter turnout. In Alberta, the higher the voter turnout, the less chance of a Conservative winning.

I ask her for an example. We’re sitting in the window of the restaurant, light falling on the white tablecloth, black street outside, and she gives me one. She’s heard it in dozens of Alberta farm communities. An Eastern European emigrates to Canada and firmly identifies with the political right because excesses and abuses in the old country came from the political left. This person—usually a farmer—steps forward when there’s an issue in his community to do with resource extraction. He’s told he must give way for the common good, that his property or community must be sacrificed. He then realizes that his right-wing government, previously thought to be safeguarding him, doesn’t speak for him at all—so he gets involved in progressive politics.

“Okay,” I say to Linda, “then what brought you forward? What is your story?”

She just smiles. She has remembered I am a journalist. Anyway, I think I’ve got it already.

If I don’t get a taxi right this minute, I’ll miss my plane. I leave Linda in the restaurant doorway, wrapped in a downy coat up to her ears, balancing those two great heavy bags of papers, one in each hand. 

She’s taken on such a battle. I want to ask what keeps her going. But I know. She tells me about a woman and her daughter who spoke to her at an event, saying, “I keep looking at the picture of you when you were elected, because you looked so happy.” 

And the stories. Stories of her, stories of us, stories of action. University of Alberta student Chris White, who started a 225,000 member anti-prorogation Facebook group that served as the inspiration for dozens of protests across the country, lives in Linda’s riding. She invited him to Ottawa to a January demonstration against the proroguement. He told her his grandmother wrote him and asked: “What’s all this happening in Edmonton-Strathcona?” 

Katherine Govier’s ninth novel, The Ghost Brush, will be published by HarperCollins this month. She lives in Toronto and Canmore. 


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