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Opinion What swimming taught Catherine McKenna about confronting a challenge

There are few amateur sports as gruelling as swimming.

There are the 5 a.m. practices in a cold pool, forcing yourself, stroke after stroke, into believing you’re getting better even if your results don’t immediately show it. There are the internal private pep talks to keep forging ahead when every muscle in your body wants to quit. There is the discipline it takes to keep up the same, often tedious, routine knowing any big payoff may be years away.

In other words, it’s the perfect training ground for a future federal environment minister. Canada’s current one, Catherine McKenna, comes from this world.

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“I was captain of the swim team at the University of Toronto,” she told me in a recent interview. “As captain, I often had to bring people together, had to get everyone focused on our goal and not get too discouraged when things weren’t going our way on a given day.”

There isn’t a tougher file in government at the moment than Ms. McKenna’s. She finds herself up against a bloc of conservative-minded politicians across the country opposed to the federal carbon tax. You might have seen them staring out from a recent cover of Maclean’s magazine: federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.

All middle-aged men who likely won’t be around to see the worst of what climate change will visit upon the Earth if nothing is done. The headline over the much-lampooned picture of the five was: The Resistance. On Twitter, NDP MP Nathan Cullen offered up an alternative tag line: “Pale, male and stale – the revenge tour.”

I asked Ms. McKenna what she thought.

“All I thought was: Gosh, why are we giving a platform to people who don’t have a climate plan of their own and make it like they’re the resistance?” Ms. McKenna told me. “They’re resisting progress. They’re resisting making sure we have sustainable futures for our kids. They’re resisting economic opportunity.”

Ms. McKenna and her boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have staked their future on the government’s climate plan, and in particular the carbon tax at the heart of it. Mr. Scheer is vowing to make the next election a referendum on it. He has yet to present any climate plan of his own.

But Ms. McKenna isn’t just getting it from the right; she’s getting it from the left, too. Celebrity environmentalist David Suzuki has called her a hypocrite and demanded her resignation. In his view, a government can’t build pipelines and simultaneously be serious about reducing CO2 emissions. And the fact is, currently Canada isn’t close to meeting its commitments under the Paris climate pact, according to the latest emissions report from the United Nations. Meantime, Mr. Ford’s scrapping of climate measures brought in by the previous Liberal government is making it even harder. According to Ms. McKenna, Mr. Ford’s moves represent a monumental setback to Ontario’s climate goals, the equivalent of adding 30 coal-fired generating plants worth of emissions into the atmosphere.

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“I think politicians need to answer for that,” she says. “The Ontario government’s moves are going to cost tens of millions of dollars while at the same time contributing to the greatest problem we have, which is climate change.”

She may be right. But frankly, a lot of people don’t care. There are millions of Canadians who think climate change is a hoax, or at least grossly overstated. Or they believe measures such as a carbon tax are just robbing them of money they don’t have, even though in most cases the federal government’s plan would put more dollars in people’s pockets than take out. It’s that kind of ignorance that Mr. Ford and other conservatives are exploiting.

The fact is, other countries around the world recognize the enormous economic opportunities transitioning to a low-carbon future represents and are taking advantage of them. And then there is the straight-up moral case for doing something to save the planet: for our children, and our children’s children. Unfortunately, too many of us only live in the here and now.

I asked Ms. McKenna how she avoided getting totally depressed about the uphill battle she faces, about the war that many have declared on her climate plan.

“What choice do I have?” she told me. “You just have to wake up in the morning and keep pushing forward. Some days are harder than others but you just keep focused on your goal, keep grinding away.”

Stroke after stroke after stroke.

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