October is Women’s History Month in Canada. To celebrate, every week SPI’s Researcher Spotlight will feature a different team of Women Making History Now. These women are all members of Smart Prosperity’s Research Network and conduct world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. In this edition, we caught up with Heather Millar, Samantha McRae and Elizabeth Polk. The team was awarded funding through Smart Prosperity’s 2021 Call for Research Proposals for their project titled “Generating Positive Feedback: Renewable Procurement Design and Implementation in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick 2006-2020.“

Hi Heather, Samantha and Elizabeth. Your research seeks to provide insights about how to design effective and politically durable clean electricity standards. Can you tell us more about why this is an important question for Canada to address? 

Heather: Clean electricity standards can help incentivize a shift towards non-emitting sources of power generation such as hydro, wind, and solar, effectively decreasing emissions from the electricity sector. These programs encourage utilities to diversify their energy mix, however research from other jurisdictions finds that these standards can be difficult to entrench at the subnational level. Clean electricity targets and standards are often reversed because of opposition from the oil and gas industry and public concern regarding increasing electricity costs. Understanding the conditions that make these policies more likely to endure can help propel Canada forward toward deep decarbonization.


As part of this project, you’re examining a number of case studies of provincial climate policymaking in the Maritimes. Can you tell us more about the case studies you’re focusing on and what insights you’re hoping they will provide?

Heather: The Maritime provinces are useful for comparative work because although New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island share similar geographic characteristics, their approach to climate has varied over the last fifteen years. We’re using a combination of process tracing, media analysis, and key informant interviews to compare policy development in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Sam: I'm currently examining some of the dominant frames around renewable energy production in media debates in New Brunswick. A frame is a claim about the cost and benefits, made by a particular group or person. We have gathered about 300 news articles, and I am reading through these to determine how interest groups are framing the development of climate policy in the province. The process of determining patterns is done through a coding system called NVIVO. I am coding claims alongside different actor types and energy sources. Studying climate policy in New Brunswick is important because we are a strong oil-based economy – figuring out what works and doesn’t work here has lessons for other oil-dependent provinces.


What are the potential policy implications of this work?

Heather: Hopefully our research will help tease out the kinds of frames and coalitions that can help clean electricity standards stay “sticky” and endure at the provincial level. Environmental politics research has found that policy designs that deepen or expand coalitions can be very effective in preventing policy reversals. On the other hand, research on wind siting from the US and Ontario finds that policy implementation can falter when governments fail to address procedural and distributive justice concerns.  We’re hopeful that our research can provide more insight into the types of policy designs that generate ongoing public support and the conditions that motivate policy makers to deepen their commitment to clean energy standards over time.  


Heather, you’re also working on a book that looks at the politics of fracking in Canada. What are some of the big issues and insights you’ll be covering in this publication?

My book argues that the politics of fracking are rooted in public debates about risk, including degrees of scientific uncertainty and the extent of catastrophic environmental harms. These debates impact how and what provincial governments learn about energy regulation. The book compares policy development in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta over the last fifteen years.  


Samantha and Elizabeth, you both have a strong background in international environmental issues, having previously been involved in a number of projects abroad. How do your international experiences contrast to the Canada-focused work you’re currently doing? Are there insights from abroad that you’re finding also apply to the Canadian context?

Samantha: Having worked abroad on implementing clean running water in rural communities, I have come to understand how significantly a clean environment affects clean water. Traveling to a rural community in the global south has made me feel grateful for the environment of Canada’s east coast. That said, throughout my studies I have come to learn that there are communities, much like the one I visited, here in Canada that lack clean running water and are impacted greatly by a polluted environment. Many Indigenous communities in Canada are among those affected by this. During the course of this ongoing research, it has been fascinating to note the lack of attention that Indigenous public opinion on climate policy has received in local news. It surprises me how little coverage these issues receive, yet students are often educated and encouraged to study and aid other countries in need.

In addition to our current research, my working honors thesis focuses on using the Canadian court systems as a means of climate activism. I am working on a comparative piece with other countries that have been successful in reducing their national emissions by 25% and current active cases in the Supreme Court of Canada. As I continue my research, I am interested to see what issues are brought to light by the public and what is being acknowledged by our government.

Elizabeth: After taking a high school mission trip to Tanzania, I became aware of the significant lack of resources Tanzanian women have and the considerable gap in women's rights compared to men. This is just one of the many life experiences that ultimately led me to study gender and politics in my undergraduate degree. During my study abroad in Sweden, I gained insight into the different waves of feminism and women’s rights within politics.

However, it was not until I started to study environmental policies in my third year that I became aware that women were being left out of consideration in the development of such policies. Additionally, in many parts of the world, women suffer the brunt of devastation from natural disasters caused by climate change. In my bachelor’s thesis I used an ecofeminist framework to examine emissions trading and trash trading systems. I found that governments exclude women from consideration when creating and implementing environmental policies. I hope to continue working on policies that acknowledge gender inequity and provide provisions for women’s safety during natural disasters in my master’s studies and beyond.


Thank you Heather, Sam and Elizabeth!

For more on the Smart Prosperity Research Network, click here. For recent Working Papers produced by the Research Network, click here. For other Researcher Spotlights, click here.