Alberta Senator Elaine McCoy is something of a contradiction to the popular perception of what an Albertan is supposed to be like politically. As one of two remaining Progressive Conservatives in the Senate, she’s had a career of championing rights, both as a cabinet minister in the Alberta Legislature, and today as a Senator.
“I was women’s issues minister — the first-ever cabinet minister to openly declare that I was pro-choice,” McCoy recalls of her provincial career. “That got a screaming headline in the Edmonton Journal. That would have been 1987.”
As Alberta’s minister responsible for human rights in 1989, she proposed extending human rights protection to gays and lesbians, but that was eventually defeated in caucus. (Sexual orientation was not added to the Alberta Human Rights Act until 2009, making it the last province to do so.)
Appointed to the Senate in 2005 by Paul Martin, McCoy chose to stay a Progressive Conservative rather than join either the Liberal or Conservative caucuses.
“I felt about the Harper caucus the way that I felt the Klein caucus would likely work out for me, and that is that it would be too socially conservative,” McCoy says. “I used to say that it would have destroyed my soul.”
While she had initially thought she would be voting with the Conservatives on fiscal matters, the only common ground so far has been the recent Private Members’ Bill on mandatory bilingualism for Supreme Court Justices — something she opposes.
“Go figure,” she says with a smile. “[When] I was in Cabinet, you have a three-line whip all the time, and there were times when it was just so hard to face somebody — a voting constituent or your mother or your best friend — and say I’m sorry, but that’s what ‘we’ decided, and defend something that you just in the pit of your stomach feel is not right. I thought, At my age, why would I put myself through that agonizing experience? So I thought, I’ll just stay true to my principles, and it has been much easier as a result.”
As one of the four independents holding back the tide of a Conservative majority in the Upper Chamber, McCoy has found herself in a unique position she never expected to be in.
“I’m really happy that Lowell Murray is still here,” McCoy says of her fellow Progressive Conservative, a remaining Joe Clark appointee.
While the Conservatives have moved many pieces of their agenda to the Senate in the current Parliament, rather than have them face a fractious House of Commons to begin with, McCoy is one of the voices standing up against some of the government’s policies, such as minimum mandatory sentences, especially on marijuana possession.
“It really strikes me as self-evident that prohibition causes more problems than not,” McCoy says. “We discovered it in the ’30s — here we are a hundred years later almost, and we haven’t learnt our lessons.
“It’s incredible to me that on the one hand you can say marijuana is good for medical uses, but on the other hand we’re going to throw you in jail if you get some. It’s just so unenlightened; the fact that even the thought that it’s a gateway drug is also totally unproven. It’s all ideological, and it’s built on fear. We need an adult conversation around this.”
Conversations around drug policy have turned McCoy into a supporter of Insite in Vancouver, where evidence shows that harm reduction programs work.
“Why aren’t we being strategic about how we respond, how we help people, how we keep people safe?” McCoy wonders.
“That’s another thing that drives me nuts — the long-gun registry,” McCoy continues. Having heard from the various police associations around the country, McCoy is convinced of its value.
McCoy’s biggest passion, however, remains the energy study she’s conducting, with the hopes of creating a blueprint to turn Canada into the cleanest energy producer in the world.
Senator Elaine McCoy blogs at albertasenator.ca