At 35, Megan Leslie is definitely on the younger end of the spectrum in the House of Commons. She’s an approachable, impassioned environmental and human rights activist with a law degree — and no intention of ever practicing as a lawyer. She sees the law as a tool for social change and thinks it’s important to understand what’s on the books and how laws are applied in order to make headway in our fights for justice and equality.
“I’m absolutely a believer in diversity of tactics — I thought if I went to law school that maybe I could have some of that power and use it well,” says Leslie, whose laid-back, frank way of speaking feels a bit like chatting with a neighbour on her front porch.
“I have no interest in being a lawyer, and I don’t care about [the status of] being an MP. This has not been a life-long ambition of mine — the life-long ambition is using the law to make Canada a better place for people who are marginalized.”
That’s the main reason she finds herself uprooted from her long-time home of Halifax, haunting the halls of Parliament as an NDP member who represents the people of Alexa McDonough’s old riding. Leslie has big shoes to fill, taking over from McDonough. But when over 40 percent of the Halifax vote went to her in the recent election, her constituents sent the message that they’re pretty sure Leslie’s up for the challenge.
It might be her lack of political ambition. It might be her unpretentious ways. It might be her long history of advocacy work — or her raucous, easy laughter. A lot of things about Leslie inspire the feeling that she is atypical and sincere, and her commitment to making things better for the people of her community was obvious to me from the get-go. While Leslie can’t explain exactly what lit that fire under her, it’s been burning for a long time.
“Is it that my mom was a single mom? Is it that my background is Finnish and we’re a social democratic country? Probably not, but that might have something to do with it,” Leslie muses, as she searches for an answer. “As a kid, I was always very preoccupied with fairness. I organized my first protest when I was in Grade 10 — me and my friend Patty picketed outside of city hall about radioactive waste. We made up these very clever signs that said, ‘No, no, we won’t glow.’ At the time, I thought that was brilliant! Since then, I just kept doing a lot of community stuff. It seems like the right thing to do.”
And do she does.
Leslie is a founding member of the Halifax-based Community Coalition to End Poverty and, in 2005, presented at the UN Conference on Climate Change parallel event “Heat or Eat: Energy Efficiency and Rate Affordability for Low Income Households.” Earlier this year, she received the Holly House Heroes award from the Elizabeth Fry Society for her work in housing and homelessness. Her work is varied and seemingly tireless.
While she’s primarily a poverty activist, for over ten years now Leslie has been a fierce ally and advocate for gay rights and visibility. But, if not for a personal stake in the outcome, where does all her passion for queer activism come from?
“Well, I did a double-major at York University and one of my majors was history. It was so boring — I didn’t care about anything I was learning about,” says Leslie. “Then I took this history of sexuality class and ended up specializing in it. I loved looking at how sexuality is portrayed, what’s being left out when history is written and the history of gay and lesbian activism. Not a lot of people know there were gay activists in the 1950s in Canada, for example.
“When I went to law school, I hadn’t finished my undergrad degree so I still had to do my thesis. I asked a prof of mine, Mark Stein, who’s now heading up the History of Sexuality program at York to supervise my paper. In it, I looked at the five Supreme Court cases that have to do with gay and lesbian issues. I looked at these cases, the evolution of the case law and what was happening on the ground with the social movements. That was really exciting to work on; it rekindled my love affair with this kind of learning. I started doing quite a bit of academic work on trans issues while I was at law school, and I thought, I’ve done all this by myself in the library, might as well do something with it. So I [reached out] to the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project and started to do volunteer work.”
That was in 2003. Since then, Leslie has co-presented information workshops to enlighten commissioners at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission about issues of gender identity, done advocacy work for trans people facing day-to-day discrimination in the Halifax area and co-founded or worked with a number of groups that address issues from increasing queer visibility at the Canadian Bar Association to getting sex-reassignment surgery covered by the provincial healthcare plan in Nova Scotia.
“There are so many ways to use power. Having privilege, I do have an obligation to speak out, to name oppression and to work against it. I have close relationships with a lot of young people in [my] riding who see themselves as being on the radical end of the spectrum politically and have never engaged with party politics. They organize rallies and protests and sit-ins at the drop of a hat — which I think are important — but they don’t vote. And they all joined the [NDP] party to vote for me. So, definitely, I brought in a lot of community folks, which was wonderful. It’s nice to see that Halifax isn’t afraid of an activist.”