Éric with his nieces Sofie and Katalina, who he is trying to introduce to nature.
We read a Salon article not long ago that reported “people don’t want to be associated with environmentalists” due to preconceptions that all environmentalists are out there chaining themselves to trees and staging protest rallies.
But then we thought about our Community program, which puts us in touch with some pretty neat people. People who, in spite of their conviction that the earth is ours to protect, are perfectly pleasant. Fun, even. The type of nonabrasive, non-hostile, non-confrontational folk you’d likely want to sit beside at a dinner party. Our experience with our environmentalists is not so much one of chains and rallies, but more one of cycle commuting, wine loving, and Monopoly’ing.
In an attempt to shed light on some entirely likeable environmentalists that we know, we’d like to introduce you to Éric Hébert-Daly. He is the National Executive Director at CPAWS, Canada’s voice for the wilderness, and the closest he’s come to staging a rally is directing 150 people in a musical.
Éric Hébert-Daly: Integrationalist, Voice of Nature, Theatre Aficionado
Raised in Oakville, ON, Éric had a grandma who lived at Lac-Baker, New Brunswick, and a mother who made it her mission to introduce Éric to the great outdoors.
“My family would go there every summer and my mother would take me out – into nature, onto the water, into the forest – on a regular basis. Lots of hiking, paddling, exploring,” remembers Éric. “So, despite a very urban upbringing, I was also brought up with a strong value for nature and wilderness.”
Éric and his mother, Branda, exploring outside. 1985
So strong in fact that going back to that same spot some 30 years later would actually prove to be the tipping point for his career in conservation: “I went back to Lac-Baker for my mom’s funeral, I saw that the forest that had been such a source of exploration and interest for me as a kid had been cut down, completely cleared out,” recalls Éric. “I knew then that the next position I took on would need to be something that addressed issues like this.”
Éric and Bou, CPAWS’ 6-ft.-tall mascot, at the Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy press conference in February 2012. At the conference, CPAWS presented more than 32,000 signatures of those in favour of improved measures for the caribou (a threatened species). And it worked: the strategy was strengthened by the federal government in late 2012.
Which is exactly what he would go on to do, both as CPAWS’ National Director – a position that opened about 6 months after his mother’s funeral, right around the same time as Éric resigned from a 17-year career with the New Democratic Party of Canada – and in his daily life. “I’m currently trying to introduce my two nieces to nature through canoeing. We started a few years ago, spending a few nights canoe camping in Gatineau Park, and it’s been so fun, getting to be part of that.”
As National Director of an organization that works to protect many important areas of Canada’s wilderness, outside makes sense. But as an uncle, hanging out with his nieces, why outside? Why not connect over movies? Theatre? Board games?
“Why introduce my nieces to nature when they’re young? Start at home, I guess,” Éric says. “There are a number of reasons – health, mental, spiritual – why outside is important, but there are also pure conservation reasons. We can teach conservation in the classroom until we’re blue in the face, but that connection needs to come from people who have an appreciation and an understanding of how it all works together, how it needs to work together. And that connection only comes from people having seen nature, been in the wild, having touched it.”
Éric, Sofie and Katalina, canoeing in Gatineau Park. 2013
And if that doesn’t happen? “In 10 years, if we haven’t cultivated a value for conservation, if no one is dedicated to it or appreciates nature, we’re going to have lost an entire generation of future conservationists. And then I believe we’re going to be in big trouble. We rely on the functioning of those ecosystems – we’re part of them.”
If Salon is right, and people’s dislike of environmentalists is detrimental to society’s ‘willingness to adopt the behaviours that these [environmental] activities promote’ what’s your approach to creating change?
“The key to creating change is relationships. Everything that happens, happens through a relationship,” posits Éric. “I see myself as an integrationalist. The gift of having dabbled in such a weird variety of worlds is that I’m able to connect with people and bring groups and ideas together.”
So no rallies or chains, but relationships? “When we’re talking about a long term goal of protecting half of the country’s public land and water, the only way that’s going to happen is if everyone is at the table and we start to have a conversation. And I firmly believe that someone needs to speak on nature’s behalf. CPAWS makes sure that nature is part of that conversation.”
9 Things About Éric
Favourite board game Monopoly. I guess it’s the culmination of all of my capitalist ambitions shining through?
Favourite outdoor activity Canoeing. It’s beautiful, it’s peaceful, it connects me to my childhood.
Thoughts on tree hugging I do really like trees, but I also really like grasslands, oceans, lakes – those are pretty hard things to hug … So I guess I choose to not hug any of them.
Three words a colleague or close friend would use to describe you? Creative, enthusiastic, strategic (an aside: these are Éric’s colleagues’ actual answers – he asked them to describe him before our interview)
Favourite song “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. I’m a big fan of his – he has this spiritual, healthy, eco way about him that’s in the same vein of values that I hold, and how I would like to change the world.
On a deserted island I’d want MEC gear. And I’m not just saying that. If I’m going to survive, I need a water purifier, waterproof matches, and some protein bars.
Web 2.0 tool of choice It took me a while to settle into 140 characters, because I’m definitely not a 140-character kind of guy, but Twitter is the space where the conversation seems to be shifting to, so that’s where I’ve gone.
If you weren’t CPAWS’ National Director I’d be a United Church minister. I have a degree in Theology and currently fill in as a lay minister, so it’s not uncommon to find me at a pulpit on Sunday.
Your creative outlet Directing a full-scale production of Something’s Afoot, starring The Wakefield Players – a theatre troupe started by Éric, some friends, and Scott, Éric’s partner of 25 years – a full band, special effects, and a two-floor stage. Combined, there were 150 people involved. It was a rather ambitious project.
Your inspiration Whether it’s the work I do for CPAWS, the work I did in politics, the plays I put on or the preaching I do, it’s all rooted in the same place: how do I leave this world a better place?
Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is Canada's leading retailer of clothing, gear and services for outdoor activities like hiking, cycling and paddlesports. MEC operates 17 destination stores in central locations across Canada. Widely recognized for its commitment to sustainability, MEC is a member of 1% for the Planet and supports various community-based outdoor and environmental initiatives through its grants program.