Lynne Quarmby, Evidence-Based Candidate

Kinder Morgan opponent and SFU researcher takes up science of public office.

By Crawford Kilian 26 Aug 2015 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Lynne Quarmby seems like an unlikely person to run for Parliament.

Her office at Simon Fraser University reflects her academic success: an iMac on her desk, Norval Morrisseau prints on the wall, a whiteboard heavily covered with scrawled calculations. She's the chair of the department of molecular biology and biochemistry as well as head of her own research lab. Search for her on Google Scholar and you'll find over a hundred links to her research articles.

At the peak of an impressive career, with years to go before retirement, Quarmby would seem to have every reason to carry on teaching and doing important research. Instead she's embarked on a parallel career, first as an environmental activist and now as the Green Party candidate for Burnaby North-Seymour.

Quarmby is perhaps best known for her public stand against Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but she's already proven herself beyond a one-issue campaigner. On Tuesday she joined Green leader Elizabeth May in North Vancouver to announce the party's affordable housing plank. She said her riding exemplifies why Canada needs a national housing strategy, citing the region's 0.02 per cent vacancy rate and average home price over $1 million.

"A full quarter of the renters in Burnaby North-Seymour spend more than half of their family income on rent alone," she said.

Road to Burnaby Mountain

Talking with The Tyee recently, Quarmby explained that she grew up in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and her first interests were in ecology and oceanography. Then she became fascinated by cell biology. After years at Emory University in the U.S., she returned to Canada in 2000 to join SFU.

"After the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009," she said, "I became fairly active in environmental causes. But I was also very busy with my research and administrative duties." She finally settled on coal as a crucial problem in climate change, and got herself arrested in 2012 trying to block a train carrying American coal from unloading at Tsawwassen for shipment to Asia.

Last September Quarmby got involved with the Kinder Morgan controversy when a crew from the company cut down 13 trees on Burnaby Mountain while looking for a possible route for the proposed expanded pipeline that would quadruple the amount of oil brought to Burrard Inlet for shipment to Asia. It would also increase the number of oil tankers leaving Burrard Inlet -- which might fairly be described as B.C.'s aorta, an artery we can't afford to lose.

The protest started very small: Quarmby would sometimes walk down a path from the SFU campus to give the first protester some company. The number of "caretakers" grew from there -- some began camping out on the site, while many hundreds more visited the mountain to protest Kinder Morgan's presence.

James Boothroyd, writing in The Tyee in February, said Quarmby "galvanized" the protesters by her willingness to be arrested again. Several grandmothers were arrested as well, and the caretakers became a movement.

The civil contempt charges were tossed out on the grounds that protesters hadn't been on the patch of mountain Kinder Morgan was entitled to use. Momentum only increased when Kinder Morgan sued Quarmby, charging she'd delayed their survey and cost them money. The suit was later dropped.

Quarmby had little chance to get back into her academic routine. In December Green Party leader Elizabeth May personally recruited her as the candidate for Burnaby North-Seymour. Quarmby said she wouldn't run as a sacrificial lamb; she wanted the resources to win. May ensured she would have funds for a campaign office and a couple of staffers.

Evidence-based legislation

So far, Quarmby is feeling encouraged, though it's a bare-bones campaign: her office won't have a dedicated media relations staffer until after Labour Day. "My campaign is continuing to grow," she told The Tyee. "Excitement is building as people recognize that I am a real contender."

For signs of momentum, she looks to a May poll reported in The Tyee suggesting Tory support has imploded from 44 per cent in 2011 to just 15 per cent this spring, while Green support soared from four per cent to 19 per cent. That Insights West poll also saw the Liberals drop from 15 per cent to six per cent, while the NDP remained steady at 35 per cent, though some more recent projections differ.

Quarmby has already taken a leave of absence from SFU, and will extend it if she wins the seat. "I'm not looking forward to the air trips," she told The Tyee, "but something has to be done." She looks forward to introducing her first private member's bill, which would make all legislation "evidence based" to show it's really needed.

If elected, Quarmby is poised to be the Green Party's science critic. As a scientist she's alarmed by the Tories' focus on applied research, often in partnerships with industry.

"This is bad news for science and bad news for the education of highly qualified scientists across the country," said Quarmby. "Instead of funding science, we are subsidizing the R&D of large corporations. We need to work to restore the health of discovery science in Canada."

She's not happy about government muzzling of scientists, either: "Political interference in the communication of scientists with one another or with the public is a serious detriment to our science and to our democracy," she said.

Quarmby is also a signatory of the recent statement by leading scientists calling for a moratorium on new oilsands development in Alberta.

Owning the issue

Lynne Quarmby poses a problem for the other parties in Burnaby North-Seymour: the Kinder Morgan pipeline remains a prominent issue, and if anyone owns it, it's Quarmby. Polls indicate that university-educated voters are moving toward the NDP, and this highly educated riding has two school districts and a university among its top employers.

But their teachers and students could well favour a prominent scientist who's also an activist. That in turn could offer the Liberal or Conservative candidate a chance to slip up the proverbial middle.

Whatever the outcome in Burnaby North-Seymour on Oct. 19, Lynne Quarmby has framed her riding's election around the protection of Burrard Inlet. But she's far from a one-issue candidate.

At least, that's what the evidence suggests.  [Tyee]

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