• Megan Leslie, who has been involved in environmental conservation since she was a teen, has served as president and CEO of WWF Canada since 2017.

When 15-year-old Megan Leslie stood in front of her hometown’s town hall in the late 1980s to protest a proposal to store waste in a nearby abandoned mine, it was the first time she felt part of something bigger than herself — and the beginning of her 30-year commitment to environmental stewardship. After going on to obtain a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Leslie was elected as the NDP MP for the city in 2008, serving as environment critic before losing her seat in 2015. At the end of that same year, she first started working for World Wildlife Fund Canada and, two years later, became their president and CEO.

Leslie spoke with Canadian Geographic about leaving politics, how individual actions lead to big change and “In the Zone,” WWF’s native species planting program. (WWF is expanding the reach of this program by partnering with Canadian Geographic’s Network of Nature program).

On switching from politics to non-profit advocacy

I believe that elected officials are powerless unless there is a constituency demanding something. When I was in politics, I relied on environmental groups. Now that I’m out of politics, I see myself as working on the exact same issues as when I was in politics, but I’m a different voice. It’s so important for us not to just sit back and expect elected officials to do the right thing.
They need our support. They need us to call them out when they’re doing something that we don’t agree with.

On the role of the individual 

We all have a part to play. All those individual actions do add up, but we’re not going to make wide-scale change by those
individual actions. We need corporations involved. We need governments involved. It’s wonderful when we take individual
actions, but I see that as a gateway for us to then start thinking about the bigger picture and figuring out “well, what companies are doing the right thing? What should I be telling my government I expect?”

On the WWF’s native species planting program

We work in the Carolinian zone in southern Ontario. It’s a really important area because a quarter of our population and a third of our at-risk species are in that area. So there are a whole lot of people competing with nature in this landscape for places to live, and the people are winning out. The “In the Zone” program encourages people to start with one plant. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to rip up your yard or start from scratch. Start with one purple coneflower, start with one black-eyed Susan and go from there. Every plant that you can add in this Carolinian zone, every native species, brings back just a little bit of habitat for pollinators, for birds, for other wildlife.

On how environmental perspectives have changed

In my lifetime, human impact on the planet has not only accelerated, but we’re also starting to better understand it. When I was a kid, I do believe that we had this societal mindset that there were infinite resources, that the world was there for us to exploit. We’re in a time period now where we understand that the world doesn’t have infinite resources and that our human impact is having a really detrimental effect on the planet.

Megan Leslie joins Canadian Geographic on April 1 for a Can Geo Talk, as part of a panel exploring women in the environmental industry, bias, racism and breaking barriers. Tune in at 8:30 p.m. EST.