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Baroness Helene Hayman and Senator Mary Coyle talk climate and political action with Alberto Lidji

Baroness Helene Hayman, Member of the UK House of Lords and Co-Chair of Peers for the Planet, and Senator Mary Coyle of the Senate of Canada, join Alberto Lidji to discuss climate and political action

In this episode we talk about the climate crisis and learn about ‘Peers for the Planet’ which is the House of Lords’ Climate and Biodiversity Action Group, launched in 2020 — bringing together more than 120 Members of the House of Lords who want to put the need for an urgent response to climate change and biodiversity loss at the top of the political agenda.

We also look at international knowledge-sharing on climate action between the UK’s and Canada’s upper houses of parliament and hear how Senator Mary Coyle in Canada and Baroness Helene Hayman in the UK are collaborating and learning from each other in order to leverage their respective platforms to tackle the climate crisis.

For anyone who is interested in driving forward legislative change to tackle the climate crisis and fostering international collaboration in this field, this episode will be of particular interest to you.

For guest bios, please see the bottom of this page.

Episode Transcript

Alberto Lidji: Wonderful. Why don't we start by finding out a little bit about peers for the planet. What's that initiative all bad. What's it look like?

Baroness Helene Hayman: About a couple of years ago, I started thinking about how many people there were in the House of Lords who were really interested in; concerned about what was happening to our planet in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss.

But while there was a small group of people who are really expert about this knew what the policies should be. Were talking, trying to get government to move. There are a lot more of us who knew that there was a problem, but weren't absolutely certain about what the solutions were. And we thought if we could get that group of people together with a shared commitment to making progress and we could help and support them by getting them really good information. By laying on meetings with experts in the field, because there's a huge raft of civil society out there and academics and people in business who really want to get this thing done. And to make a difference, that if we could act as a bridge and use the position that we have in parliament, and particularly in an upper chamber where things are rather different from the representation by population, lower chamber, then we could make an impact.

And I guess I came to it mainly out of my children and now grandchildren and worrying about their future and just feeling that, it was incumbent on me, I had a responsibility to use the position that I'm lucky enough to have within the UK parliament to try and do something.

Alberto Lidji: How are you finding it so far? So it's a relatively young initiative, 2020. We find ourselves actually in the middle of a pandemic. We have COP26 as well. There are many things going on. Everybody wants to build back better. The environment seems front and center. Love to hear a little bit about how things are going so far. Are your expectations being met?

Baroness Helene Hayman: Actually, it's been really, really great. We found straight away about 50 people who said yes, they were interested in forming that sort of group. We found some money because that was important. If we're going to lay on the sort of services and really good research base for people to speak from then we needed good staff. And so we went out, one of my sons is active in climate philanthropy, in touch with some funders and funders thought this is a great idea because they were funding lots of civil society groups to write to members of parliament all the time. And in a way it's sort of cutting out the middleman in terms of the funding and actually coming direct to parliamentarians, and using us to be a bridge for those civil societies.

So then we started thinking, well, what do we do? And there are lots of leavers that parliamentarians have. So they can hold government to account by asking minister's questions, by pressing them, by having debates, but we're legislators and there's legislation going through all the time. And so we started being active and putting amendments down on legislation and putting amendments down on legislation that people didn't think related to climate.

So we have net zero legislation, the Climate Change Act in the UK, but then we found ourselves having a pensions bill coming in parliament that has no mention of climate. So I who know even less about pensions than I know about climate change find myself introducing amendments and getting the government to change that legislation.

So that regulators demand that trustees of pension funds take into account climate risk appropriately. So we started that sort of work. We were really helped because we invited David Attenborough to come and speak. And he came and spoke. and we had great sort of launch event and now where 130 people, we have had successes on other legislation. We are holding two or three seminars a week. We have four members of stuff. And we're doing a bit of outright international work, which is how I came to meet Mary.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Yes. I'd really like to find out a little bit about that outreach to Mary out in Canada. And how did that happen in the first instance and what's that looking like now?

Baroness Helene Hayman: I think one of the criticisms that we got was, oh, why are you bothering with all this detail in the UK? The UK is a bit player in this. You have to act globally. Other countries have to be involved. This is the pushback you get that we treat our citizens very strictly, meanwhile, the rest of the world is polluting and you'll never do anything unless you get everyone involved. So while I still absolutely believe that it's really important that we use the power of our example to use President Biden's phrase and that we can't lecture other people what to do unless we do things ourselves and we innovate and we find the right way to do things.

It's absolutely true that the UK on there can't deliver and save the world from the climate crisis. So we started thinking, where could we find some allies? And, you know, I can't go and affect the policy of the government of China from the British House of Lords, but I can go and talk to the Canadian Senate, a Commonwealth country, close links to the UK and an upper chamber where again, I should say cross party working has been really, really important for us. The fact that within the House of Lords you can get a coalition across all the parties and you can actually defeat the government that way or persuade the government that way, which is much easier to do than it is in the house of Commons. And that tends to be true... all upper chambers are different, but it tends to be true.

So we started putting some feelers out, both through organizations like the Commonwealth parliamentary Association and bilateral feelers. So we've had conversations with the Australians. We've had conversations with the U.S. Senate, but I have to say, the most fruitful conversations have been with Mary and her colleagues in the Canadian Senate.

Alberto Lidji: Wonderful. Mary what's been your experience then?

Senator Mary Coyle: Well, I'm just delighted to be mentored by Helene and her colleagues at Peers for the Planet. I'm also kind of humbled that they've taken such an interest in us. So what what's happened here in Canada with the Canadian Senate...

I'm a relatively new senator. We have a new Senate appointment process in Canada, where we apply to be senators and we are vetted by an independent body. And then, you know, lists of names are suggested of course, to the Prime Minister and the Governor General and then were appointed. So all of the new appointees and actually now the majority of senators in the Senate of Canada are appointed as, independent non-affiliated senators. The others who are still in the Senate from this relatively new process, you know, form different groups. So we have the Conservative caucus in the Senate, which is a caucus of 20 people out of a total of 105, if we have the full Senate complement there. We have the former Liberals, which were part of the liberal caucus, but they've, they're now independent. They they've started their own group. And we have a couple of other groups in the Senate, but most of us are now not affiliated or independent senators. So that it's a very different environment in the Senate of Canada, from what you would have found even five years ago, actually. When I came to the Senate of Canada, I came from an international development, rural development, community development, women's leadership, micro finance, you know, the world that I think you probably know fairly well from your philanthropic work, Alberto.

Like Helene, I don't have a background in climate change, in the environment, in environmental sustainability. I've always been of course, interested in it and felt it was important. And as a new senator, I just sort of watched and listened and saw, well, you know, what are the big issues we're dealing with here and what are the big issues in Canada and the world.

And, so where am I going to fit in this new... actually, chapter and opportunity in my life to make a difference in the world. And, I think Helene spoke about that as well. I too am a mother and I'm a grandmother. I have seven grandchildren.

You know, in Canada, you know, I'm speaking to you from Mi'kma'ki. Okay, mi'kma'ki is the ancestral lands of the Mi'kmaq People, the original people of the east coast of Canada. You know, I'm on the Atlantic side of our vast country, which has as, you know, three coasts, the west coast, the east coast and the coast that goes all the way around the north of the country.

Our indigenous people believe in any actions we take, you must think seven generations out into the future. How will what we're doing today impact those seven generations into the future. So that's an influence on me personally. I'm on the Aboriginal People's Committee of the Senate. I'm on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, and I was on the Arctic Committee of the Senate. It was a special committee on the Arctic.

Canada has a very special role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's an imperative and it's an opportunity, it's how I see it. It's an imperative, you know, because the Canadian Arctic, which is actually the largest part of our land mass in Canada is actually warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world. Right. Most people around the world don't know this, but really the Arctic is the air conditioner for the world. And as, as the permafrost melts and as the Arctic ice melts, we lose this ability to reflect the sun's rays back. And so then the earth absorbs more of the sun's heat, etc.

So, Canada does uniquely positioned... so here I am in the Senate of Canada, relatively new, seeing what's being talked about... very little talked about, to be honest, on climate. Some but very, very little. And it surprised me actually, given that an election, uh, you know, in the last two elections in Canada, climate was a central priority for the party that got in. So I was surprised that we didn't see much of that... we deal what so many issues. Today, I'm writing a speech on conversion therapy. You know, I'm also following our new Net Zero Accountability Act and preparing a speech on that. We're working on legislation to bring in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. So there are a lot of really important things going on, but, well, what could we do to kind of cut through this...

So, last year, just after Peers of the Planet... I didn't know about Peers of the Planet yet. I launched an inquiry in the Senate to get the conversation going on the right pathways for Canada to meet its net zero emissions targets. Okay.

Here's what we promised at Paris. Okay. And here's what we promised in Madrid. So what are we doing about it? Because we've never met a target yet in Canada. And I don't think we're alone in the world, but really it's... we're laggards.

So, let's get this conversation going and let me try and frame it in a way that it's not partisan. It's not East and West, because we don't want it to be, you know, the east coast or Central Canada against Western Canada, where most of the oil and gas is, you know, let's talk about this.

It's something we need to figure out together. So I did that, of course COVID came along... we had several people speak several more lined up to speak, and we had hoped to have some citizens assemblies leading up to COP26, which was supposed to be last year as you know, uh COVID uh... well, that didn't happen.

But a lovely thing did happen and Helene Hayman and Bryony Worthington from Peers for the Planet called up and said, we heard about your inquiry, Mary...

Alberto Lidji: So,that's how it happened. Okay. That's interesting....

Senator Mary Coyle: Yeah... and, here's what we're doing. What are you doing? And I said, well, let's talk about what we can do together. And so I prepared a speech for Earth Day this year and Earth Day, which a lot of people don't know, but I didn't know either until I did my research was started by an American senator 51 years ago, an American senator who reached across parties and had a Republican representative from the House join him to start Earth Day 51 years ago. And I thought, okay, I'm going to talk about that. I'm going to talk...

Alberto Lidji: Just the sort of bipartisanship we see today!

Senator Mary Coyle: Well, we'll not so much in the US you're right. But it's what people aspire to or what many people aspire to see. And the call from Helene came at a good time. And so I pitched in my speech, last month that we also in the Canadian Senate form our own Climate Action Group of senators.

We don't have a cool title like Peers for the Planet yet. One of my colleagues, Senator Kutcher has proposed a name that works in English, but in Canada we have to work in English and French. So SOS, we thought about SOS 'Senators on Sustainability', but in French sustainability is durabilité, so it's not quite working.

So we're working on a cool name. So here we are, we've been tutored by our colleagues from Peers for the Planet, we have now 20 Canadian senators who have said, yes, we want to be part of this. We're reaching out to each of the groups in the Senate and have a representative sort of leading the charge in each of the groups in the Senate to invite their fellow members to this table, which is meant to be like Peers for the Planet, a big tent, where there is space for everybody and different opinions on the best ways to get to net zero. But a common goal in getting to net zero in the timeframe; in a hurry of quite frankly.

And of course, like everyone concerned right now, we're looking at what's Canada going to do and say, it's going to do at COP26 in Glasgow. And so we're talking with Peers for the Planet and others internationally about how can we work together with our governments to align our efforts, to really put something bold and practically doable together for those commitments to be made at COP26. So, that's where we are.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Sounds fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I'd love to find out from both of you in terms of... Well, the dynamics in the upper chambers are different. You know, you're not facing an election cycle every so often, you have more independence. I think, arguably there's much more bipartisanship or cross cross party interaction.

Give us a little bit of a flavor, I guess, from both sides, on what that means for your ability to drive forward change, which I think gives you a bit more independence, perhaps a little bit more boldness.

Baroness Helene Hayman: I think that's right. Certainly in the House of Lords, there are an awful lot of people who are past ambition. And being past ambition in terms of us personally going up the political pole is really important for having a lot of ambition about what you can achieve.

And we found... it it's absolutely right... because the government has no majority in the House of Lords, then it only succeeds there, in the first instance, if it can persuade. And you can assemble a coalition that potentially defeats it. Now it doesn't defeat it in the long-term because we're not an elected house; things go back to the House of Commons; they get overturned. But often because we do the line by line scrutiny of legislation, if you can get that coalition of people from different parties... because the opposition alone can't defeat the government. It has to be a cross party grouping. If you can do that, then you can be really effective.

So I think that that is crucial and it tends to be even in a parliament like ours, which predominantly has party political people in the upper chamber, it still works that way. And for goodness sake climate is an issue that is not subject to the normal left-right divisions of politicians. It is absolutely above that and greater than that.

And that's recognized in the facts or the way in which people are concerned about it. And I think Mary said something really important when she said that the key to success, and I didn't get this, didn't analyze it until after when we'd done it, is not to be dogmatic about solutions. It's to get people to come together with a very clear focus on tackling the issue. And being willing to commit the resources, to support the innovation, to give the information, to put in the government carrots and sticks and regulation and taxation, all the different elements. But if you start with something like, do you support nuclear or are you anti nuclear, you immediately start dividing people. And on much, much more abstruse issues and seen in our political lives people who fundamentally agree with each other, actually being in organizations that fall apart and go into little groups who debate small the differences the whole time and break off from each other and lose their power.

We don't ask of our members that they ascribe to policies one to 10 of the organization. What we say is are you committed to fighting biodiversity loss and the climate crisis and do you want to do something effective about that? And that means that you can have members who are interested in different areas.

So some people are interested in nature based solutions and some people are interested in pensions and finances, say, or you can have some people who have very different views about priorities or about a particular issue about wind power or the right way forward. But we can cope with that. We can absolutely cope with that. There's enough work to be done for all of us. And there needs to be enough humility to understand that we're not there yet. I've been at a seminar this morning about the contribution that homes and domestic heating makes to greenhouse gases and we don't know how to decarbonize heating yet. We don't know what the role of hydrogen will be or how we get rid of gas boilers how we can make them all...

We don't have all the technical fixes yet. So we mustn't be into ideological straight jackets about this. And I think that's why we have managed to succeed as a group, even though there are people with different opinions on different issues. And we've succeeded with government because we've been cross party. And, you know, at the back of all this has been the knowledge of government ministers that we could make life difficult for them. Which is always useful to have.

Alberto Lidji: Exactly, exactly. And Mary in terms of the dynamics out there in Canada and the Senate of Canada, are you finding, that it affords you certain leavers that you can use to drive forward change?

Senator Mary Coyle: Yes, definitely. As with the case of the House of Lords, you know, we are not affected by electoral cycles, right. It's very likely Canada will have a federal election this year, probably this Fall, once we are all double vaccinated, hopefully. And, of course, you know, if you are an elected politician and a member of the House of Commons, you know, you're thinking about that next election. And unfortunately, unlike the UK, I would say that the level of political maturity, perhaps you would call it, around the climate issue is not quite there yet. It is still partisan, but I see that it's becoming less partisan and I think it's becoming less partisan because the Canadian population is saying, come on, particularly young Canadians are saying, come on, we've got to address this. And we've got to address this in a serious way. And you know, we've just seen the Conservative Party of Canada, the Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada for the first time, come out in favor of putting a price on carbon. So, so that's a big change. So I think we're on a good pathway.

Nobody should own the climate agenda. It's it should not be a Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, Green Party, etc, Bloc Quebecois, you know, ownership issue. It should be, as Helene has described it in the UK, it's above all of that. And, so the Senate of Canada can play a role because we have this longer horizon, you know, in terms of our terms as senators. I am a Senator, if I choose to be, until age 75. Not four years until the next election. So there is that time horizon which is a good one. You have people as Helene has described who want to make a difference, you know, and it's not about building themselves up. It's about really genuinely making a difference in the lives of the people in our country and for the future of... of course, of our land and our seas and our atmosphere. So people are very concerned about that. So it is a logical moment and it's interesting, I had a conversation with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change here in Canada last week, he was interested in what we were doing... he called me, which might not have happened if we didn't have this group. But one thing we talked about is how the changing role of the Senate of Canada and particularly this climate action group could become in a lot of ways the tail that wags the dog, you know. Of course we are not the elected house and we have to respect the will of the elected house, which represents the will of the people who put those people there.

But we do have a lot of very wise people. We have resources. We have time, we have our processes where we study important matters very intensively. And so we have a lot to offer to that process where we... I certainly believe that it has to be an all of society effort to get us on a track towards a sustainable future for our planet to get to that net zero emissions target for 2030, the initial one for 2030, and then the ultimate one, the absolute net zero target for 2050. Right.

So, we can play a role. And I think people get excited when they see it as opportunity to work together across groups as Helene has said, and actually make a difference. That's what we want to do. And that's why we're so impressed... I'm certainly so impressed with Peers for the Planet. They're not just talking, they are talking and they are learning, and that's a very important part of this equation, but they're acting and they've had some practical wins. People like to be associated with success. Right. No matter what that success is, they want to... if they're going to jump on a new bandwagon, they want to make sure that bandwagon is going somewhere that's going to make a difference. And I believe that what Peers for the Planet has done is a really excellent role model.

We will create our own version of that because Canada is different. Our politics is different. Our chambers are different, but we're a Westminster parliament too. And, I believe we are stronger as Helene has said if we work collaboratively. As I mentioned, I'm on the Foreign Affairs Committee, you know, several of my colleagues from the foreign Affairs Committee are interested in joining this group because... of course, they're interested in climate change in Canada, but they're interested in Canada's role in the world. You know, what's our role in helping developing nations for instance, achieve their climate targets.

Alberto Lidji: Exactly highly consequential. Now our listeners can't see what I'm seeing, but I can see both of you very clearly here in my zoom link and there's abundant energy that I know comes through on the audio, but it's still, I can see a little bit more and I can really see that energy in both of you. And so I'd love to find out a little bit about how you got to where you are today. Why you're using your platform right now to drive this forward. I know we don't have enough time, it's a little bit unfair to ask you both, but I'm just genuinely curious, how did you get to where you are today?

Baroness Helene Hayman: I'm pretty old, so it's quite a long time to tell you. I was pretty young when I was first in politics. I was in the House of Commons when I was 25. I was the youngest member of the House of Commons, and I was out of the House of Commons when I was 30. And I had a very long career break, I brought up four children, I did lots of stuff, and school governing and the Health Service and all those things. And then I went into the House of Lords. I've been very lucky because when I went in, it was the time when Tony Blair came in for his first administration. And I was a minister and I was a minister in three departments.

At the end of that, something fantastic happened to me, which I thought would be my last job was we changed the way in which the House of Lords was governed. We changed the role of the Lord Chancellor... this is very boring, this is a podcast on its own, the separation of powers in the UK. All you need to know is that we elected a Speaker for the House of Lords for the first time. And I stood in that election and I got elected. And I had a fantastic five years as the first elected Speaker of the House of Lords. And I really thought in many ways, you know, that was fantastic and I was getting on a bit and that's it. But this, this is for me, my last big job, you know, and it's something really much more important than anything else I've ever done in my life.

And I can't, you know, I'm not the scientist or the financier or the entrepreneur, who can produce solutions, who can tell me how we replace however many million gas fired boilers in houses. But I do know my way around the House of Lords, so what I feel is that having been in politics a long time, I can apply what I have learned to this topic. This campaign. And I think the two best things, I mean, it's been great when we have, as Mary said, actually had real change and we've changed legislation or we've changed policy. and we can really say to... to you, to our funders, to young people, we've done this, but two of the things that excite me most is one, domestic, which is that within the House of Lords, we now have something called Peers for Development, cross party group, that they have modelled on Peers for the Planet, on international development and there we have Mary who will be overtaking Peers for the Planet is in Canada with this powerhouse for change.

So it's a little bit back to my... the power of example issue. That it's wonderful and we will continue and we're overwhelmed with work to do on all the sectors, within our own workload, but equally, if you can leverage what you do into other areas or other jurisdictions, then that is fantastic.

Alberto Lidji: Well, thanks for sharing that. It's really inspiring to hear that this is so important, you know, the most important thing that you've done, because it is obviously very, very much the case. And Mary, your journey a little bit, what does that look like?

Senator Mary Coyle: Very different from Helene's, not at all and engaged in partisan politics. My career... I've already told you, I'm a mom and a grandmother. I am a lover of nature. Okay. So I think that's probably big part of it. You know, I was swimming in the lake last night and I'll be swimming at the beach later today, hopefully. I've already been out for an hour and a half walk early this morning. I am a person who enjoys the outdoors very much. So that's a driver. Career wise, you know, I have been involved in international development and I've lived and worked in different countries. I've lived and worked in France. I, I lived in, worked in Botswana. I lived in, worked in Indonesia.

I have worked internationally from a Canadian base for decades. I have run organizations... like many people in the Senate of Canada.we all come out of leadership in different spheres. Very few of us now actually come from the political background. That is something that I want to make sure we have in our climate action group in the Senate of Canada. People with that political savvy are critical. The rest of us probably knew how to, and know how to make things happen in the various realms that we were working in before we came to the Senate of Canada. It is very important to have people like Helene who know the machinations of parliament and who can help guide the rest of us who have the good intentions and have other things to offer. But that political savvy is very, very valuable.

I'm an optimist, a positive person like Helene I think. I, of course, am horrified by what's happening with our planet. But as you heard me say, I see a big opportunity. I see a big opportunity in terms of what Canada can do to turn things around and become a leader and an innovator in the various pathways to net zero.

And I'm also really optimistic about the resource that my colleagues in the Senate of Canada collectively are and can be as a, you know, powerful, I think a really powerful vehicle for positive influence on Canada's climate future and on the climate future of the world.

Alberto Lidji: And Mary, you have a key takeaway for our listeners? What would be the one thing you'd love for them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?

Senator Mary Coyle: I believe the one takeaway is that power, influence and potential that parliamentarians, particularly in our case, the Senate of Canada can have, when we work together towards this common goal of getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately by the year 2050, hopefully before then, we will have really made history and we will have a planet for our children and grandchildren.

Alberto Lidji: Here! Here! Helene, a key takeaway from your side?

Baroness Helene Hayman: Well, amen to all of that. And absolutely agree the message about how important it is for parliamentarians. But I guess the takeaway for non parliamentarians is for all of us to do what we can with our resources and in our context, because it can seem overwhelming and it can seem, well, I'm not a member of the House of Lords, so how do I make a difference? You know, you make a difference a hundred times a day in your personal behaviors. And we all have our places in society; in our workplace, in our family, whatever we do. So I guess it's not to think that there are experts doing all this. This is something that affects everybody and all of us, not only have to take some responsibility, but also have to think about how we can contribute and what we can bring to the party.

Alberto Lidji: I love it. I really do. Here is to your success on both sides of the Atlantic. Peers for the Planet and whatever the name ends up being in Canada. Helene and Mary, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us.

Senator Mary Coyle: Wonderful to meet you. Thanks so much. Bye, Alberto.

Baroness Helene Hayman: Thank you for being interested. Take care.

About Baroness Helene Hayman

House of Lords members elected their first Lord Speaker on 4 July 2006, Baroness Hayman. She served one term of office (five years) and was succeeded by Baroness D'Souza in July 2011.

Baroness Hayman was responsible for developing a programme which engaged people with the House of Lords and its members. The programme had a focus on young people and included Peers in Schools, an annual event in the chamber for young people and student competitions. She pioneered seminars and lectures demonstrating the wide range of experience and expertise in the House of Lords.

As Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman took part in a series of outreach activities. In 2011, for example, she spoke during visits to Bristol, Manchester, Portsmouth and Wolverhampton.

Baroness Hayman represented the House of Lords during visits from US President Barack Obama in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010 and the then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2008.

Helene Hayman's political career began in 1974, as Labour MP for Welwyn and Hatfield (1974-79). She was the youngest member of the House of Commons and one of 27 women MPs at the time. After leaving the House of Commons in 1979, she undertook a number of roles in the healthcare sector, while raising her family. In 1996 she became a member of the House of Lords. Her parliamentary roles included Opposition Spokesperson in the Lords for Health (1996-97); Under Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1997-98); Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health (1998-99); and Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1999-2001).

About Senator Mary Coyle

A long-time champion for women’s leadership, gender equality, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mary Coyle has forged a distinguished career in the post-secondary education and non-profit sectors, with a focus on international and local development.

She holds a diploma in French Language from the Université de Besançon in France and a Bachelor of Arts in Languages and Literature with a major in French and a minor in Spanish from the University of Guelph. After working for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as a Cuso International cooperant in Botswana, she earned a Master of Arts in Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph. She subsequently worked as a rural development advisor in Indonesia and later to support two State Islamic Universities develop their community engagement strategies.

For the next decade as Executive Director of Calmeadow, Ms. Coyle helped the organization pioneer the creation of the world’s first commercial micro finance bank, BancoSol, in Bolivia and establish the First Peoples Fund to provide micro loans to First Nations and Métis communities in Canada.

In 1997, she joined St. Francis Xavier University, serving as Vice President and Director of the school’s Coady International Institute, a world-renowned centre of excellence in community-based development and leadership education. During her tenure, the Coady International Institute grew significantly, enhancing its global education and innovation agenda and expanding programming for women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples.

Since 2014, Ms. Coyle has worked as the Executive Director of the Frank McKenna Centre for Leadership at St. Francis Xavier University, a centre devoted to developing student leadership. She also continues to work as an advisor and facilitator for various organizations, including the Haitian Centre for Leadership and Excellence and the Friends United Indigenous Arts and Culture Initiative. Mary Coyle played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, and the Indian School of Microfinance for Women.

She has 3 daughters, Emilie, Lauren, and Lindelwa, and 6 grandchildren.


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