In her home in the Florence hills, The Right Honourable Kim Campbell is proudly wearing the Order of Canada, a snowflake pin with a maple leaf in the middle, an acknowledgment of the 19th Prime Minister of Canada’s lifelong service to her nation. A champion of women’s rights and dynamic advocate for democracy, Kim Campbell was the first and only woman to become Canadian premier. During her career, she has chaired the Council of Women World Leaders and the World Movement for Democracy, in addition to serving as the President of the International Woman’s Forum and being the founding member of the Club de Madrid.
Helen Farrell: You define yourself as a “recovering politician” and here you are living in Florence, doing speaking engagements among other things. But what does that recovery consist of?
Kim Campbell: I was in Bologna last night speaking at the John Hopkins SAIS and one of the questions was You’ve done so many things. Where did you get all the energy to make these transitions? Actually, when I wrote my memoir, I was struck by how consistent I’d been in my life. The things I’ve done are different, but the values and interests that underlie them are quite the same. When I was young, because my parents were war veterans, I wanted to live a life where I could be a part of something that would make sure that didn’t happen again. I wanted to live a life that wasn’t just my own personal career; I wanted to be involved in bigger issues. I wanted to be the first woman Secretary General of the UN, but I had no idea how you did that, and at that time I hadn’t thought of politics. Everything I’ve done has related to democracy and the rule of law, because those are the underpinnings to secure peace and the advancement of women. I’ve always wanted to do things to open doors for women, and I’ve just done that in a whole lot of different ways.
At last night’s talk, I mentioned that somebody once said to me, Because of who you are and what you can do, lots of doors will open for you, and you have to decide which ones to go through. Well, lots of doors also close, so a lot of times if you have a shifting career it’s because you had political retirement thrust upon you by the electorate. There are no guarantees and sometimes opportunities open up. I got involved in creating an organization called the Club de Madrid, which is the largest forum of former democratically elected Presidents and Prime Ministers in the world. We’re now over 110 members, but we grew out of a conference that was held in Madrid in 2001, and as it happened the conference was about a month after 9/11. We thought that nobody would come. But we had this conference on democratic transition and consolidation, and there was an interesting chemistry between the current and former heads of state and government. The former heads of state and government could be candid about their experiences and it was insightful for current government leaders to hear from people who’d been there and done that. We got this sense that there was a role for an organization that would bring together credible former democratic leaders to provide advice. We have particular projects and themes that we pursue: one of our themes is “shared societies” because 90 per cent of countries have minorities of at least 10 per cent of the population, so we bring together a tool kit of ways in which countries have successfully created democratic societies in the face of that kind of diversity.
When you have a group of former leaders who have knowledge, experience, access and clout, and it’s interesting because our members are thrilled to be able to use that resource, they love to be helpful. We all have no illusions, we know the difference between being in office and out of office, we know that we’re not powerful, and we enjoy the camaraderie of getting to know one another. That’s been a very happy chapter of my life that I could never have predicted.
HF: In this current bizarre climate, what role does the Club de Madrid play? Are you active at the moment in terms of talking about the pandemic and democratic situations around the world that are seemingly becoming less and less democratic?
KC: We’re looking at the question of artificial intelligence in democracy, the challenges that Covid is presenting to democratic governance and the links between democratic governance and managing Covid. We tend to be timely about things; we have a large project that we call “Next Generation Democracy”, and so we’re looking at the different factors that go into how democracies will respond to the changing world. Some of that is in artificial intelligence, in forms of communication, the rise of populism… We’re passionate about democracy, about trying to understand the challenges to democracy and make a contribution to being able to respond to those things.
HF: There’s a phrase by Henry James that keeps going through my mind: Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. How can governments inspire empathy while maintaining effective leadership?
KC: I think they’re not at all in conflict. It’s like saying, How can we solve the problem of Covid and not destroy the economy? You can’t fix the economy if you can’t solve the problem of the virus. Secondly, empathy is an underlying value of a democratic society and good leaders help to cultivate that feeling among their populations by being very un-Trumpian. Somebody like Donald Trump tries to exacerbate differences; we all have buttons you could push, we’re all human beings, and the real gift of leadership is trying to bring out the best in people. I think of Winston Churchill, who was both wonderful and terrible in many ways, but one of the things that was positive about his leadership in Britain during the Second World War was that he really called out the best of the British. Rather than trying to motivate by anger, he tried to motivate with a sense of who they were, what they had created, how important their democratic system was and the rule of law. You might say it was jingoistic or nationalistic, but it was a focus on values. It drew people together, it made it possible for people to feel connected and, of course, one of the results of that wartime experience was people interacting with people that they otherwise never would have met in a class-ridden society.
Empathy is easier to cultivate when people don’t feel frightened, when they can satisfy their basic needs and when they’re not angry at inefficiency of governments, so one of the ways you can measure successful democratic leadership is the extent to which people care about one another enough to use the instruments of their society to support those who are less advantaged.
HF: You’ve always been an advocate for education, and you even founded a leadership college at the University of Alberta. What’s your consideration on the impact for the next generation?
KC: I think we will look back and probably identify cohorts of people who were a part of that Covid generation of interrupted education, depending on which level of education was interrupted. A lot of social scientists will be measuring the impact and trying to study it. This is not the first time Italy has had its education disrupted. The Second World War probably disrupted a lot of it, but we do have resources that we didn’t have before. The problem is that they are online resources and are not universally available. There is a divide between those who have access to computers and online resources and those who do not.
HF: You spent lockdown in Vancouver and your husband was here in Florence. What insight did that period of isolation hold for you and what were your overriding feelings on being able to be reunited in Italy?
KC: I knew that at some point travel would be allowed and I certainly never wanted to do anything that either put myself at risk or anybody else at risk. I was in Italy and then went to Paris for a couple of weeks because I wasn’t going to be able to fly home from Italy, so I flew to Vancouver from Paris, but when I was in Paris we were in lockdown for two weeks. That was fine because I was with my husband and we were quite happy to hang out together. For people who don’t get on so well or have little kids, it must be very difficult. When I went back to Vancouver, I quarantined of course and was living in an apartment by myself. I ordered groceries online and have them delivered carefully to my apartment by people who were masked and gloved. In many ways, I feel very lucky because it wasn’t a traumatic experience for me. It was frustrating that I couldn’t visit members of my family, but with all the forms of communication that we have, it’s not nearly so isolating. I’ve probably been more active in the associations I’m involved with since Covid because we’re all having meetings online and there’s no excuse for you not to be there. During lockdown, I decided to sell my apartment in Vancouver, so it gave me time to pack things up and organize. Unlike many people, I actually stuck to my weight loss program! As I was just cooking for myself, I could be very sensible. Plus, I got an ice cream machine and learned to make all sorts of low-calorie frozen yogurt desserts! When I came back to Italy, I quarantined again and I’m privileged that I live in a place where I could have that space to do it.
HF: Music, reading and the arts hold a central role for you. What are you particularly drawn to at the moment?
KC: In this period of my life, I’m very worried about what’s happening in the world. Like many people, I have a residual chronic sense of anxiety. This is another reason why being in Florence and Tuscany is so important: one of the great antidotes to anxiety is beauty in all of its forms and all of its artistic expressions. Lots of research says that if you go for a walk in a beautiful, natural setting, it’s even better for you than in a beautifully built city. These things really do have a positive impact on your body and your stress hormones.
Right now, I’m reading a gossipy book; it’s a diary of a British MP’s wife, Sasha Swire. Normally when I’m buying a book like that I buy it on Kindle because then nobody can see what I’m reading! But it wasn’t available, so I actually ordered it by mail from the Guardian and I’m happy I did that. I read another book by an American scientist at Harvard, called Exercised, which talks about the science of sleep, exercise and movement. The British critic Clive James put a book out last year, the year he died, with his daughter, a collection of 80 of his favourite poems, and for each of the poems he has this wonderful little essay on how to read it aloud. It’s interesting to read someone else’s selection of poetry because it brings you into their thinking. When I’m talking to students, I often say that one of the things they should read is poetry because often speaking a line of poetry can be much more effective than the most eloquent prose. I’m loving rediscovering poetry that I didn’t know and finding in it a kind of reassurance about humanity.
My husband’s a musician, so people ask, Do you make music? and I say, I play the piano, cello and guitar, and I sing, badly. But I find myself now wanting to do it again. I don’t want anybody to hear me—it’s not something I want to do for public consumption—but again, it’s for personal pleasure. The sad thing is that one of the most enjoyable things in life is singing together with others, but it’s also one of the most efficient ways of spreading a virus. But I can still play my cello or piano without making anybody sick, except if they have to hear it!
HF: It’s interesting because this is a moment for self-enrichment in many ways, and it is an exciting time in terms of scientific discovery. It’s almost like it’s all been accelerated because of the concept of time. This year has gone by fast for some people and slow for others.
KC: I always think of John Keats’ line that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and it’s true that beauty in all of its forms is an incredible antidote to despair. Being here in Florence, one of the artifacts of Covid is that access to some of the most beautiful treasures in the world is easier. You have to put your mask up, but the museums aren’t so crowded for those of us who are here. We now have the opportunity to stand, undisturbed, for half an hour in front of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We need to try and remember what others have lived through in human history, and however terrible it is right now, there have been other, equally bleak periods that we’ve managed to survive. That isn’t to say that this isn’t terrible. Each disaster has its own unique qualities, but human beings are resilient if we give them a reason to hope. That’s why I talk about beautiful things, whether it’s music or art, anything that somebody creates, including many of the pages of The Florentine.