Ontario mom Julee Boan on valuing the vulnerable

Andrew, Simon, and Julee.

“You can’t listen and engage when you have a three-year-old squirming in your lap.”

If you’re a parent, you’re nodding your head right now — really, were truer words ever spoken? And that’s why whenever Julee Boan helps to coordinate a public meeting, she pushes to ensure childcare will be provided, free of charge. The environmental scientist — she has a Ph.D. in forest sciences from Lakehead University — volunteers at LEAP, an organization based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, focused on social and environmental justice.

“When we don’t provide childcare, we end up with retirees and young people, because those are the people who can attend an early evening meeting. And that’s great, but we miss out on the input of a key demographic — young parents, and in particular young mothers.”

And that’s a tragedy, says Julee, because when women who are mothers come out to speak about the need for change, “their voices are some of the most powerful.”

Julee still remembers the (sweet) challenges of taking her six-week-old son, Simon, to advocacy meetings in his carrier, and then later keeping him entertained at those meetings as a toddler and preschooler.

Simon and Henry.

“You know how little kids need to know what’s going to happen — and when they’ll be leaving? Eventually, I taught him how to read the meeting agenda, so that he could see that we’d discuss this point, and then this point, and then that point, and then we’d be out of there.”

Today, Simon is 12 — old enough to take care of himself while his mom goes to meetings. “He doesn’t need me as much,” says Julee, meditating on both the joy and the sadness inherent in that statement. This past summer, between Simon being away at summer camp and spending time with his dad — with whom Julee splits custody equally — she decided to book off work completely for the weeks her son spent with her. “I had a sense that it would be one of the few summers left where he’d be happy to spend all day with me. I thought I would regret it if I didn’t take the time.”

Not that she doesn’t love her job. As Boreal Program Manager for Ontario Nature, working out of its Thunder Bay office, Julee’s work involves collaborating with local conservation groups, First Nations, and industry to find environmentally responsible approaches to economic development in the north, where forestry is a key industry.

“I’ve always had a bit of an activist bent in me. I’ve always felt compelled to speak for the vulnerable — and for me, the most vulnerable are often the non-human: animals, who literally have no voice.”

She’s also chair of the board of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which includes representatives from environmental, labour, industry, and Indigenous groups.

In other words, Julee is used to sitting at the table with players from all perspectives. (Personally, she’s used to it as well: until recently her husband, Andrew, worked in the forestry industry.) Sometimes, those spaces are positive and collaborative, she says — and sometimes they’re more conflicted and challenging. For instance, she’s the lead author on a recent paper that shows how the logging industry has helped to spread a campaign of denial and misinformation about the disappearance of boreal caribou.

Today’s political environment, says Julee, is particularly challenging, professionally and personally. “As scientists, we know that we have, if not a 100% perfect understanding, then at least a more-than-sufficient understanding of certain environmental problems and solutions” — like, say, the need for boreal caribou habitat conservation. “And even when the evidence is very clear, and we can provide very clear rebuttals to misinformation, people continue to perpetuate falsehoods. So instead of focusing on solutions, we end up focusing on fighting over whether there is a problem. And that’s so draining.”

Simon, Daisy, and Lily.

How does she overcome that exhaustion?

In part, by drawing inspiration from the next generation. Recently, for example, Julee went to see Kelsey Juliana speak: the 22-year-old is a plaintiff in Youth v. Gov, a group of young people suing the U.S. federal government and its president for violating its youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property because of actions promoting climate change. “She had so much enthusiasm, so little cynicism. At 45, it’s hard to maintain that. I need youth to keep me feeling energized. On the other hand, I love the freedom of ageing, that feeling of not caring about what other people think.”

Julee also recharges at home. She, Simon, and Andrew live on a 35-acre hobby farm just outside of Thunder Bay. They moved there five years ago, says Julee, with the goal of becoming completely self-sufficient — “but we’ve had to adjust our expectations,” she says, laughing. “You do what you can.”

Right now, the family menagerie includes three sheep, three goats, a bunch of chickens and some rabbits. “My son really loves animals, so a huge part of our time together is learning how to care for them. We’ve been competing at local fairs. Last year, Simon’s rabbit won Best in Show at the Hymers Fall Fair, which was a big deal for him. And that totally ties into my passion for caring for the vulnerable. It’s just really nice to have something that’s we can do together, that brings us both joy.”


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.

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