by Deborah Carr
President, New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance

There are few people in public service who hold my respect as much as Dr. Eilish Cleary, our former Chief Medical Health Officer. To say I’m shocked and saddened at her death is an understatement. We had some wonderful conversations. She was one of my heroes.

In 2012, the grassroots movement to stop a shale gas industry from proceeding in New Brunswick was gaining steam, but the public conversation was combative. In order to fully understand the implications, Eilish used the power of her position to ask her staff to research the health impacts associated with the industry. The resulting report—Chief Medical Officer of Health’s Recommendations Concerning Shale Gas Development—validated all the concerns our movement had been sharing with the public to date. At first the government held it back, but under public and media pressure, they had to release it. It was an extraordinary report, balanced and fair. She acknowledged there might be economic advantages, but also determined New Brunswick did not have the health monitoring or infrastructure necessary to protect its citizens from the negative impacts of a shale gas industry.

With this report, she opened up the public conversation and proved our concerns were not fearmongering or nimbyism, but grounded in fact and research. She also instilled trust in the institution of Public Health.

Five months later, I invited her to speak to our community, which was in an area leased for exploration and development.  To my surprise, she agreed.

On March 21, 2013 (11 years, almost to the day, before she passed away), Eilish sat at my kitchen table prior to our community meeting and told us, in confidence, that her boss had warned her job might be in jeopardy if she spoke with our group. She had no time for political nonsense. She said the citizens of New Brunswick were her patients, and nothing would keep her from speaking to her patients when asked. I tell that story now that she’s gone, because it speaks volumes about how she lived.

(Of course, we know that four years later, she actually did lose her job; many believed it was connected to her work on another environmental and health-related report: glyphosate.)

Later that year, she and her team accepted an environmental award from their peers for their vision and efforts.

“The report empowered citizens to engage in discussions and ask questions related to the protection of their own health. The comprehensiveness of its recommendations from a health perspective makes it the only report of its kind in Canada.” (Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors)

I had several interactions with her after that. She was always genuine and grounded. I admired the graceful and earnest way she expressed herself in the media, her focus always being the health and well-being of New Brunswickers.  Having never experienced the conflicts inherent to social activism before, I often felt off balance and stressed. She acknowledged this and expressed interest in the emotional cost of activism, how it affected one’s health. I appreciated that someone of her stature and position recognized this. Her sensitivity stood in stark contrast with that of our elected officials.

In 2014, she traveled to Nigeria to help with the massive Ebola outbreak. This was something she’d done before and she was unfazed by the risk. In doing so, she showed herself to be a compassionate ambassador of her adopted country and province. “I think it’s important that we don’t let ourselves be governed and paralyzed by fear,” she said. “If we all did that then there would be nobody to do the job.”

Upon her return, she wrote an essay on her experience for the Irish Times in which she told of a young boy witnessing his father’s burial in a mass grave. Even there, with death all around, she connected with the heartbreaking loss of a solitary child, and lamented all that polarizes us.

“Watching him, I felt some anger. At the politicians who propagate fear and stigmatisation for political gain. At the organisations who jostle for the limelight. At those of my medical colleagues at home, sitting fearful in their offices, who seem to have forgotten that with the privilege of being a healthcare worker come responsibilities. At those who from the comfort and security of their homes in the West value self-preservation above all else. At those Africans who profit from the misery of the poor. At those who simply couldn’t care less. Those who display no humanity.”

I’ve often thought of her in the ensuing years, and wished for a chance to know this woman better…to talk at length about the incidents and experiences that shaped her. But distance, work, family—and her retreat from the public eye—got in the way. I respected her right to privacy and didn’t want to pry.

This past November, we spoke on the phone—the first time in a few years—and I learned about the cancer. The diagnosis had been a shock to her, but she seemed both stoic and optimistic. We made plans to get together once her treatments had finished. So, the sudden news of her death stunned me. I wish I’d not let my reticence get in the way of getting to know her better.

Today, I mull over her words about fear. Fear often keeps us silent and paralyzed; keeps us on the margins of issues that matter. It causes us to see the ‘other’ as ‘enemy’. It takes courage to speak against the status quo, to stand firm on one’s convictions, especially when there is a chance we’ll pay a price for our integrity. There’s so much conflict and polarity now—in politics and in social media—that it seems to take enormous amounts of energy to step into the fray and calmly speak our truth. Or to take the time to see the humanity in those who may not share our beliefs, practices or values.

But do it we must. How else will we slow the toxic tide that threatens to destroy our connection with each other, and with our planet?

Artist/author Tara Shannon writes this advice on loss: “Remember what it was that you loved the most about those you have lost, and be that.”

My memories of Eilish Cleary will always be of her unshakeable grace, humour, integrity, and courage.

May I always aspire to be that.