From a young age, Richard Cannings’ career path was mapped out.
“I grew up in a family that was very much interested in nature. I was kind of always headed in that direction,” said Cannings, a biologist, author and now federal candidate for the NDP.
Cannings has authored a dozen books on the natural environment and B.C. Several of those books deal with birds, a particular fascination of his.
“They are a window into that natural world. We can enjoy the diversity of birds and get excited when we see a new one. They do interesting things, they fly thousands of kilometres every year in their migrations, so we can kind of live vicariously through them,” he said.
Cannings’ interest in the sciences is matched by his family. His wife of 30 years, Margaret Holm, is an anthropologist and their son Russell, now living in New Zealand, is also an avid birder and a high school teacher. Their daughter Julia still lives in Penticton and teaches English as a Second Language for South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services.
So how does a scientist end up running for political office?
“It wasn’t part of my career plan at any moment, until 2012 when somebody from the NDP called and asked ‘Would you consider running for the NDP in the next provincial election?’” said Cannings, whose initial thought was to turn down the offer.
Cannings already had an enjoyable and fulfilling career, but when his wife, friends and colleagues urged him to say yes, he decided to try.
“A lot of that first election campaign was outside my comfort zone, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it,” said Cannings. “It has been very eye opening for me. For someone who grew up in Penticton, who thought they knew this community well, I have just learned so much.”
Running for the federal seat in this election was a natural progression, according to Cannings.
“In many ways, I am more concerned about what is happening to Canada as a whole. We need more voices from the scientific world, from the environmental world in Ottawa, in Parliament,” said Cannings, adding that he is concerned about a wide range of issues, from social justice to income equality and the decline of democracy in Ottawa.
“All those things that concern a lot of people here are my concerns as well,” he said adding that the more involved he became, the more he is impressed with the people behind the NDP.
“People want a more caring society, a fairer society, a greener society. I think more and more people are realizing the NDP will bring a more prosperous society.”
If elected, Cannings suspects he won’t have much time to continue his writing career, but he expects those skills to still be important.
“Politics is all about communications. Politics is how people relate to one another, explain things and get ideas across,” said Cannings. “The writing of books is very good training in how to communicate with people. And being in politics has trained me as well. A lot of politics is about listening to people, instead of telling them about your viewpoints.”
Cannings already has a lot of experience working with both governments and people, having sat on the B.C. Environmental Appeal board and the Forest Appeal Board.
“It really taught me how directly people’s lives can be affected by government. I think it was very good training for someone that wants to get into work as an MP or as an MLA. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he said.
Cannings is also on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the country’s largest conservation organization with a budget of over a million dollars and close to a billion dollars of assets.
Besides other scientists, that exposed him to CEOs and bankers with some of Canada’s biggest corporations.
“I got to know those people well and had a lot of interesting conversations with them over beer and dinner. It really gave me a view into another level at which Canada works,” said Cannings. “That was and still is a great experience for me.”
But even at those high level meetings, Cannings remains true to his passions.
“It’s always funny when a bird flies by and I immediately look at it,” said Cannings. “One of the vice-presidents of HSBC said ‘’I’ve never been in a meeting where someone gets excited about seeing a hummingbird outside the window.’”