Lynne Quarmby

One scientist Harper can’t muzzle runs for Parliament

by Bruce Mason

Lynne Quarmby with students
Award-winning scientist Dr. Lynne Quarmby is leaving teaching and her lab at SFU to run for the Green Party in the upcoming federal election. Photo by Greg Ehlers, Creative Services, SFU.

“Make It Happen,” the theme for International Women’s Day on March 8, is something Lynne Quarmby has long embraced and embodied. To honour her achievements and progress, Common Ground shares some of Lynne’s thoughts following her recent, rapid, high-profile, but highly personal, transformation. Lynne talks about the decades of hard work that led to her establishing her SFU lab, risking her success and future at pipeline protests, being arrested for civil disobedience and accepting the unanimous nomination as Green Party candidate in the new federal riding of Burnaby North – Seymour. From Burnaby Mountain to Ottawa, this is Dr. Lynne Quarmby’s take on what it takes to “Make It Happen.”

Bruce Mason: When you were chosen as one of BC’s most influential women in 2010, it was noted you are a vocal advocate for more women in elite research. Yet I once overheard someone yell at you “Get a job!” during a march. Let’s start with becoming a scientist.

Lynne Quarmby: [Laughter] I’ve always tried to “make it happen” and could tell stories about misogyny and struggling in science as a young woman. But let’s stay positive. I was raised in the rural Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, the daughter of a plumber. I delighted in learning to live in and love nature – in forests, along shorelines and in the ocean.

My passion has been trying to understand the molecular machinery that enables single-celled green algae (pond scum) to swim. And research unexpectedly led to the discovery of a gene that helped unlock mysteries of polycystic kidney disease. I have earned degrees from UBC in marine biology and oceanography, got my PhD in genetics in Connecticut – where I had my son Jacob – and pursued postdoctoral studies in Dallas with Alfred Gilman, who later earned the Nobel Prize. I have since had the welcome opportunity to move back home and run a research lab as well as teach and chair SFU’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry.

That’s my brief CV, but throughout this life journey, I have served on numerous commissions and committees on women in science, as well as mentoring and speaking out. Now, science itself is under siege in Canada. And that’s taken me away from my microscope! Stephen Harper has muzzled government scientists and labelled people who disagree with his dangerous plans as “radicals.” This ongoing destruction of evidence-based decision-making is what eventually led me to civil disobedience and the Green Party.

BM: Right now, some readers might be thinking: “Green is a split or wasted vote, a one-trick party of environmental protestors, with no chance for power.”

LQ: Power? Greens will likely hold the balance and are willing to work with either the NDP or Liberals if they meet our two non-negotiable demands: support for proportional representation and real action on climate change. Stephen Harper formed a majority government with just 24% of the eligible vote. We don’t necessarily need many seats to prevent something like that from ever happening again as well as to become global leaders in climate change action. Strategic voting? We are running very strong candidates in the 2015 election; watch for a tidal wave of Green to wash over Vancouver Island and up Burnaby Mountain. [Laughter] Seriously, I’m running Green because it is the only national party with enough respect for the electorate to be direct and honest. Full stop.

As well, I have assurances from leader Elizabeth May that I will not be “whipped.” I fully endorse and support our platform, Vision Green (, but I will work for my constituents and vote my conscience after full consideration of information available and in the best interests of the people of Burnaby North – Seymour. No other party gives me that freedom.

The time has come for everyone to become active environmentalists, along with whatever else we do. It’s also essential to connect the dots between climate change and justice. Pipeline battles aren’t about left-right politics. Climate change is all about up-down politics – the political power of extreme wealth oppressing the rest of us.

It’s about inequality. For example, less than 1% of the profits from the Kinder Morgan pipeline would flow into the BC economy. Our country’s wealthiest 86 families own more than the poorest 11 million Canadians taken together; 50% of us own less than 6% of wealth in our nation. And that disgraceful, unhealthy imbalance is getting much worse every year, lining the pockets of the already rich while threatening our environment, social services and democracy.

I’m not being immodest in thinking this riding needs me to help halt the Harper agenda. I intend to gather the vote – not split it – from the 39% of eligible Canadians who saw no point in voting in the last federal election. From the traditional Conservative, Liberal and NDP voters who are very concerned about bloated government, mismanaged finances and threats to Canada’s values and democracy. From voters who have had enough of negative, partisan politics and omnibus bills. From people who see a much brighter future in clean technology. And from the First Nations people with whom I have stood to protect our land and water.

Recognizing the links between prosperity, a healthy environment and a healthy democracy, I am now very aware they actually go hand in hand. I hope to speak to the power of this truth and have become actively engaged in income inequality, indigenous rights, Internet privacy and electoral reform. Rights to affordable housing, stable CPP, national childcare, efficient public transit, youth employment, a liveable income – these are not things to be bargained in exchange for destroying nature.

Throughout my life, I have been absorbed in my science, my family, doing my job, keeping my footprint small. The failure in Copenhagen in 2009 was my wake-up call. I could no longer focus on cells while our politicians dithered. There is no time left for that. And so with increasing frequency, I wrote letters, attended and spoke at protests, met with elected representatives and wrote op-eds.

I began to question the value of owning my home and having retirement savings in a world spiralling into negative space of reduced freedom of speech and accelerating climate change. With no inter-generational and global justice, how much is really left of future value for the vast majority?

Last fall, I was sued by Kinder Morgan for peaceful protest in a public park and for writing about why I would risk arrest. Shocked to my core that this could happen in Canada, I faced a lawsuit – brought by a corporation – that would have left me homeless, with criminal charges that would have prevented me from visiting my son in the US and attending international conferences. My letters and protests, even my civil disobedience – the last resource of an engaged citizen – had little or no impact because power has become so concentrated in a very small, homogeneous group. In Canada’s case, [it has concentrated] around Stephen Harper. To really make change, the only step that is left is to stop complaining and get myself to Ottawa.

I am setting aside a successful career in science because of the need for urgent action on climate change and restoring our democracy. Once again, I am drawn by my love for our astonishing world – this time into politics – compelled to do what I can to protect our environment and to see us move into an era of prosperity where materialism manifests as treasuring, rather than acquiring. The values of people must once again trump the bottom line of multinational corporations and I am hopeful that we can and must ‘Make This Happen.’

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. Email For more information about Lynne’s lab at SFU, visit

3 thoughts on “Lynne Quarmby”

  1. Great! And there’s another scientist and longtime environmentalist running for Parliament, namely ecologist Richard Cannings, in Penticton, an NDPer running in his South Okanagan West Kootenay riding.

    The Osoyoos Times quoted him as saying: “Cannings said that as a scientist, biologist and ecologist, some of the issues he cares most about are climate change and rapid resource development.

    People perceive that the Conservative federal government is ramming through projects like the Northern Gateway Pipeline without regard for local people, he said, adding that the Stephen Harper government has labeled pipeline opponents as “terrorists.”

    “I just thought both the direction of that policy and the tone of it was completely wrong,” he said.

    …. Cannings said he gained experience in a quasi-judicial role working for 11 years with the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board and five years with the B.C. Forest Appeals Commission.”

    Here is some of Richard’s track record as a writer, biologist/zoologist and ecologist:
    • 17 yrs registered professional biologist, including a position for 15 years in UBC’s zoology department, and then running his own consulting business when he moved back to the Okanagan, centering on Canada’s birds especially especially species at risk.
    • BC Biologist of the Year award from the Association of Professional Biologists, 1996
    • Author of a dozen award-winning books on the natural history of British Columbia.
    • 8+ years Board member of Nature Conservancy of Canada: May 2006 – Present
    • Frequent guest on CBC radio, especially re: Birds
    • 8 years as co-chair on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada,
    • 11 years on BC Environmental Appeal Board , January 1997 – December 2007 . (The Environmental Appeal Board is an independent tribunal which hears appeals from certain decisions made by government officials related to environmental issues. These decisions include water licenses, contaminated site remediation orders, pesticide permits and the cancellation of hunting licenses, among other things)
    • 5 years on BC Forest Appeals Commission. January 2003 – December 2007
    • Also, not long ago he and New Democrat friend Jim Beattie got a climate change discussion group going in Penticton.

  2. I wish you the very best, Dr. Quarmby–I saw you get arrested up on Burnaby Mountain and I greatly admire your dedication to social and environmental justice. I’m so glad you are a Green candidate–I am one of the disaffected voters who actually decided not to participate in the election this year because I have been so disgusted with party politics and the industry captured governments who support corporations and suppress citizens. Your leader, Elizabeth May, is exactly the tonic we need in Canada to bring us back to a healthy balance in our economic, environmental, and social well-being. I know that she has the highest rating at 51% approval for the best performance of all the political party leaders. I strongly believe that you are of the same nature as Ms. May, and that you will throw yourself into that challenge with your strong foundation for evidence based decision making. I’m looking forward to the election results.

    • Daphne – please reconsider your decision not to vote – millions have died so you could have that right, many don’t have it. It is the bare minimum for every citizen and every human being who has the opportunity. Please read again and VOTE!


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