Former Bencher Norine MacDonald, QCThe road from Bencher to Afghanistan

Former Bencher Norine MacDonald, QC, grew up under the Canadian prairie’s big skies in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Her father was a farmer. Many of the people she knew spent long hours in the fields and made regular trips to church. Despite the distance in time and place from her hometown, MacDonald believes that, in many ways, her life in Afghanistan holds those same familiar pieces.

As the founder, President and lead field researcher in Afghanistan for the think tank the Senlis Council, MacDonald — reached on the phone in Paris, France — is based in Kandahar province in the southern part of the country. The Senlis Council, named for the French town in which it was founded, examines global drug policy, world development issues and their relationship with international security. Much of MacDonald’s work is with poppy farmers, who she said are “no different than the type of people I grew up with on the Canadian prairies — hard-working religious folk. It’s just that it’s a different religion.”

After the early morning call to prayer, the Muslim farmers are in the field before dawn. MacDonald described a conversation with a man, who reminded her of her father. “I asked him how old he was when he started farming. He looked at me like, ‘what did I just ask him?’ and he said, ‘whenever I could put one foot in front of the other.’ The people there are very connected to seasons and nature.”

When she left Saskatchewan in her teens and headed for BC, MacDonald never imagined she had embarked on a path that would eventually lead her to a war zone. The first steps she took were unconventional within her family setting. She was the first in her family to go to university. She went on to study law at UBC.

From there she practised at some of Vancouver’s largest firms, eventually becoming a partner at Bull, Housser & Tupper, specializing in commercial litigation, charities and tax law. In 1992 she was elected as a Law Society Bencher. In 1998 she left the practice of law to begin the work that would eventually lead her to found the Senlis Council in 2002.

Looking back, MacDonald said the road that took her to Kandahar looks straight but “it wasn’t. It was a bit of a zigzag — two steps forward and one step back,” she said. “I didn’t have a specific goal in mind, such as I want to go and establish a think tank that looks at these issues.”

MacDonald credits her training at law school and time as a junior to some of BC’s best lawyers with preparing her for what lay ahead in Afghanistan. “I’m using the same skill set and the same training: marshalling facts, writing, advocacy, project management — everything you would do when you’re running a large piece of litigation, for example. I see the similarities every day.”

“I came from a tough prairie family, but when they’re bringing you up in the law firm it ain’t easy. It’s like, get in there and do it and don’t you be whining and sniffling. So you get toughened up. I was junior to some really fantastic lawyers and you never broke a sweat in front of those people. And the other thing they taught you is if somebody’s pushing you around in the courtroom you push back. At the time I thought they were being a bit tough, but if that happens to me now, I think, ‘okay you’re picking on the wrong girl. You don’t know where I come from. I am a member of the British Columbia Bar and now you’re going to see what that means.’ So it’s still in me. And it’s very handy that it is. And I think that if I can say that Senlis Council has had any success, a large part of that is a credit to what I see as the top flight training I got as a lawyer in BC.”

MacDonald’s work through Senlis Council has been featured in both Canadian and international media, such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. She shared her insight with the Canadian government when she testified before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development and the Standing Committee on National Defence. She also appeared before the United Kingdom’s House of Commons’ Defence Committee. In February 2007 the Italian Red Cross awarded her the First Class Medal of Merit for outstanding contribution to international humanitarian cooperation.

Norine MacDonald talks to Afghan PeopleOne of the biggest assignments MacDonald is spearheading is the Poppy For Medicine Project. The Senlis Council believes the key to meeting the international community’s goal of stabilizing the country is resolving Afghanistan’s opium crisis. International counter-narcotics policies have led to attempts to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy crops. Yet impoverished farmers rely on the income from those crops to feed their families. MacDonald has found a potential solution to the opium crisis that also manages to meet another global need. It centres on the fact that poppies can be used to produce morphine instead of heroin.

The International Narcotics Control Board points to a worldwide shortage of opiates for medical use. Outside the six richest countries, much of the world is lacking sufficient pain medication for patients. “Ironically, Afghanistan is one of those countries without enough,” said MacDonald. Under the Senlis Council proposal, Afghans would continue to grow poppies, but would do so to produce morphine.

MacDonald has been doing research on the Poppy For Medicine Project and other Senlis initiatives for three years. During that time she’s been living in houses in Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand. She described where she lives as a walled piece of land with a house and garden inside — a normal Afghan house, “except that mine’s quite nice by Afghan standards.” Despite having a generator for electricity, it’s still cold in the winter. “We sleep in our parkas with our toques on, but we’re warm compared to how most Afghans live. And I have enough food,” she said.

“Afghans love their gardens,” explained MacDonald, “and I have a fantastic gardener, so I have a beautiful little garden with roses. We sit outside a lot and in Afghan society you sit on the floor on a carpet, so we have most of our meals like that. And we drink a lot of tea and talk. So it’s a very nice lifestyle, but for the fact that, of course, we’re living in a war zone.”

And, as one would expect, that war zone comes with many problems. MacDonald calls it “a difficult and deteriorating situation.” She knows people who have been injured in the fighting or killed. “It’s impossible to avoid there. It’s a part of the daily reality.” Nevertheless, MacDonald said she doesn’t feel fear living in Afghanistan.

“One thing I learned about myself is that I can work quite well in that environment. I actually sleep well at night. I don’t know where that came from, but I’m very content and happy, despite the circumstances. I’m making the best use of my talents, so I feel compelled to be there. I feel a real connection to those people, and we need to write reports and get information out about what’s going on there.”

MacDonald’s experiences in Afghanistan have changed the way she sees her home country. “When I go home to Canada, I kind of have reverse culture shock. I observe things differently now. Some of the things I’ve seen in Afghanistan, coming from a very privileged Canadian background, were deeply shocking. I’ve held babies who are skeletons and seen grandmothers who are starving to death. I come home and we have 24/7 electricity and malls full of stuff nobody needs. It’s a radicalizing experience to have part of my head in Vancouver and part of it in Kandahar.”

MacDonald long ago said goodbye to the power suits she wore while practising law in Vancouver. Unlike many western women who choose to follow the dress of Muslim women while in Afghanistan and wear a burka, MacDonald has taken a different approach. “I ended up choosing to dress as a man.” She wears a long baggy top and baggy pants, and “as a nod” to the fact that women are supposed to cover their heads, she wears the same type of cap that Afghan men wear. The whole effect is “quite comfortable for the hot climate.”

As a western woman in Afghanistan, MacDonald is not blind to the risks. A foreign woman in Afghanistan she knows was recently kidnapped and is believed dead. As a westerner — female or male — you’re a target for a Taliban kidnapping or attack, and importantly to MacDonald, “it’s not just a question of my own security. The first thing that happens when you’re kidnapped is your Afghan colleagues are killed. And so, it’s one thing for me to say I’m going to take the risk to be there and continue to do the work, but the risks for my Afghan colleagues who are with me are also very substantial.”

And so MacDonald acknowledges that eventually she will have to move on. Senlis Afghanistan has approximately 50 people working for it, mostly Afghans. MacDonald has said that, once established, the goal was always that it would stand on its own as a voice for Afghans by Afghans. She will go on to establish other Senlis branches in other conflict zones. She recently travelled to Somalia to examine issues there.

No matter which conflict zone she heads to next, MacDonald knows she will continue to do the same type of work she has been doing in Afghanistan, and she encourages other lawyers to do more international work, because she believes their skill set is well suited to it.

“I think back to the long hours and how hard we worked in the law firms and now I’m a pretty tough person because of it all. It’s effortless for me. Hard work? Bring it on. Tough situation? I feel like you should go back and meet some of my former partners if you think this is tough, Mr. Taliban Dude. You have not met my ex-partners. You have not been to a partners’ meeting at a big Vancouver law firm if you think this conversation about this road block is a problem.”

For MacDonald the rewards of the work she is doing continue to outweigh the personal sacrifices.

“The sacrifice is being away from friends and family. But I’m tiring myself out every day trying to sort this out and it feels great. It does not feel like a sacrifice. I feel so lucky. Everybody has inside of them their talents and their aspirations and they want to feel like they’re doing something important and making a contribution. And I’ve got that. I didn’t always have that when I was practising law,” said MacDonald.

“I’ve had moments in Afghan villages in the middle of nowhere where the grandmas say their salaams to me and the kids are holding onto my clothes, and they accept me in their community,” she said. “That is just a spectacular experience for me to be so privileged to be inside their lives in that way. So that’s not a sacrifice. That’s a real gift.”

More information about Norine MacDonald and her work with the Senlis Council, including video links of footage in Afghanistan, can be found at