The Organic Legacy of Mike Leclair

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

Canada’s organic sector – its farmers, its food industry and its exporters - is healthier and more vibrant today because of the work of Mike Leclair.

Leclair, who died of cancer on November 13 at age 53, was an Ottawa bureaucrat with his own way of getting things done.

Instead of maintaining a professional distance from the people he was working for, he was a caring advocate. And the people involved in organic foods that he listened to, debated with, encouraged and guided cared about him in return.

His official title was Senior Market Development Officer for the Organic Product Sector at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Unofficially, he was a modest, hard-working civil servant committed to growing Canada’s youthful organic industry. He succeeded.

This was the picture that emerged following a review of comments from more than a dozen people who worked with Mike Leclair. Many of the comments were two-fold: recognizing his leadership and importance to the organic sector and also his personal way of helping people work together.

“He very much made a difference,” says Dag Falck, organic program manager of Nature's Path Foods Inc. and chair of the Board of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC). “He was always positive, always upbeat, yet quiet and unassuming.”

“Everything from the architecture of our standards and regulations to the market development at home and abroad, I put it squarely at the feet of Mike,” says Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association. “He really had the big picture and was able to articulate it in a way that we were able to see it or believe in it and agree to work through our differences to get there together.”

“Mike Leclair's dedication to the organic sector and his tireless effort to get the organic regulation through are monumental,” says Ted Zettel, president of the Organic Federation of Canada. “For those of us who worked directly with him, he was a gentle, humble, persistent advocate – a family man who looked forward to retiring and raising some organic crops.”

Ralph Martin, founding director of the OACC, says Leclair, who was an OACC board member in the early to mid-2000s, understood the importance of a national organic standard. “I think he saw that if we had a standard it would help to give the organic sector credibility,” says Martin. “The thing about Mike was that as a government bureaucrat he was trying his best to kindly alert us to what needed to be looked after and what needed to be done in order to achieve our goal.”

Several people spoke about Leclair’s influence in moving organic away from an image of a fringe movement within some parts of government to one of credibility. “He was a key to that change because he took us seriously,” says Falck. “He represented us as reasonable people … worthy of supporting.”

“He was completely absorbed by the organic cause and it was wonderful to meet a government person that you did not have to ‘sell’ organics to,” says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers.

Leclair also left his imprint on government colleagues. “Mike acted as a mentor, taught me everything I know about organic and introduced me to key organic stakeholders,” says Nathalie Doré, a co-worker at AAFC. Joe Southell, another former co-worker, recalls travelling across Western Canada with Leclair and that his hard work and easy-going presence – “People liked Mike” – made the meetings go a little smoother.

Holmes says Leclair’s interest in organic was steadfast. “Even after he was off on sick leave, he'd check in and say he missed us … he missed the activity and the discussion and debate … and we really missed him. He was one of us.”

Mike Leclair’s death has left a large gap in the organic sector. The good news is that he was a mentor to many, both inside and outside government.

His legacy is one of example.

When those who knew him or of him gather in the future and face the inevitable tensions, disagreements and discouragements that will come, there may well be moments of quiet reflection – What would Mike do? – and then the way ahead will have a guiding light.

This article was written by Steve Harder on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
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Posted December 2010