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Is Bobby Kennedy pursuing a 'radical ideological agenda'?

Robert F.Kennedy Jr. was in Toronto this week to raise money for his environmental organization the Waterkeeper Alliance.


Here he comes, the embodiment of Joe Oliver's worst nightmares.

Bobby Kennedy is running late, a morning-after effect the environmental movement has learned to expect from a celebrity speaker who draws big crowds and big money to galas that keep him talking long into the night.

Even with a quickly packed hockey bag slung over his shoulder, he looks natty in his trim suit and lawyer tie – much neater than the hotel room he turned into his personal comfort zone while helping to raise funds for an Ontario branch of his Waterkeeper Alliance, which protects endangered waterways.

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"You walk into the bedroom, it's a disaster," jokes his Toronto handler, Mark Mattson, president of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper group, which featured Mr. Kennedy at its Tuesday-night $500-a-person dinner. "He throws things everywhere, and he is completely happy."

A devil-may-care approach to hotel living wasn't exactly the problem Mr. Oliver, the federal Minister of Natural Resources, had in mind last month when he castigated jet-setting celebrity environmentalists who "lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources."

But when you spend as much time on the road as the 58-year-old Mr. Kennedy, leveraging the fame that comes with the family name, at the expense of spending time with your own family – he's a twice-divorced father of six – sometimes you need to stake out patches of normality to call your own.

A sloppy room and a late start to a working day are the trade-offs for the draining displays of passion that his never-ending cause demands on a nightly basis.

And here's the next trade-off: an interview conducted from the luggage-crammed back seat of the pickup truck that is shuttling him to the airport. He is famous for being unable to sit still, so Bobby confined to a moving vehicle is the man at his most accessible.

I look at the back of his head and measure him against Mr. Oliver's criteria for those who "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda."

Celebrity? A Kennedy, one of 11 children in the chaotic brood of JFK's brother Bobby – so the bloodlines are there. And his name has a multiplying effect – supportive stars at a Banff fundraiser last month included Alec Baldwin, Cheryl Hines, Peter Fonda and Marcia Gay Harden.

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Environmentalist? He joined the Riverkeeper organization, forerunner of the Waterkeeper Alliance, to satisfy community-service requirements after a 1983 arrest for heroin possession. He has used his legal training to prosecute polluters, battled lumber companies in B.C. and dam-builders in Quebec, fought to protect New York City's watershed and trained activists at Pace University's Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Jet setter? Well, the airport beckons.

But in the world beyond party politics, it's not so simple. While Mr. Kennedy is a likely target of Mr. Oliver's ire, he refuses to play the part of a meddling alien.

"I think two or three provinces have declared me to be unwelcome," he says, and his weather-beaten face creases into a smile. "But I don't really feel like an outsider in Canada. First, a fifth of the freshwater in the world is here. So it's hard to say you're doing anything about protecting water if you're ignoring Canada. And second, I love this country. My mother's family's from Montreal, I spend 20 per cent of my working life on Canadian issues and at least half of my vacation time in Canada."

Mr. Kennedy may be the best celebrity spokesman the country could have. He admires Canada at a political level, despite Mr. Oliver's comments: "I think Canadians have something that we've lost in the U.S. – there's a stronger sense of community and a more effective democracy."

His vicarious patriotism is also quite personal. "I know in Canada there's always been a strong affection for my family, and I find that very touching. We're all conscious of our Canadian roots. My son went to hockey camp in Canada for many years, and when I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says, 'Canadian.'"

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But above all, Mr. Kennedy likes our country's wilderness. He skis in Banff, digs up dinosaur bones in Grande Prairie, Alta., and relaxes in Ontario cottage country with his friend Dan Aykroyd, but his best memory may be a week spent with his children at a Cree hunting camp near James Bay. "It was a truly amazing experience – we caught sturgeon."

Novelist Joseph Boyden served as host and watched his friend transform from "a man in high demand, with his mind in 100 places at once," to a single-minded environmentalist in his chosen element.

"He looked absolutely at home," said Mr. Boyden, president of the Moose Riverkeeper group. "He's a great fisherman, he can drive a canoe, and when we took rifle target practice, he was a natural. The man walks the walk as well as talking the talk."

In the pickup truck, there's no room for walking. But when Mr. Kennedy talks, he's still all over the map.

I ask where his notes-free rhetorical confidence comes from. "I don't really know, but when we were young, we had to deliver a speech at the dinner table every Sunday night, a biography or a poem we'd memorized. I think our parents were trying to inculcate us with the sense that we were part of something larger than ourselves."

For much of the drive, he reflects on the nature of propaganda, and how it relates to attacks on people like him.

He weaves a narrative that connects Edward Bernays, "the father of propaganda," with Joseph Goebbels, Henry Ford, the manufacturing of desire on Madison Avenue, and the rise of the Tea Party aided by multimillionaires who "spend $200-million trying to persuade people that global warming doesn't exist and that environmentalists are bad people trying to hoodwink you for their own nefarious purposes."

He doesn't see himself as nefarious – he's a lawyer using environmental hearings and lawsuits to get better answers and wiser decisions.

The environmental movement has long run the risk of being both elitist in its preservationist values and extremist in its doomsday messaging – characterizations Mr. Oliver tapped into. Though his pedigree makes him an easy target, Mr. Kennedy has tried to create an organization with more everyday values.

So, with the Lake Ontario campaign, the selling point is the notion that the lake should be swimmable, drinkable and fishable, a goal that can't be denounced as a radical.

"The Waterkeepers talk about communities," he says. "We don't send out letters saying the world is going to end."

The airport looms, and he's ready to jump. I quickly ask about the zoo he kept as a child, a menagerie considered too dangerous for his more sheltered Kennedy cousins. "There was a lot of chaos," he says. "I had 10 brothers and sisters," he adds, which apparently explains everything.

At least it accounts for his love of falconry, a pastime that seems pleasing in a man who is constantly being stereotyped. "I was just flying my birds on Sunday," he says dreamily.

And then he is gone, hockey bag on his shoulder, looking for his airline, part of the larger crowd perpetually on the move.

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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