How these female politicians dealt with the ‘unspeakable loneliness’ of Ottawa 

At an event this week, three of Canada’s most prominent former MPs peeled back the curtain on the realities of being a woman in politics 
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 22, 2020
Jane Philpott, Lisa Raitt, and Megan Leslie appeared at a symposium on public-sector leadership, hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, on Monday night. (Steve Paikin)

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Anyone who’s even somewhat followed national politics over the past few years knows that Jane Philpott experienced one of the most unusual terms ever as a parliamentarian.

Elected for the first time in the 2015 contest that saw the Liberals catapult from third place to majority government, Philpott quickly became known as one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most talented and effective problem solvers. An opioid crisis? Get Jane on it. Twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees to resettle? Get Jane on it. Too many First Nations reserves where you still can’t drink the water? Get Jane on it.

And, of course, you know that it all ended very suddenly. Ten months ago, Philpott resigned from cabinet because of a dispute over how the PM was handling the SNC-Lavalin scandal. She ran for re-election last October as an independent, but a loss brought her political career to an end (at least for now) after just one term.

Philpott consistently demonstrated a strength of conviction not often seen in partisan politics. Whether you supported her decision to resign on a point of principle or thought she deserved expulsion from the Liberal caucus for showing inadequate loyalty to her political tribe, you can’t think she lacked backbone.

And, yet, this week, she told a story about having to build up her nerve before a recent appearance at a prestigious Commonwealth Fund conference in Washington, D.C. — which involved speaking in front of a roomful of some of the smartest academics in the world.

“Just as I was leaving my hotel room to go down to the conference, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said out loud, ‘You rock. And you belong.’”

Philpott told that story on Monday night at Victoria College at a symposium of the David Peterson Program in Public Sector Leadership, a lecture series supported by Ontario’s 20th premier and former chancellor of the University of Toronto.

The evening featured three of Canada’s most prominent former female MPs: Philpott, Lisa Raitt (Conservative MP, 2008-19), and Megan Leslie (NDP MP, 2008-15). What was astonishing about the evening was how refreshingly and brutally honest all three ex-politicians were about their former public lives.

Moderator Paul Wells, of Maclean’s, brought his characteristically impish sense of humour to the proceedings, introducing the trio by saying, “They all have something in common — they were all defeated at the polls by Liberals.”

Despite being known as three of the strongest and most talented politicians on Parliament Hill, all three women confessed to having struggled with feelings of inadequacy after their elections.

“I walked into caucus after winning the 2008 election,” Leslie recalled. “There’s Jack Layton. There’s Olivia Chow. And all I could do was ask myself, ‘How did I get here?’ Talk about suffering from imposter syndrome.”

For Leslie and so many other women in public life, there just haven’t been enough female political role models over the years to give newbies the confidence that they belong.

Lisa Raitt shared that she hadn’t been able to “get my head around the politics of the job” — the need to be so resolutely tribal. Leslie said she’d also found that a challenge.

“There’s this thing about female friendship,” Leslie began. “I’d get together with Lisa Raitt and [Conservative MP] Michelle Rempel, and people would say to me, ‘How can you hang out with them? They’re the devil!’”

Leslie went on to reveal that “you have to find allies where you can find them.” One time, she was embroiled in a traumatic situation on the Hill and found she just couldn’t confide in any fellow New Democratic caucus mates, because they were either men or much older than she was. (Leslie was only 35 years old when first elected.)

“I needed someone to talk to,” she recalled, “and I didn’t call my leader Tom Mulcair. I called Lisa Raitt in tears. To think, I called a Conservative! But I trusted her. I knew she wouldn’t stab me in the back. And she talked me off the wall.”

“And then you called for my resignation!” Raitt laughed.

“That was the voice of Tom Mulcair speaking!” Leslie came back.

“What you quickly realize,” Raitt continued, “is that when you’re put in a pressure situation, we actually have a lot in common.”

More than a quarter century ago, former prime minister Kim Campbell referred to the “unspeakable loneliness of Ottawa,” something Raitt said she could relate to.

“It’s very lonely,” she confessed. Her children were four and seven when she first won election, and, she said, “They were my refuge. I just wanted to be a normal hockey mom, but, because you’re a politician, it’s hard for anyone to see you as normal.”

As a New Democrat, Leslie never experienced life as a cabinet minister, but as deputy leader of her party, she did come to understand the limits placed on what she could say. “I wasn’t super-comfortable in what that turned into,” she said. Leslie got into politics to fight for social justice, for the poor, and for sex workers. “I stopped paying as much attention to those issues because I was nervous about saying things as deputy leader on behalf of the party. I just wanted to be the biggest team player.”

Leslie feared she was becoming “more and more plastic” and said that,  if she hadn’t been defeated in 2015, she’d almost certainly have declined to run again in 2019.

Both Raitt and Philpott were cabinet ministers, and both noted that, even in a world of gender-balanced cabinets, some roles still seem to be reserved for men. For example, there have been 42 finance ministers since Confederation — not one has been a woman. In Ontario, there have been 37 finance ministers since 1867 — only two have been female.

“Not all cabinet jobs are equal,” Raitt said. “Women tend not to get line-item responsibility.”

And, beyond that, many women are nervous about exercising their authority — although, as Paul Wells pointed out, Philpott doesn’t seem to have been one of them.  

“Life is short,” Philpott said. “Maybe subconsciously, I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever. I felt the burden of opportunity.”

Before getting into politics, Philpott had been a doctor in Stouffville. “Three days after getting elected, I was surprised to get a call saying I was being vetted for a cabinet job,” she recalled. Soon after, she was appointed minister of health in a country where six to eight people were dying of opioid overdoses every day. “And I had the opportunity to make decisions to help save lives,” she said. So she did.

“Being a cabinet minister is the hardest I’ve worked in my life,” Philpott said. “It’s 18 hours a day.”

“And every minute of your day is owned by someone else,” Raitt echoed.

To be clear, these ex-MPs weren’t complaining about the job. They referenced former prime minister Paul Martin’s line that “you can get more done in a week in government than you can in a year on the outside.” Having said that, Raitt admitted that, by the time she’d lost her seat in the 2019 election, she was “quite burned out,” adding, “The job is all-consuming. And you should be burned out when you’re done. There’s no work-life balance. But that’s not the job.”

“It’s not really a job,” Leslie added. “It’s a vocation. It’s a calling.”

Nowadays, Leslie is CEO of the World Wildlife Fund; Raitt just got a job this month with CIBC as vice-chair of global investment banking; and Philpott is serving as a volunteer special adviser on health for Nishnawbe Aski Nation (she’s a former Indigenous Services minister). She’ll also be doing some speaking, writing, and teaching until she settles down into a more formal and permanent gig. 

These three women are proving three things: there is life after politics; they do rock; and they do belong. And, no doubt, they’re serving as role models for other women who are wondering whether there’s a place for them in the public life of this country.  

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