Monday, May 30, 2011

Another Reminder of Ottawa

The Canadian Assoc of Former Parliamentarians sends out a newsletter every quarter. In the Spring 2011 edition in the section "Behind the Curtains" there was an article titled "When MPs Resign"  Along with a picture of an angry disheveled British MP the author noted that "members cross the floor and occasionally ministers are forced to step down, but rarely do MPs resign their seats mid-term". Reading the article brought back so many of the memories of my own experience I submitted the following letter to the editor. I hope they publish it.....

I always enjoy reading the articles and viewpoints of my colleagues in each issue of Beyond the Hill. The article in the Spring 2011 newsletter written by Ada Wasiak on “When MPs resign” caught my eye and my heart in a special way. The question “Why would anyone give up such a secure high paying job?” reminded me of the profound common experience that I shared while in Ottawa as an MP from 1993 to 1997 and how different my life has been since that time because of the choice that I made to resign.

As the article mentions, the process of tendering an MP resignation is not complicated. However both reasons and consequences are difficult and often negative. Allow me to share some of my experience.

In my case, my 51 year old husband was in a coma from a sudden massive brain hemorrhage when the writ was dropped for the June 1993 Federal Election, Consequently, I did not campaign in that election. Thanks to the gifted work of the physicians, my husband survived. Thanks to the hard work of my team, and a supportive electorate, I won my second mandate to represent the people of Port Moody Coquitlam.

That summer, I kept up with the constituency work while juggling the demands of being support and advocate for the care and rehabilitation of my husband. Those first weeks and months are crucial in the determination of the final outcome for brain injury. In September, we became aware that all of Doug's hard work could only take him so far. He was deemed legally blind and it became clear the cognitive deficits would forever prevent him from driving, working, or even participating in his much loved outdoor hobbies like fishing and hiking. Parliament was recalled in late September. Doug plunged into clinical depression about the same time.

I returned to Ottawa and soon realized that a choice would have to be made. I could answer the demands of the trust that my constituents had placed in me, or I could choose to be the support my husband needed to survive.

Party leadership had said that they would cover for me if I needed some time, but I knew this required a long term solution..I will always remember my walk of decision behind Centre Block and a half hour meeting with Gib Parent, Speaker and Chuck Strahl. They reviewed the rules. They encouraged me to measure my decision carefully. There would be no pension. There would be no severance.

It was a long flight home that day. The next day, Wednesday, Oct 2, 1993 I watched QP with Doug by my side when the resignation was announced. Preston Manning explained the situation to the House. Then, much to my surprise, there were spontaneous statements from each party – statements of affirmation and caring from Jean Chretien, Elsie Wayne, and others. Then life changed.

It has been 14 years since that time. Doug remains healthy yet dependent. Life as a caregiver keeps us close to home. Although I have not been politically involved , I have watched national and even international events unfold with deeper understanding. Time has given me new perspective on issues and events of my Ottawa years of change and challenge. My Coquitlam focus remains firmly on family both personally and in my volunteer activity. I may not have the title or resources of so many of my colleagues, but I know I made the right personal choice.

I thank those who now serve in Ottawa for their dedication and a recognition of the importance of the task they perform..I am also grateful for the connection through the CAFP magazine to the continuing involvements and influence of those that have retired..I thank you for allowing me to share this perspective from a long way Beyond the Hill.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Time to set the record straight

When I first ran for political office, I made it clear that my motivation was to stand for families, in my community and in the nation's capital. At the time “family” was not a politically correct word but I was convinced that the strength of our country came not from government but from families strong enough to forge strong communities. It's interesting to me that now, in 2011 as we face another federal election, all parties – even our new BC Provincial leader- make lip service to “family” in their platform. Little did I know this sincere motivation almost 20 years ago would take me into a 5 year maelstrom of controversial policy development and discussion.

In the years from 1993 to 1997, the Liberal government was forging new social policy directions - in direct opposition to the will of many Canadians. Within a few months of arriving in Ottawa, I was voted Chair of Reform's Family Caucus. Within a month, we were facing a Bill that proposed the introduction of “Sexual Orientation” into criminal justice legislation, then the Human Rights Act. Soon after we were debating the “Definition of Family” as a party and as a nation. The next 4 years held many challenging lessons for this novice politician and homemaker. I remember when a reporter first asked if I would call myself a “Social Conservative” – I didn't even know what that meant!

So many of these family issues were controversial and the Reform Party's social policy development was in its infancy– from Definition of Family to Age of Consent, to Spousal Support laws. No wonder my wiser colleagues were so kind as to make me their spokesperson! 

It was a privilege to speak for the many concerned individuals and groups that connected  with the Ottawa office - from all cultures and backgrounds. However, I soon learned that those that had prepared the way for these social changes were ready to fight back. I soon learned too that the media controlled the messaging.

I stepped down in October 1997. Reports of my resignation explained that I had won the election for Port Moody Coquitlam in June, that my husband had suffered a brain hemorrhage at the same time and that I had now chosen to step down in order to care for him. But then several papers included a reference to a news release from several years earlier. The reports stated that it was this release by which “ I was best known”. As I have had no public platform since that time, I feel this attempt to redefine my purpose needs to be addressed. I would like to set the record straight.

Let me give the background about this particular news release. It was in the summer of 1995 that a staff member made me aware of an article put out by the pro-family organization Focus on the Family in the States and known to the American Congress. Both Canada and the U.S. were facing many of the same challenging issues through that time. This article had to do with Focus' ongoing campaign against abortion but it was much more graphic and hard hitting than their previous letters. Probably because of the upcoming U N Women's Conference in Beijing, this article highlighted the existing one-child policy in Communist China, the purported sale of organs from political prisoners and then concentrated on the reported abuse of foetal parts in that country for medicinal use. It even made reference to "cannibalism" in an effort to underline both the horror of abortion and this inhumanity towards the pre-born. I insisted that the staffer thoroughly verify sources. Against my better judgement, I finally agreed to let them submit it to our communications people. To my surprise, it was released to the national media. It appeared in several newspapers and there was several days of feedback.  I did not re-release the story after that but did receive 1 or 2 calls throughout the remainder of my term in office. There were many other stories with “longer legs” released from my 4 years in office including both local and national issues. Thus my surprise, when this one article was resurrected and described in detail as a major event at my resignation.

Thankfully, there has been no evidence of the truth of that story since that time. Frankly I did not intend for it to be released. In no way did I intend to discredit any nationality or group of people then or since. I believe far more harm was done in that regard by those who used the story in what i can only assume to be a political way . But it was a mistake to allow the staff to submit it and I must bear that responsibility. I sincerely apologize to any who have been offended in any way.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Boxes, boxes, everywhere

I am finally opening boxes that were shipped home from Ottawa 14 years ago. As I unseal them one by one, it is amazing to read again the record of so much that was so vital in those days. I am reminded again of the cataclysmic changes of that year.

My departure from Ottawa was sudden. It was April 23, 1997 and I had just returned from a reception at the Governor General's Residence honouring the 10th anniversary Man In Motion ride of Rick Hanson. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and hear him speak hope and strength into the lives of those there, many of whom had battled both the physical and psychological effects of severe injury, Little did I know that my own family stood at the threshold of a similar experience.

The call came about 2:00 pm that afternoon. It was my daughter Kathy and I still remember each word she said. “Mom, come home. Dad has had a heart attack”. When I arrived at the hospital on the far side of the country it was not just a heart attack, but a massive brain hemorrhage - the side effect of the experimental medication he had been given – that threatened to take his life. He was in a coma. I signed for immediate emergency brain surgery. That was a Wednesday – and on the Sunday, while Doug hung between life and death, the 1997 Federal election was called.

On the request of my election team, I let my name stand in that election but they knew I could not campaign. Much to the surprise of my opponents, I won decisively, . But then, 4 months later, the limits of Doug's recuperation became apparent and the reality of permanent cognitive and visual impairment compounded into massive depression and loss of hope.

I stepped down Oct 1, 1997. I still remember the conversation the day before with the Speaker in his chambers . Both he and my Reform colleagues assured me I could take time off if needed and it would be OK. But I knew this was more than temporary. I took my “walk in the snow” around the back of the Parliament buildings with tears pouring down my face. I knew I would have to make a choice and that Doug's life literally depended on that choice. The decision was made but I was warned that it must not be known before the Speaker's official announcement – or it would be fodder for the ubiquitous Ottawa political spin. I arranged to fly home to watch the next day's Question Period proceedings on TV with Doug by my side.

That session was pretty amazing. I could hear the surprise from all sides as the announcement was made. Preston of course had been advised and he rose to explain and thank me for my stand for families in Ottawa. Than each party in turn – every party was represented, even the Prime Minister - gave an impromptu word of appreciation and hope to us, followed by a standing ovation of the whole House.

Politics can be exhausting. It can be cruel. But I was reminded that day, that if you strip away the political messaging and mandarins, the people there care as deeply, and understand as profoundly as any of us. That was a moment in time I will always treasure.

And so my staff had to close up and clean up the 2 offices. My political life was loaded, sealed and sent across the country in about 20 boxes. The change was so sudden and complete that, in a way, it's hard to believe those years really happened but for the files that I now review.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Piano and a Chair

We have just jettisoned our couch and brought up our century-old baby grand piano that had been relegated to the basement when we moved here 5 years ago. I have decided that it is more important to enjoy this instrument than to have the formalities of a regular living room. Music has always been part of my life – with Grade 8 Royal Conservatory for me and then both of our girls. As an adult, I have played mostly for my own enjoyment. As an MP, there were many times I would return from the airport and feel so much more “home” when I could sit down and fill the house with the melodies of my heart tunes. I call this piano my therapist – how often in the darkest days of Doug's depression after his stroke and resulting brain injury, I would find comfort and hope in the words of the hymns I learned when I was young. While my fingers played the tunes, my heart would rehearse the words I knew so well. Music is special. And to think my grandchildren are beginning to learn now as well! Just today, Doug and I visited my daughter for lunch and heard the 2 boys, ages 4 and 6, play their latest lessons on their new piano. It's 3 fingers, only on the black keys – but oh what potential! I'll share that scene with you....

A corollary of this piano move has been the arrival of my green Parliamentary Chair in the nook of the baby grand. Until now, this prized chair has been hidden away in an upstairs bedroom. Now it has a place. It is very special. In January, 1998, 3 months after my resignation as MP, I was invited to a caucus meeting in Vancouver. When I chose to step down, Doug was realizing the effects of his brain injury - loss of all things that meant life to him - and was falling into a severe depression. Those days were dark and long. At that Caucus meeting, I was surprised to be called to the platform by Preston Manning. There, he presented me with this chair – purchased by the Caucus for me as a farewell tribute. It represents not only the work and relationships of those few years, but the passion that took me to Ottawa and then, as recognized that day, the passion that brought me home again.

Its interesting how our everyday decisions and even the objects in our lives come alive with the stories from our past. It is no wonder that older people find it so difficult to “downsize”. Viewed from the outside, an old chair can simply seem dated or worn. Viewed from the heart, it carries the personalities and even the dreams of the past. Even as I spend time with a friend this week in her need to move to a supportive living complex, I hope I can meaningfully relate to her memories and the emotional attachments to the things she will have to leave behind.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Starting up

Its a bold new world for all of us as technology stretches both our abilities and our understanding. A friend has recently challenged me to participate in this new arena of blogging and I must admit I feel a little lost regarding the impact and relevance to my presently quiet, private life. However, I am willing to give it a try, so here goes.
My life has seen both the mundane and the extremes. It seems it is in 3 parts. Until I passed 40 plus years I was essentially a stay at home mom., Then I ran successfully in 2 federal elections. My political career suddenly ended when I stepped down to become caregiver for my 51 year old husband Doug after a massive brain hemmorhage. The pace and responsibilities of this last role have evolved over the last 14 years, with the added title of Grandma happily added to the mix.
Until now I have not taken time to "see the bigger picture" in review. Can I clarify and engage  ideas and experiences both for my own sake and for those who may have traveled similar roads at different times? Time will tell. At the very least, I look forward to shedding light on the significant moments and thus move forward into new perspectives and possibilities in the years that lie ahead. I would love to have you join me on this road.