The 2012 Liberal Party of Canada biennial convention in Ottawa ended with a party in the old railway building across from the Chateau Laurier. A young MP was dancing nearby; his name was Justin Trudeau and he had a ridiculous goatee. It had been a good, transformative convention. There was a sense that despite being written off in the press, the party wasn’t dead yet.
What stands out in my mind was the conversation I had with my friend, David. This was our first Liberal convention. I was there as a commentator with iPolitics.ca; he was there because his mother was considering standing for Parliament.
Fast forward to this November, on a Skype call I spoke with his mother, now the Hon. Dr. Jane Philpott MP, Canada’s first medical doctor to serve as Minister of Health, and the recently elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Markham-Stouffville, in the GTA.
I wanted to talk with the new minister about three things: her upbringing as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in small-town Ontario, her approach to politics and her task to help admit and resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada.
Philpott was born when her father was still at Knox College, Toronto—an experience I can relate to, as the son of a Presbyterian minister who himself grew up playing on the University of Toronto campus, and whose parents now live in the suburban riding next door to Philpott’s.
Philpott grew up in Hespeler, now part of Cambridge, Ont. Her father, Rev. Wallace Little, was the minister at St. Andrew’s. Philpott is quick to praise her upbringing, and in true Presbyterian fashion notes, “traditions do have an impact,” but more so, “as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, it did have a huge impact on my life. The modeling I got from my parents, that they not only expressed the faith values but lived them out, shaped me …
“The primary thing was to look out for others. I had received an incredible number of opportunities and that required I take on responsibility … we are blessed to be a blessing.”
This is the kind of honest moment Canadians say they want in politics, I suggest, but I wonder how Philpott, who like so many before her campaigned on doing politics differently, can put that promise into practice. “Well, I try to be an eternal optimist,” she notes, before speaking about respect, and noting that she is not unique in her desire to do good through politics; other colleagues in all parties share the same goal.
During the campaign, she refused to refer to a “campaign war chest,” thinking it glorified conflict. It was a small, semantic distinction, but one that somehow resonated, and was no doubt important to a former medical missionary to Africa. While there, she lost a young child to bacterial meningitis en route to hospital in Niger, a tragic, heart-wrenching situation she discussed with The National Post, saying, “We knew that when we went, we were prepared to put everything on the line for our work, as I try to do every day—to say, ‘God, you gave me another day, let me use it for how you need me.’”
It’s a tragic story, one that grounds the minister tasked with admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada.
I ask her how she reacts to the xenophobia towards refugees the West has seen since the terrorist attacks in Paris.
She starts with a play on the party line—“Our government was elected on a mandate to be compassionate”—before conceding, “I try not to be discouraged by the naysayers while listening to all voices, all Canadians … I’ve been overwhelmed by Canadians’ desire to help, who share our vision to help those in need.” But then, she makes a clear pitch to our better angels: “We have to uphold our values, and use those values to serve; we have to be compassionate”.
It’s the third time she’s used the word “compassion” in our seven-minute interview.
(Originally published by The Presbyterian Record.)