The federal elections will take place next Monday, October 21st. Vince Nigro interviewed Carolyn Ann Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs for “Here’s the Thing” (Camões TV). Before entering the world of politics, Bennett worked as a family physician for 20 years. The sense of responsibility and willingness to improve the health system led her to politics. As a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, she was Minister of State for Public Health and established the Public Health Agency of Canada. Moreover, Carolyn Bennett has been the Member of Parliament for Toronto-St. Paul for the last 22 years and this upcoming election she reapplies for the job she loves.
VN: How did you got involved in politics?
CB: I have always considered myself as an accidental tourist in politics. I became very involved in the fight to keep Women’s College Hospital independent. We did it and after that, the Liberal Party called me asking If I would consider running. At the moment I didn’t understood my place in politics, but now I know politics are exactly that, fighting for something you believe in.
I accepted, it was a provincial election in 1995 and I lost it. For me, it was about Health Care, the system seemed to be falling down around us, we needed the voice of the patients, providers and caregivers at the table were decisions got taken.
In the late 90’s, Barry Campbell, member of Parliament, insisted that I should run federally. At the federal level and later as the Minister of State for Public Health in Paul Martin’s Government, we could execute the original goal, the prevention part. From poverty, to equity, violence, environment, shelter and education, all that was important to keep people well.
I have been in politics ever since 1997, I took very seriously the democracy between elections, town hall meetings, neighbourhood check-ups, summit with all elected representatives twice a year. It’s humbling reapplying for your job.
VN: Your dynamics are very diverse from the east to the west ridings.
CB: The population demographics is different in each part; the ridings turn over 50% each time. Over the years you learn how important the community is, specially to build a country.
VN: Considering your background as a doctor. When you arrived in Ottawa, did you felt like a fish out of water?
CB: My first few years were very difficult. In my first year in Ottawa my mom got very sick, I found somehow that there wasn’t the collegiate I expected. I found it very competitive, but the opportunities were huge.
Then I’ve became Chair of Women Caucus and I realized we could do more as a caucus of 40 women that came together. This is a team sport, you can’t do very much on your own. Using the same approaches as I did as a Physician, I would ask what’s wrong, listen and plan how we could help.
As a doctor, you’re working in an individual way. I had amazing coaches that really made a difference.
VN: How do you see the leaders you have worked with?
CB: I wasn’t in Mrs. Chrétien Cabinet. He wasn’t particularly happy with my frankness at times, but eventually we got along.
Paul Martin was amazing. Right after the SARS outbreak, we didn’t know where it came from, how to treat it, the only way was to prevent it. He made the position of Minister of State for Public Health and I was referred to it.
Under Prime-Minister Trudeau we are able to work in a complete Government way. He inserted Crown in my title considering that my responsibility with First Nations is across all government departments. We had to change from the paternalism and the colonial ways to something that really respected their rights, making it feel like a partnership. Every six weeks we have a meeting, where we discuss how he can help removing the barriers so I can make my job to the best of my abilities.
VN: It seems like there is an open dialogue. Do you like were Trudeau is leading the Party and the Country?
CB: Absolutely, it’s about inclusion. It’s about values. When we look at the budgets or the platform, the solutions are presented because we have heard what people were saying and brought those questions to Ottawa. We are proud that since 2015, the platform commitment is at 92%, either fully accomplished or well on their way. We have to do what we promise. The idea is that every Minister needs to go back to their mandate letter and see how they are doing on delivering it. Trough values of inclusion it’s the only way to deal with Canada, we are so much richer because of the communities that choose to come and work here.
VN: Knocking on doors, what kind of feedback are you getting?
CB: People are happy to see us, they are grateful. A few people have specific issues and I’m always interested to know what we can do better. I think affordability is the most important topic.
Thru the national housing strategy, we are able to reduce homelessness by 50%, helping people buy their first home and we also need to build more rental housing. The subsidies that will come next year will make a difference. People are disappointed, because the Conservatives say they will make housing more affordable but there are no plan or platform to do so.
The increase in the guaranteed income supplement makes a big difference, along with child benefits. In the poorest communities, the teachers notice the children have proper coats and boots. Child poverty has been dropped by a third.
Regarding to climate change, people want to know we are doing something. There are plans than we haven’t promoted as we should. There’s a 70-billion-dollar plan, we have put a price on carbon, did investments in public transit with new electric buses. Moreover, it’s fundamental to have a partnership with municipalities.
VN: Regarding climate change and the protests that have happened in the last weeks around the globe. It’s people like you, that will go back to Ottawa and do those policy changes. What have you thought about it?
CB: I’ve always been someone that enjoys the engagement and a good cause. At the Cabinet you need to fight to defend what you think is right, if people are really engaged on a topic it’s easier. You need to look not just to the ambition of a climate plan but also to its feasibility – only the Liberal plan got an A on feasibility. People are choosing between a government that wants to do something about climate change and a government that denies it or has a very weak plan.
VN: The LRT along Eglinton. Do you like that particular model?
CB: That is not a federal project. I have lived south of Eglinton and this has been done before, that’s why people are frustrated. Is there any masterplan? Governments keep changing their minds instead of trying to understand, we need rapid transit along that route. On St. Clair it has improved significantly.
VN: How do you think the process with the Indigenous Community is evolving?
CB: What we did with the Indian Act, creating all these little villages, that weren’t sustainable… In those 10 years of Conservative government, the indigenous people were listed as advisories. It has been transformational to be part of a Government that is committed to indigenous rights and recognizing those rights.
For us the important is to help nations to reconstitute and take on their own Laws and Government like the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario that have their own school system.
With almost 20 billion dollars investments, we are on track to get the water sources issue resolved, we have been building schools, helping them finish high school, get them to post-secondary education and deal with real issues around trauma and suicide.
We have to keep going.
It’s been an honour to have this job and the Prime-Minister support.