Anne McLellan

Interviews

 Back
June 11, 2009

Anne McLellan

former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

“Certainly networking with women is important, and that is one of the things I talk about when I go out and talk about why we don’t have more women in politics.” - Anne McLellan

iKNOW Politics: You were elected to the Canadian House of Common for 13 years and you’ve been a Senior Cabinet Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Canada; what challenges have you faced as a woman in these leadership positions and how did your past experience as a law professor and Dean of the law faculty prepare you to meet these challenges?

Well first of all, let me answer that last question, because while obviously you can stand for political office from any background, I do think it helps if you have a basic understanding of our constitution, our system of governance, the difference between a parliamentary democracy and a republican system of government. They are not different essentially but, to me, I guess it is basic civics. Unfortunately, we don’t teach civics anymore in our schools.

So, I just think if you have that legal training, you understand naturally, you feel comfortable with the framework in which laws are made, you understand a great deal more about how laws are made, the process, the importance of language in making laws. At committee, where you have the clerk of the committee and expert witnesses; often the language used is not that familiar to people of certain backgrounds, whereas if you have a legal background, not all, but a lot of that comes a lot more naturally. So I would say that you can be an outstanding member of parliament from virtually any background but having a legal background helps.

The first question, challenges: I think, one of the big challenges for women, and I’ve talked a lot about this as I talk to women across the country about why more of them don’t stand for elected office, I think the big challenge is accommodating or trying to make sure you have some kind of balance in your life around work, and if you’re in federal politics in a big country like Canada, the geographic distance is so great, you’re away from home and the parliament is sitting probably 4 days a week; how do you balance that with any kind of normal family life?

And especially if you have children and smaller children, we know Statistics Canada tells us women are still the primary caregivers. That’s changing a little bit, men are stepping up to the plate more and more in families but women are still the primary caregivers. Is it possible to make that balance work? I think that’s the question a lot of women ask themselves if they’re running for federal office in a country as large and complex as Canada.

So I think that is something we need to talk honestly about with other women, to learn from their experiences, but also we have to talk about those kinds of issues in our families. Too often I think a decision may be made without fully understanding the pressures and the challenges, and all of a sudden you have one member of the family saying: “Hey, this isn’t what I signed on for” and I’ve seen that happen with a number of my female colleagues and its hard. It is hard and I think we just need to be honest about acknowledging that and figuring out how we can make that work at a given time in our lives.

iKNOW Politics: What first inspired or motivated you to go into politics?

It was probably my mother. My mother was an elected municipal official and she ended her political career as a deputy reeve of our county in Nova Scotia where I was brought up. My mother was English; she came to Canada after the war and met my father. She was an only child, I think only children tend to be fairly assertive, and they’re very verbal people and they’re used to being treated like adults from the time they’re born.

My mother was very much out there and you get used to being around a powerful, assertive woman; you get used to having people coming to the house to solicit her opinion on issues and look up to her in terms of helping solve their problems. We got our first TV in 1955, I’m revealing how old I am, and it was the first television in our rural village of 450 people in Nova Scotia. And mom and dad would sit us down every night and we would watch the news and we would talk about these issues. It was a political environment in which I was brought up but I suppose when I think about the role model that was most influential and led me to believe that women, if you put your mind to it, can do just about anything in spite of the challenges, that would be my mother.

iKNOW Politics: In your first election campaign, you won by only 11 votes - what advice would you have for other women who are facing very tight elections?

Anything is possible and don’t give up. You know, you work up into the very last moment in terms of knocking on doors, calling people, trying to get people to get out there and vote for you, convincing people that you’re the right candidate for that riding. I was a Liberal running in Alberta, we hadn’t elected Liberals in Alberta in 25 years, since 1968. I went into the election not thinking I would win.

My campaign team was largely but not exclusively women, my campaign manager was a woman, the reason I ran in 1993 or worked for the nomination which we got in December of ’92 was because a group of women, with a couple of wonderful men, but largely women, had come to me in the summer of 1992 and said: “we’ve heard you speak about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and we really think you should do this”.

I had been involved in the party my whole life, I grew up in a Liberal family in Nova Scotia. As I moved from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick to Alberta, I was involved with the party but more in terms of policy or organization supporting other candidates but this group of people suggested to me that this was something I could do, should do. Anything is possible and if you work hard you never know what the result will be.

iKNOW Politics: As Minister of Justice, you introduced Canada’s first integrated anti-terrorist legislation after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. You became the first minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. What stereotypes did you have to overcome in this non-traditional role for women and what message do you think your success sends to other women?

I don’t think I had to overcome any stereotypes. I think that by the time I was Minister of Public Safety, people did not doubt that I was strong enough or tough enough to do the job - I had a good sense of all of government. I chaired various standing committees of cabinet. It was my fourth cabinet portfolio and I was also Deputy Prime Minister. I had a good sense of what was required to get people to work together, which is what you have to do when dealing with public safety and public security – you have to get people past turf protection and thinking about how they share information, how we integrate that information, analyze it and get it to people who are in the business of safety and security and law enforcement in a way that that makes a difference.

I’m not convinced that there were stereotypes of me as a woman that got in my way. I had already been one of the longest serving Justice Ministers in Canada, and people by then had a pretty firm view of my philosophical approach of justice issues. I’d already reformed the youth justice legislation – which had been a huge fight; we changed our criminal code in regards to organized crime – trying to deal with some of the really tough issues in terms of the globalization of organized crime.

I think people knew that I was strong enough or tough enough to do this. If anything, there were probably people in some communities who thought that I was too tough - that I was going too far after 9/11 with that terrorist legislation, it was very controversial. I spent my time in politics doing a lot of very controversial things – I don’t know why, it followed me around – when I was Health Minister, I had to deal with SARS – my time as Minister of Health is sort of defined by SARS. As Justice Minister: the youth justice reform, the anti-terrorism legislation; when I was Minister of Natural Resources: the oil sands, the beginning of the debate between energy development and global warming.

iKNOW Politics: What would you perceive as your greatest accomplishment during your time in government, particularly when it comes to women or young women?

I think my greatest accomplishment is probably just being there, beating all the odds four elections out of five. Also, there was the issue of gun control which was a difficult issue for someone being elected as a Liberal from Alberta, but believing in my gut that gun control was the right thing. That doesn’t mean we got all the details right, it doesn’t mean that we developed the program as efficiently as we should have, but knowing in your gut that gun control is the right thing to do, it makes a safer society, and when you’re talking about safety, you’re often talking about the safety of women and their children.

People pretend that, with long-guns, you’re trying to criminalize hunters and in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As we know in rural Canada, women die from long-guns used by partners, husbands, whoever against them. I think there are times and issues where you have to stand up and say: “I know there is a political cost to this, but I believe that this is the right thing and we stay the course”.

iKNOW Politics: You were chair of the Liberal Party’s renewal task force on women, and you held meetings across the country with women. What did you learn from this process?

Actually, the meetings became less partisan over time. They started out being meetings of Liberal women but ethnic women wanted to come, aboriginal women, equal voice, the Edmonton YWCA initiative, one woman one vote – they actually started to involve larger groups of women that weren’t necessarily Liberals. I guess the thing I learned was that there are very clear reasons why more women are not seeking elected office. There are three main reasons but the number one reason, what we talked about earlier, is what we call work/life balance.

It is very hard for women to see a line of sight between their responsibilities as a mother and wife or partner, and being away from home four days a week, 30 weeks a year for an extended period of time. That’s the number one reason women do not stand for elected office. The other two reasons are interesting too: the culture of politics, women don’t like what they see as the overly-aggressive partisan approach to politics – they don’t like the language that’s used – that it’s a sport, a fight, actually we use a lot of military language in politics – we talk about campaigns, we talk about the fight – we talk about opponents, we talk about defeat or victory.

That’s language that I suppose is generic, but it’s also the language of war and I think a lot of women feel uncomfortable with some of the language that’s used. I thought our former premier actually encapsulated unintentionally the reason women find the culture of politics so difficult. When asked about politics, he said, upon his retirement: “You know, politics is a blood sport, it’s a man’s game”. You know all that language that just puts women off.

Then, the third reason that was identified by the young women’s forum was that they don’t like the way the media depict women – they really paid attention to what happened to Belinda Stronach when she crossed the floor – and how the media described that event and how the discussion of the event was less about the merits of floor crossing but more about Belinda as a person. I think the way the media treat women in politics is also something that really puts women off.

iKNOW Politics: Do you think that networking with other women, particularly women’s caucuses or an international network like iKNOW Politics, has helped you in your career?

Certainly networking with women is important, and that is one of the things I talk about when I go out and talk about why we don’t have more women in politics. I think mentoring is important, role models are important, networking is important. You can have formal and informal networking – or formal and informal mentorship programs in places of work and in politics. If you’re going to do it well with quantifiable outcomes, you need some kind of formal program of mentoring. I am convinced, the more I talk to women of all ages that mentoring is important – that they need people who have been there, who have lived through this, who have lived through the ups and the downs, the bad and the good to help them understand what its all about.

iKNOW Politics: How do you see ways that women can work with men in order to encourage more women to run for politics and to be more effective in politics?

I’ve always worked reasonably well with men, in part because when I went to law school in 1971 that was the first year any significant number of women went to law school. During my early career I was working in areas that were primarily male. When I went to law school from ’71-’74, it was the beginning of women in law schools in larger numbers. Then when I started law teaching I was the first tenure-tracked professor at the University of New Brunswick Law School.

I was the only woman, they had one sessional before I showed up, but I was their first tenure track female professor. I would go to law society meetings in New Brunswick to represent the law school, I would be the only women in the room because the hierarchy in the law society was still all male because there were so few women. That changed, through the 1980s you started to see more women in law school, more and more women as lawyers and judges. Then, when I became Minister of Natural Resources, I started going back to rooms of all men because there weren’t many women in the oil and gas business, in the mining industry, the forestry industry. I kept going on this roller coaster ride.

Women and men, we roughly represent 50% of the population and we have to get along. We have to figure out how we make our world a better place, how we have safe and secure communities where we prosper, how we make sure the division of labor at home is such that both men and women can be productive members of society. Men still have the majority of positions of power and influence whether its in business, whether it is in law firms, whether it is in politics, universities. It makes no sense for us to automatically assume they’re the enemy and are out to get us.

What we need to do is make sure we find ways to work with our male counterparts because their objective is the same as ours in most cases. It’s not that they’re venal people, it’s not that they want to do harm. They want happy, functional families and communities just like women do, in most cases. I think it’s a case of figuring out how we work together. The one thing I will say though is that if you have power, you usually don’t give it up willingly. That’s one thing women need to understand, that men still have a disproportionate amount of power and influence and they’re not just going to hand it to us.

That doesn’t mean that we end up in warfare with them but it means that we have to step forward. If we want to be the managing partner of a law firm, then don’t expect to be asked to do that because guys like being managing partners of law firms or they like being Prime Minister of Canada or Cabinet Minister. We are going to have to prove ourselves in the sense of standing for office, working hard, being successful and meritorious and then when the time is right, putting our hands up and saying ‘You know what, I can do that job, I can do that job as well or better than x,y, and z, so I would like you to consider me’.

iKNOW Politics: If you had to give one piece of advice to a young woman who is considering politics and doesn’t necessarily know how to proceed, what would the advice be?

I guess, talk to people like myself and other women who have been there. If you’re not sure whether this is something that you want to do or you’re working through, whether you think you have the right disposition to do this, I think it’s important to talk to people who’ve done it. Now, you never know until you’re there – I’ve learned a lot about myself in the 13 years I was in public life, both good and bad – I think understanding more in terms of what the real expectations are.

One of the things that I think it is maybe harder for women to cope with out of concern for their family and kids is that once you decide to stand for office, especially at the federal level, the word that’s key there is public. You give up a huge amount of personal privacy and your family gives up personal privacy. And for women, that can be a real disincentive to get involved because they know their kids can end up being the center of attention, be it at school or wherever, in a way that they don’t want and don’t think is fair for their kids. People need to understand, it is putting yourself out there and people will write things that you think are unfair or untrue, they will be mean-spirited at times and cruel and everybody gets to read it. It will be on the front page of the newspaper.

If you don’t think you can be comfortable with that or you don’t want that for your family, then I think you do need to work through that because you have to accept the fact that you’re giving up a big chunk of your zone of personal privacy. There’s a level of intrusion on the part of your constituents. You can’t go to the store and buy groceries anymore in a way that you’re use to because that becomes a public space where you’re not anonymous, where people know who you are and they have every right to come up and talk to you and engage you and say ‘Hey you’re my Member of Parliament and I just want you to know x,y, or z’.

If you’re not comfortable having that intrusion and giving up that aspect of your private personal space, then I think it can be very hard and very stressful and it takes getting used to. I sm by disposition, a very private person, I don’t like to talk about myself; you get used to talking about yourself after a while. I never talked about my family because my family made it plain that politics is something I do, it is not something they do. They will become very angry and resentful if they end up being included in the public space, because that’s not their space. People need to be realistic about what this is about and then if you’re successful at it, then it is more of the same. You give up more of that zone of privacy and if you’re a Cabinet Minister then you give up more again and if you’re a high-profile Cabinet Minister, you give up more again.

You have to think these things through and until you’ve done it, you never really know what it is all about. I think it is important for people to talk to others who’ve been there. Talk to people who are honest about it, both the good and the bad because there are both. At the end of the day I had a blessed political career. Who knew as a Liberal from Alberta I would win 4 out of 5 elections, I’d end my career as Deputy Prime Minister, I’d hold amazing Cabinet positions dealing with some of the biggest issues our country confronted at that period of time? I wouldn’t give that up for anything but people need to be realistic, you’ve got to be hard-headed about it in the sense that there are costs that come with all of that.

 

 

 

Region: