Station: The interview — Jean Crowder

Longtime MP reflects on her decade of serving Cowichan in Ottawa

Jean Crowder is stepping away from politics at the end of this term.

In our nation’s Parliament, the Speaker of the House of Commons calls  the next speaker from the floor: “The Honourable Member for Nanaimo-Cowichan.”

New Democrat Jean Crowder stands at her seat. She is small in stature, but fierce in her appeal to the majority Conservative government. As the NDP critic for Aboriginal affairs, she is summarizing findings of a report on violence against First Nations women. Her final statement is unrelenting: “It is Canada’s shame that indigenous women and girls have never been made a priority, by any government.”

Crowder was two years into her first term as municipal councillor for North Cowichan when she was asked to run federally for the NDP. She was elected to Parliament in 2004, along with fellow freshman Jack Layton, and has remained in office since.

Crowder redefines the image of the Canadian politician.

She is 5’2 inches tall. Slight. Female.

Of the 308 members of the House of Commons, this 41st parliament of Canada has 76 female MPs. Crowder is unapologetic in advocating for more women in politics. Her stories about being disregarded as an MP because of her sex are both funny and telling about the expectations the public still has — in 2014 — of what our political leaders look like.

This was one of the topics of our long conversation one July afternoon at her Green Door office in downtown Duncan.

Crowder’s 11-year political career comes to an end next year when we go to the polls in our newly defined Langford-Malahat-Cowichan riding. Before she leaves office, I wanted to capture some of her lessons learned and memories during her successful career.


MM: Were you involved in community work before you were elected to municipal council?

JC: I’d been a community activist. I’d been at protests and was involved with various groups. I’d been always small-p political but never was interested in running for office.

MM: Because?

JC: I didn’t see myself as a politician. I didn’t see it as something I had the skill set for or the aptitude because I saw it, at that time, as being combative, aggressive, nasty, and I just didn’t see that was a sandbox I would play in. What happened was North Cowichan council had a rezoning application to put in a gas-fired generation plant. They were going to zone a piece of property Heavy Industrial—they had to change the zoning to allow that to happen. That was 2002. The council was all male. They had hearings at the community centre. I’m making these numbers up but it just shows you the imbalance. Five-hundred ninety-nine spoke against the application and one spoke in favour. But the council sat on the stage and looked completely disinterested. Maybe they weren’t but they looked it.

MM: Your impression.

JC: That was how it felt from sitting in the audience. And so a number of people said we need women to run for council. We need women’s voices at the table. And because I’d been involved in various community things people would say, “You should run!” I laughed. Except that what happened was a group of three women all agreed that we would run for North Cowichan council together so we had a support network. The two other women dropped out so I was left standing. Barb Lines did end up getting elected at the time, and so did Ruth Hartmann.

MM: How was your first campaign?

JC: I was pretty naive. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had a team that helped me. We knocked on doors, and went to all-candidates meetings, and went to the farmers’ market, and I did all the things you should do. I had no expectations of winning and people thought of me as a long shot because I hadn’t been involved in council at all. Then I won.

MM: Were you comfortable at council?

JC: A ridiculous thing to say, they weren’t ready for women on council. We had no place to put our handbags. It was the mundane stuff. It was like, “Oh wait, we have women on council, what do we do with them?”

MM: Now you need two sexes going to the bathroom.

JC: So it was a different experience for staff and council members to all of sudden have all these women — for the first time.

MM: What year was that?

JC: 2002!

MM: That doesn’t seem that long ago.

JC: They had had women elected previously, but not many, and never half the council.

MM: How did you end up running federally?

JC: I was frustrated at council with the fact that so many decisions were made somewhere else that impacted directly in our community. And then people approached me to see if I was interested in running provincially and federally, but I said “no” provincially.

MM: The first campaign you were naive. On this campaign?

JC: I’d had the basic bones of the campaign experience with municipal. A federal campaign ramps it up in scope and magnitude and issues, of course. And you have a way bigger team and you need to spend more money. It’s more sophisticated, you know with media and those kinds of things. But I had an experienced campaign team because people here had worked on successful provincial campaigns for a number of years and so they were able to translate that into the federal campaign. Having that support from people is huge. There’s no way you can do this on your own — nor should you think you could. That part of it was easier in some ways because there was such a team. It was harder in some ways because the issues are so big.

MM: And could you speak to them?

JC: Well, I’m a policy wonk. And I had somebody doing research for me. That was one of the team members’ tasks. We would be paying attention to issues in the media and they would do research to find out what other people said, and you know, Google is a wonderful tool. And so I felt fairly comfortable with talking about a variety of things because of that research capacity within our team.

MM: Were you an NDP supporter from the beginning?

JC: I’ve been an NDP member off and on since university.

MM: How do you devote yourself wholly to one party platform? What if you think a decision the Conservative party made was a good one?

JC: I think you support the decision parties make when you can align yourself with them. Because of how our electoral system works, it’s very difficult to not align yourself with a party.

MM: Don’t you think that’s a drawback?

JC: I think it’s a drawback when you have a first-past-the-post system. I don’t think it’s a drawback when you have proportional representation because when you have proportional representation you’re going to find many more avenues for collaboration across party lines. We would have to fundamentally change our electoral system in order to not have parties. I think it’s far easier to move into proportional representation, which then allows for that cross-fertilization to happen. But right now with first-past-the-post, it’s everyone for themselves. It’s a completely dysfunctional system.

MM: That dysfunction I think is one of the reasons people don’t engage in it. I don’t think people trust that you’re going to meet constituents’ needs because you’ll meet the party’s needs first.

JC: Well that’s not true, actually. I have a broad cross-section of the community that supports me. Obviously I do; party members are only a tiny portion of the population so I had 20,000 people vote for me and most aren’t party members. What people perceive with me, and will perceive for many people, although I’m running as an NDP candidate, once you run for Parliament, you represent the whole riding.

MM: You don’t represent the NDP members only but I think you answer to the NDP leader before you answer to your constituents.

JC: I’ve voted against our party on matters, or I’ve abstained and so have other colleagues.

MM: Without repercussion?

JC: I haven’t had repercussion. Sometimes there are repercussions for other members but it depends what the matter is. We are generally not whipped. We are whipped on matters of confidence — because that’s going to bring the government down — we’re whipped on matters of human rights. So on the same-sex marriage bill when it was being debated, we were all going to vote for it. One member didn’t vote for it and there were sanctions for it. She opted to sit as an independent.

MM: Interesting.

JC: But that was her choice. She wasn’t forced out of the party. The sanction was she wasn’t going to get question in Question Period for a period of time and she wasn’t going to get statements and then should could come back into the fold.

MM: And do all of you think that’s fair?

JC: Yep, that’s fair. You get to tell the leader what’s in your head. Sometimes you change the leader’s mind on issues. I think it’s fair. Generally speaking, we’re not whipped on votes. Generally speaking, I support where we go on pieces of legislation because we’re usually bringing the New Democratic point of view to it which I support — you know social justice, environment — I don’t generally disagree with where we’ve gone on a particular issue. Where I have disagreed, I’ve either abstained because I haven’t felt strongly enough to vote against it, or I’ve voted against it. And I haven’t had repercussions. People are clear when I run what my stance is on women’s right to choose, on the gun registry, on same-sex marriage, which are in line with the party. I think what’s important is you’re clear with people about where you come from with those issues, and they can decide whether or not to vote for you.

MM: Question period. It seems like a show.

JC: It is. I’ve only been there since cameras were introduced but apparently it completely changed. The government likes to remind us that it’s question period not answer period. So you rarely get answers to anything.

MM: What a waste of time.

JC: It is. I think the one small value in question period is you get to ask questions that need to be asked about particular issues. You may not get the answers but at least it’s on people’s radar that you need to pay attention to this issue. Apparently, there are other parliaments in the world where the speaker makes the government answer. That would be a refreshing change.

MM: Wouldn’t it.

JC: It’s pretty frustrating as a person asking a legitimate question and getting nothing for an answer. Sometimes when you hear the response you think were you actually in the same room where the question was posed?

MM: Why are you not running again?

JC: I’m not running again for a variety of reasons. By October 2015, I’ll have been at it for 11.5 years and I will have travelled hundreds of thousands of kilometres. I’m in my 60s, I’ve got three grandchildren; it’s time for me to step back. My grandkids are seven, five and three, and I get to see them five times a year and they live a long way away. I’m in good health right now and I’ve got the energy to deal with my grandkids. It would be great to do it while I still can. And I’m tired. I’m tired after doing the travelling and the seven years of minority government knocked the stuffing out of me. I’ve had four elections. I’m a bit warn out.

MM: When are you not working?

JC: I’m taking a week off next week to visit my grandchildren, although I have my handy little Blackberry so I usually end up working.

MM: What if you lose it for one week. Would the world come to an end?

JC: Last year, for the first time in nine years, I went to someplace where there was no Blackberry access for a week on holiday, and the world didn’t come to an end. There was a phone number for a real emergency they could get hold of me. Mind you, when I came back from the holiday the Blackberry was just like….

MM: …heavy.

JC: I don’t know what the answer is. There’s an odd perception that we shouldn’t have time off.

MM: Why is that?

JC: I think it’s that when someone has a problem, their problem is paramount and, “Why aren’t you here to deal with it?” I’ve had flack from people saying, “What do you mean you’re missing this event?” It’s very odd. Expectations from people are odd.

MM: I think I even have that expectation, deep down. That you should be at all things. Not that you shouldn’t have holiday time, just not during my event.

JC: That’s very much how people feel about it. We try to be careful when I schedule my time off, but sometimes there’s just no choice. If this is the week that I get to spend with my grandkids, I’m taking it. And when my dad was dying. I didn’t tell anybody my dad was dying because I didn’t want people to know I would be a week in the hospital with him, ducking my duties.

MM: That’s ridiculous

JC: It is ridiculous.

MM: Is that because it’s still a mostly male workplace?

JC: It’s totally why.

MM: I mean, your dad was dying. And you couldn’t tell people?

JC: Minority government, we’re going into an election, why aren’t you in your riding working?

MM: Wow.

JC: Lately, I’ve started pushing back on it. I would never tell people I was going on holiday for a week. Ever. Ever!

MM: Now because you’re not running again, you don’t have to worry about your seat?

JC: No, I’m trying to say to people it’s OK if you occasionally need time off. I’ve been lecturing some of my colleagues — some of them don’t take time off, like they’ll take a day here and a day there.

MM: They must be exhausted.

JC: They’re exhausted and it’s not human. It’s not realistic. I work a ridiculous number of hours every week.

MM: Like?

JC: When the house is sitting, and flying back and forth including travel time, I work up to 80 hours per week. I rarely work under that.

MM: Do you exercise?

JC: I do. I get up early in the morning and I schedule it. What I observed is that many of the men around me always scheduled their exercise and I always felt guilty about doing it.

MM: Do you feel guilty?

JC: No. Because I feel better and I’ve got more energy.

MM: Women in politics. There is a report saying a small percentage of women are in federal politics. What’s been your experience as a woman?

JC: That number hasn’t shifted. It went up slightly in 2011, it was about 20% before then. It’s been at that number for two decades or something — a long time. Hasn’t budged. The institution is not well set up to accommodate women. And it is absolutely family unfriendly.

MM: There’s no place to hang a purse — or breastfeed a baby.

JC: We’ve got a number of women who are changing that. They breastfeed their babies in the lobby. There is a daycare on site. I don’t know how accessible it is, in terms of a wait list. The culture itself assumes you’re not a member of parliament if you’re a woman. I still have to tell security I’m an MP.

MM: No.

JC: Grey-haired men don’t get asked at the same level as I do. I’ve asked them and they say I never get asked if they’re an MP. And they haven’t been around as long as I have either.

MM: You said you didn’t think you were a capital-P politician. Is that because we have an image of what that looks like? The great politician is old, wise, portly….

JC: …and male.

MM: Winston Churchill.

JC: I’ve told this story so many times because it just typified for me how women are the staff. One of my very first caucus meetings, the media cameras were all set up outside and the men would walk down into the room and the cameras would come on. I came down and it was me and to women, two staff, and we walk up and the cameras didn’t come on.

MM: Hey, I’m over here!

JC: I clearly was a staffer. The number of times I’ve been in the elevator and there’s been a group of men who didn’t know each other, and they made the assumption I’m that guy’s wife. The little woman coming to Parliament.

MM: What do they do?

JC: It’s pretty funny. And when I broke my leg, in 2008. Outside the house is a foyer where the media all hang out and do the scrums. There’s a bathroom off to the side. When I broke my leg, there’s an outside entrance door, and you hit the handicap thing and it opens the door. Except it opens the men’s door. But there was no handicap access to the women’s bathroom door.

MM: Did you make a change?

JC: I did because I couldn’t get in the bathroom! How come the men’s door has handicap access and the women’s doesn’t?

MM: How to encourage more women to run for politics? Must we?

JC: Yes. There’s been lots of research on that. Until a third of the people in any organization is women, you can’t shift the culture. 20-some-odd percent isn’t enough to shift the culture.

MM: From what to what?

JC: I would like to see a culture that looked at collaboration as being a good thing. That working together was a good thing. I’d like to see a culture that recognizes that people have family responsibilities. Not just children, but caring for senior parents

MM: A dad passing away.

JC: A dad passing away. A culture that respects and there is some accommodating for people with families It’s terrible if you have a young family and you have to travel to Ottawa.

MM: What was it like as a first-time MP?

JC: I spent the first six months hating the job.

MM: Hating it?

JC: I detested it. I’d wondered what I’d done. Get me out of here!

MM: Because why?

JC: A bunch of things. Part of it was that I’d run because I care about my community and then you immediately leave your community with all your supports. And the system was so foreign. It’s stupid in some ways.

MM: Did the party have a mentorship program?

JC: We didn’t at the time. We were pretty small. When I got elected there were only 19 of us at the time. They were helpful but there’s no way they had time to take anything on. There were seven of us that were new, out of 19. Since that, I’ve mentored a whole bunch of MPs. There was no orientation. There was a two-hour orientation for the House of Commons.

MM: That’s it. Have fun!

JC: Exactly. The thing about this job is we’re all like single owner/operators. So even if you belong to a party, there’s only one Nanaimo-Cowichan riding. So we’re isolated to some extent, right? So it’s a weird, weird job in some ways.

MM: What was it like working with Jack?

JC: Oh it was great. It was great. I really liked him. It’s kind of neat. He and I both got elected at the same time in 2004 so we were both thrown into the parliamentary process at the same time. He was learning to be leader and learning to be a parliamentarian all at once. I can’t imagine what his job was like.

MM: Advice for the next generation of MPs?

JC: Remember who you are representing. If it can’t afford to be on the front page of your newspaper, don’t do it. I tell people that all the time. I can’t believe the stupid things people do. Find something you’re passionate about that you think you can drive in the political process. Because there are lots of things you do in this job you’re not passionate about. And then find ways to stay connected to your community. Make sure you stay connected to home.

MM: Lowest moment?

JC: Agreeing to run in 2011 and then having Jack die two months after the election. In part, I ran in 2011 because of Jack.

MM: Did you know he was ill?

JC: I thought he was recovering. We all knew he was ill but we thought he was getting better. I felt like I’d been deserted when he died. That was really hard. And it took me a while to bounce back from that. If Jack hadn’t have been there I don’t know that I would have run again in 2011.

MM: Greatest accomplishment?

JC: I’d have to say Jordan’s principle. It’s making slow incremental change for how kids are dealt with in care. It’s being cited in court decisions and human rights tribunals as a way to go. It’s slow progress but it is making a difference.