Carla Qualtrough was in town recently to announce $2 million in funding for the Rick Hansen Foundation ’s Access4All initiative.
The project aims to raise awareness and address accessibility barriers that persons with disabilities have to face every day.
The money was granted from the federal government’s Canada 150 Fund, which was created in celebration of the nation’s upcoming 150th birthday to support “opportunities for Canadians to participate in local, regional, and national celebrations that contribute to building a sense of pride and attachment to Canada,” as well as a “limited number of high impact, large-scale projects” dubbed Signature Initiatives.
The announcement was one of countless she’s attended in the more than eight months since the lawyer and Paralympic bronze medalist was elected to serve as the member of Parliament for Delta and sub- sequently appointed Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.
The Reporter caught up with the minister after the announcement to talk about the highs and lows of her first eight months on the job.
How has it been, your first “year” on the job?
It’s been pretty awesome. It’s quite an honour to serve Delta. It’s been an amazing ride getting to know the community, getting to know community leaders, organizations [and] individuals.
The added layer of being a cabinet minister is a complexity all its own, if you know what I mean. It’s taken me away from Delta more than had I not been in cabinet, but it’s also given Delta a huge profile on the national stage. We get to do announcements like today’s in Delta and we get to use a school in Ladner as an example of talking to kids about accessibility. So that’s really neat.
On Nov 4, when I got my appointment and the prime minister gave me the opportunity to work in the two areas that I’ve dedicated my life to, it was a very big honour and I took the responsibility really seriously. And since then, I’ve basically been in the business of being the best MP I can be and the best cabinet minister I can be and that’s been a ton of work. My mantra here in the office is “Delta first,” so whether I’m here or in Ottawa I want people to feel like they’re being served well by their MP. We’re making a very concerted effort to be here for Delta and to remind Deltans [that] just because I got this fancy new gig, I haven’t left home.
We’ve dealt with thousands of requests, we’ve responded to thousands of emails, we’ve had hundreds of case files opened — mainly on immigration issues, but on a whole bunch of different areas of federal jurisdiction, like CPP or OAS or visa requirements. We’ve hosted round tables, we’ve hosted budget consultations with municipal and business leaders, we’ve met with organizations, we gone to schools, I’ve talked to civics classes…I mean, you name it, I think I’ve done it in the past eight months. It’s a lot of work but I signed up for it so I’ve got to do it, right? I enjoy it. And on the government side, it’s been really refreshing and exciting to be part a team that is very systematically making good on the promises it made to Canadians.
What were some of the lessons you learned?
I think the biggest one is that you have to show people that you’re still here and show people that, even if I’m physically located in Ottawa on any given day, that there’s a presence here, that we’re here working for them [and] that we’re helping people through my team.
I guess a corollary to that is we have to show our work. I’m a doer, right? I get one thing done, I tick it off the list and I move on to the next thing. And I’ve learned in politics that you have to tell the story. In my mind we’ve done so many awesome things [like] the tax cuts, the Canada Child Benefit [and] recently the CPP. But I think we need to be very deliberate about telling people what we’ve done and what’s been accomplished. It’s a [task] that I’m having to learn to do because it’s not been something that I’ve done before. I have to learn to tell the story more deliberately, more intentionally and more proudly. It’s not that I’m not proud, it’s just I don’t know that Canadians know [what we do].
A good example is the Canada Child Benefit. This is going to significantly impact nine out of 10 families. They’re going to get their first cheque on July 20th and this is going to be huge. Some families are going to be getting almost of $3000 tax free at the end of the year, each year. That’s a lot of money.
My family’s not going to get anything, but my mom was a single parent, she raised two teenagers and she would have got almost $3000 more a year tax free. That would have made a significant [impact]. Think of somebody making $35,000 a year [and] raising two kids. To add $3000 to that, that’s almost 10 per cent of her income, right? And so, for me, the tradeoff there as a family is [that] those families will get more help. I don’t think that people have been told that story as well as we could have. People need to know the impact of these decisions, and I think in the next year we need to be more deliberate here in Delta of telling people all the wonderful stuff we’re doing.
Is the job, both as the MP for Delta and the minister for sport and persons with disabilities, what you expected?
I had worked on the Hill before as a ministerial advisor, so I think the minister job is what I expected. [However] I didn’t really know the side of being part of cabinet, so that’s been something new and exciting for me to explore, being basically on the board of directors of the country.
When the prime minister says that it is “government by cabinet,” I can assure you that that is very accurate. We’re expected to show up well informed, having thought about the things we’re going to talk about and we are expected to have opinions on things well beyond our own portfolios. So that piece has been a real neat experience for me.
The MP side has been delightful. I didn’t know how much I would enjoy that [one-on-one] side of it. It’s not that I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, I just didn’t turn my mind to it. I’m really sincerely enjoying meeting people, going to events [and] having my my team and I help people. Getting people coming in saying, “you’ve made a difference, you guys helped a lot,” it’s been really awesome. It’s a great job. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far, either as an MP or a minister?
It’s more personal. The biggest challenge is managing the family and the job. My son is not yet four, my daughter turns six tomorrow and we’ve got two teenagers, so being away from the kids, trying to include them as much as I can in things when I’m in town so that we could spend as much time together as possible, that’s been the biggest challenge.
Now, to be fair, I think we’re in a bit of a rhythm now — and of course I can say that because we’re heading into summer — but I think March/April of this year we got into a rhythm as a family where the kids knew when I was leaving and they knew I’d be back, but, you know, I’ve missed things. I’ve missed class outings for my daughter, I’ve missed the play with my son, and that’s been tough.
But thank heavens I’ve got a really supportive husband and my mother lives with us and [we’ve got] a great group of friends and a great community that is always making sure that if I can’t go to things that somebody picks up my daughter and takes her or somebody is there to cheer her on. I’ve been really lucky with the circumstances [and] how they’ve evolved. People have really stepped up for us, so it’s good.
But, I mean, it’s the toughest part and it’s not going to go away. There’s going to be things I’m going to miss and I just hope looking back on it that my kids kind of understand that this was an amazing opportunity for them as well and they get to see their mom help run the country.
If you had to single something out, what’s your proudest moment or your biggest achievement so far?
Oh that’s tough. The swearing-in ceremony was a pretty big deal. But we’ve had little moments where somebody walks into this office, I happen to be here and they have a bouquet of flowers and they say, ‘‘Thanks to your team, my wife’s mother got to come in from India and visit her in the hospital.” That’s a big deal. You kind of go, “okay, it doesn’t matter that I’m a bit tired today, we did right by this family,” you know? And this morning I got to be at a school in Ladner with Rick Hansen and we got to announce this money. It’s a pretty good gig.
What do you think would surprise people most about the inner workings of government and life on Parliament Hill?
I think people would be surprised and genuinely impressed by how hard everybody works. At the end of day I really think — and I don’t think this is naiveté; I think it’s genuine — I really think that everyone is working really hard to do right by the people that elected them. It’s tough when people all of a sudden have access to your personal life or people think they can weigh in on your boss or people have comments about your colleagues. We don’t all share the same beliefs and we don’t all share the same vision for how our country should move forward, but I have not met an MP — or a senator for that matter — on the Hill who I would tell you in any way is not hard working. It’s a very hard working group and I don’t think Canadians really appreciate the family sacrifice and just the genuine sincerity that most, if not all, politicians bring into their work on behalf of their communities.