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Shared Vision Who is Carole James

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March 2005

Who is Carole James?

A leisurely dinner conversation reveals how a shy girl from Victoria wound up leading the resurgent New Democratic Party

by Monte Paulsen

How could a mild-mannered political novice become the New Democratic Party’s choice for premier? To find out, I did what any true Vancouverite would do: I invited Carol James to dinner. We met at Delilah’s, an eclectic West End haunt where one is equally likely to rub elbows with a West-of-Denman yuppie and a Davie Street drag queen. Seated in one of the plush velour booths tucked deep into the restaurant’s north wall, she unfurled her life story. What follows are the highlights of our conversation.

We start with sparkling water, and break breadsticks over small talk. James folds her hands primly when the interview begins.

HER MOTHER MAVIS was a Brit who’d emigrated to Saskatchewan as a girl. She’d become pregnant at the age of 16 and concealed her condition from her parents by returning to England on the pretense of being homesick. While staying with an uncle in a small town outside of Manchester, she gave birth to Carole on Dec. 22, 1957, and returned to Saskatchewan six months later. “My first journey was on a boat to New York,” recalls James, now 47. “I was babysat by everyone on the entire boat.

“I didn’t know my father,” she adds. He left the family after a brief marriage; decades passed before James discovered that he was Métis. Carole and her sister lived with their grandparents in North Battleford while Mavis attended teachers’ college in Saskatoon. “Back in the 1950s and early ’60s it wasn’t that common to grow up in a single-parent household,” James says.

The whole family moved to Victoria in 1963 after Grandmother Edith suggested they move someplace that didn’t have snow; her leg had been amputated as a result of complications from frostbite. They bought a large house in Victoria’s James Bay neighbourhood, and soon began taking in foster children.

“My grandparents would take large families so the kids didn’t have to be separated. There were always five, six, seven, in some cases eight additional kids…some of whom I still consider my brothers and sisters,” James says warmly. “It was a wonderful way to grow up.”

James describes herself as a shy and serious child. “I was one of those kids who froze at being called on in class to answer questions. I’d avoid eye contact.” Her mother pushed her into joining a local theatre group when she was 12, to build her confidence. She ended up loving the stage, and theatre became a passion.

“My mother is the radical in the family,” James says. While completing college in Victoria, Mavis became active in the anti-war movement—and met the man who would become Carole’s father—on a midnight vigil. “I spent a lot of time on protest lines when I was a kid,” James says. “Dinners at home were brief; you’d sit down, you’d eat, and then you’d head off to your cause.”

Unfolding her hands, she leans forward to add, “I come from a line of very strong women.” Her mother’s and grandmother’s values were soon woven into her own experience.

“Many of the foster kids we looked after had special needs,” she says. “Lots of First Nations kids. There were challenges at school with racism with teasing, all those kinds of things. Because [the kids] were part of our family, I learned to stand up for them.”

She led her first protest while still in middle school. “It snowed in Victoria, which was a rare thing,” she remembers. “Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school. We went to the principal and asked to wear pants while it was snowing. He said no. So I took the school outside. We walked around and got our pictures in the paper.” The principal relented.

After graduating from high school, she moved to Alberta with sweetheart Chris James. They spent a year in Red Deer before moving home to Victoria. The young couple married, and when her grandparents decided to sell the family home in James Bay, they bought it—foster kids and all.

“We moved into the house and had an instant family,” she says, her eyes twinkling in the light of the lone white candle. “Within the next couple of years I had both my kids.” Daughter Alison (now 25) and son Evan (23) soon lured her into politics.

JAMES’S FIRST BID for elected office grew out of a desire to become involved in the co-operative that ran her children’s preschool. Still shouldering her self-image as a shy person, she picked the job of secretary “because you didn’t have to say anything.” Laughing heartily, she adds, “I got elected president the next year, so that didn’t last very long.”

Her volunteer work at the preschool led her to a parents’ association, then to 11 years on the Greater Victoria School Board. (She also served on a potpourri of local committees concerned with parks, social planning, and violence prevention.)

In 1995, she attended the annual meeting of the B.C. School Trustees Association with notions of running for the board. “Somebody nominated me for president from the floor. I’d never been on the executive before, and didn’t think I should be doing that,” she says. Nonetheless, she was elected president on the first ballot.

James served five terms. It was not an easy gig. Under Premier Glen Clark, the government decided to cut in half the number of school boards in the province, from 79 to 37. Shocked by her own party’s behind-closed-doors decision, James asked the minister responsible to hold off until the local boards—her association’s constituency—could be consulted. The minister agreed, but placed tough conditions on the process: James would have to conduct the meetings and complete a report within little more than a month. And her report had to recommend amalgamation.

The dilemma put her values to the test: She felt strongly that the affected communities deserved to be fully consulted, but the minister’s conditions threatened to render the consultation process a charade. “I spent a couple of long nights going back and forth about the position we were in,” she recalls.

But she accepted the challenge. Together with a deputy minister, James hopscotched the province in winter to conduct 22 meetings in 24 days. The contentious discussions ran as long as nine hours. Her report recommended a politically palatable compromise—the result was 59 school boards.

“It was the right decision,” she says now, pressing the dark hardwood table to make her point. It also provides a fair example of the James leadership style: pragmatic and non-confrontational.

“There were people who said I should have fought harder against the amalgamations, that if we had dug in our heels, maybe the government wouldn’t have moved forward,” she admits. “I obviously don’t agree with those critics. I think we would have ended up with 37 school boards and no opportunity for the public to be involved.”

James served three more terms as president of the association before leaving to become the provincial director of child-care policy. There, she and her staff spent nearly two years developing a plan to combine local, provincial, and federal resources to establish subsidized child care. However, those plans would soon be thrown out with the fast-ferry bathwater.

Our waiter arrives, bearing soup and salad. The restaurant has grown noisier, with Etta James’s silky voice drifting through a din of clinking glassware.

JAMES TOOK A LEAVE of absence in the fall of 2001 and ran as the NDP candidate for the legislative assembly. It was a very bad year for the New Democrats, to put it mildly. Voters were eager to punish the party for the sins of former premier Clark, and the NDP lost all but two seats. In the riding she’d lived in nearly all her life, James was beaten by 38 votes.

“That was tough,” she says, looking down at her meal for a moment. “I had people who left messages on my answering machine at home to say, ‘I was really mad at the NDP so I voted Green, but I didn’t think you’d lose.’”

She returned to work to learn that Gordon Campbell’s troops had rejected her detailed child-care plan without even studying the proposal. She was handed the task of slashing the budget for family services across the province. She quit instead.

“I didn’t think the government would go so far,” she says. “I didn’t think you could take apart so quickly things that had taken years and years to build…I was shocked.”

Defeated and dejected, she was also in the middle of a divorce. And in the tide of civil-service layoffs, she couldn’t find work in Victoria. She applied for jobs as far away as Nunavut and eventually took one in Prince George. There she became director of Carrier Sekani child and family services, a division of a 12-band tribal council. Her new organization was faced with picking up some of the services being shrugged off by the Campbell government. On a similar mission to the one she’d been on when the school boards were cut, she soon found herself driving the back roads, explaining to First Nations communities how their lives would be affected by decisions made hastily in Victoria. “It was the toughest work I’ve done in my whole life,” she says, “and in many ways the most rewarding.”

One such reward was the chance to explore her own heritage. She’d learned that she was one-quarter Métis only a few years earlier, after her daughter developed an interest in genealogy and wrote away to Alberta for vital statistics. “All of a sudden arrived my father’s birth certificate,” she recalls. “I found out more information on that day than I had my whole life.”

Al Gerow, now her husband, was another reward. A retired RCMP officer and member of the Burns Lake band, he introduced her to something else that had been missing from her life in Victoria: wilderness.

“He’s a huge outdoors person,” she says, blushing with affection. He took her on a camping trip to his band’s traditional hunting ground. “It was the first time I’d ever been anywhere completely dark…I saw my first grizzly bear. I saw caribou. I saw deer,” she exclaims. “I’m a city girl. This was all a new experience for me.”

James was looking forward to spending more time in the north when friends began encouraging her to run for the leadership of the NDP after the departure of Joy MacPhail. Though she’d never been much of a spiritual person (her peacenik parents took her to the local Unitarian church only for rallies), she sought the guidance of First Nations elders. One suggested that she take the experiences she’d gained up north and apply them down south. Gerow took her to the woods to think. By the end of the trip, she’d decided to run.

She was elected to lead the NDP in November 2003, having promised to end the sort of polarization that had come to define B.C. politics—indeed, the sort of divisiveness that had helped drive her to Prince George in the first place. But upon assuming the job, she moved back to Victoria to run for office. “MLAs need to know their communities,” she says. “I needed to run in the place I had grown up and raised my kids.”

Through both her leadership bid and her present campaign, James has rarely raised either her Métis roots or her newfound respect for Native wisdom. “I didn’t grow up in an Aboriginal community, and I wouldn’t presume to know the experiences of those who did,” she explains. “But I think the fact that I have an Aboriginal background—the same way that I’m a woman, the same way that I’ve been involved in my community—is going to influence my decision making.”

Dinner arrives. Carole takes the trout, I the lamb. It’s time to cut to the heart of the matter.

A LOT OF B.C. voters feel burned by Glen Clark,” I say, knife in hand. “Why should anyone ever trust the NDP again?”

“That’s probably the question I got the most often,” she admits. “I think one of the things that happened was that [the NDP leadership] lost their connection with the public. That can’t happen again.”

Much as she has several times before, James spent the first year of her leadership touring the province to make amends. She’s visited more than 200 communities since taking office, spending roughly one out of every two days on the road. (She did take time off last summer, however, to marry Al Gerow. Her former husband and much of her extended foster family were in attendance.)

“We have a huge number of new members…and many people who gave up their membership during that time period have now rejoined,” she says. “We have a number of new candidates…. I think we’ve shown that within the party we are including a number of voices, not just the old guard.”

“Can you tell me how much union money is in the NDP now?” I ask.

“Most of our donations come from individuals,” she replies.

(NDP communications director Scott Perchall provided the details a few days later: Trade unions donated $359,164 to the NDP in the first 10 months of 2004, the most recent period for which figures are available. That’s 14 per cent of the $2.5 million in total contributions during the same period. Individual contributions, by comparison, accounted for 84 per cent of the total. By comparison, the B.C. Liberal Party received 20 per cent of its revenue from individuals; 74 per cent flowed from corporate coffers.)

“The perception [that the party is beholden to labour] is there, I understand that,” James concedes. “[But] it’s not reality when you look at the numbers. It’s part of the reason I’ve said New Democrats will implement election finance reform after 2005 if we’re a government. We will ban all donations from corporations and trade unions to political parties.”

I press: “Have the unions ever asked you to move your position, on any issue?”

“Everybody has a piece of advice,” she says. “I can’t go grocery shopping anymore without having people stop me in the store to offer their positions. Have I been pushed by labour more than I’ve been pushed by anyone else? No.”

I ask why she didn’t lead the charge for a general strike during last summer’s volatile hospital strike, something many felt was a missed opportunity.

“There were people who would have preferred to go to a general strike, who believed that was the way to get the message heard,” she acknowledges. “It would have raised the anger against the government.”

“It would have put you in the spotlight.”

“Yeah,” she sighs. “There were a number of people who said, ‘It would have been a great opportunity for you.’ But my view was my job is to represent the people of this province—whether I’m leader of the opposition or whether I’m in government. And a general strike hurts the people of the province. We as a province already have a reputation of those wild swings, of that kind of extreme action. I don’t think that’s good for British Columbia.”

James puts down her silverware. “If there would have been an opportunity to get government to change its mind on that legislation, if we would have been able to—through a general strike or some opportunity—to actually get them to change their direction, I might have looked at it differently.”

Holding up two fingers, she continues, “But we had two seats in the legislature. That legislation was going to pass. No question about it. And so I thought it was important to try and find a result that would have been better for the people of B.C., better for the health-care system and the hospital workers. A general strike wouldn’t have done that.”

Delilah’s is growing a bit rowdy, as the early evening on-our-way-to-a-show couples are gradually replaced by my-life-is-the-show tables. I strip-mine a piece of cheesecake.

JAMES DETAILS HER positions on a wide range of social and environmental issues. (See below.) Then we part ways, and as I watch her stroll into the Denman Street crowd, I find myself surprised by what she didn’t do: She didn’t shake my hand several times, clap me on the shoulder, leave me with a pithy one-liner or any of the other lobbying-until-the-bitter-end gestures so common among the hundreds of (mostly male) politicians I’ve interviewed. Whereas most successful candidates for high office are addicted to campaigning, James appears merely adapted to the process. She’s a shy girl who learned to work the stage, and who—even after all these years—still seems like she’d rather be home with her family.

I fiddle with my tape recorder on the ride home, skipping about to ensure it’d been working. Again and again, I hear the voice of a principled pragmatist.

“The reality is that Gordon Campbell has taken away so many things over the last four years that it would be a huge challenge to build back programs that took 10 to 20 years to put in place,” she said at one point. “We’re going to have to be patient. One of the things that I love about being a New Democrat is that we dream big and we want it all yesterday. It’s tough to be patient when you’re a New Democrat.”

Monte Paulsen is editor of Dragonfly Review, Shared Vision ’s book section. For political masochists or others hungry for every detail, a transcript of the three-hour interview this story is based on is available here.


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