“She doesn’t speak French.”
It’s the common response when Conservatives in Ottawa are asked about Lisa Raitt’s candidacy as leader of the Tory party.
Raitt would be a more formidable candidate if she had mastered both official languages. She is, after all, a former CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, the city’s first female harbourmaster, and a former federal minister of the labour, transport, and natural resources departments
An MP since 2008, Raitt is regarded as smart, amiable, and one of the party’s best communicators. Those who worked with her in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet describe an active contributor who came well-prepared.
So how is it that the aspiring leader of a national party and potential prime minister of Canada hasn’t learned French?
“I ask myself that question every freaking day,” Raitt tells The Huffington Post Canada, over lunch at the Fairmont Château Laurier’s Wilfrid’s restaurant.
Her kids were seven and four when she was elected, she offers as an explanation.
“I had big portfolios, and every time that we would book it into my schedule and somebody would come over and do it, I would be called upon to do something, like ‘Can you sign this document, can you do this?’ The life of a cabinet minister is very structured.”
Between cabinet committees, late-night votes, and a few hot-button issues, her schedule was packed. “My first portfolio was intensive…. We had a nuclear reactor that was melting down — plus some scandal. Second one was labour: five national strikes, back-to-work legislation, a little busy. And then I walked into [the explosion at] Lac Mégantic.”
"And I thought I’d find somebody that I’d like to work for, like I did with Harper, and it didn’t happen.”
The MP for the Greater Toronto-area riding of Milton also suggests she wasn’t expecting to throw her hat into the ring so early.
“Subconsciously? Probably. I thought we were going to win the last election. I thought Jason Kenney was going to run. I thought Peter MacKay was going to run. And I thought I’d find somebody that I’d like to work for, like I did with Harper, and it didn’t happen.”
Raitt arrived for lunch 15 minutes late. Dressed in a Conservative-blue skirt suit, she attracted a few head-turns from the power-lunching crowd as she made her way to the table.
Bill Wilkerson, Mental Health International’s executive chairman, walked over to introduce himself and give Raitt some campaign advice for beating fellow contender and TV personality Kevin O’Leary.
“He’s not a businessman; he is a professional investor,” Wilkerson tells Raitt, who remembers him from her time in the labour ministry.
“A way to get under his skin, just like [U.S. President Donald] Trump, is to take that out of him…. He is not a person who creates jobs…. What has he done, what has he run?,” Wilkerson continues.
“Yeah,” Raitt nods politely.
“And his ego is such that if you get under his skin that way, he’ll begin to show his weaknesses more so than are already self-evident,” Wilkerson says.
“OK,” says Raitt. “I appreciate that, Bill, good seeing you.”
She says she’s a “creature of habit” as she peruses the menu. She used to frequent Hy’s, an Ottawa steakhouse that closed last year, but now sticks to “Mamma’s,” where the staff know her and she can get work done. Mamma Teresa is an Italian family restaurant 10 blocks from Parliament Hill and a favourite of Liberal and Conservative cabinet ministers.
“I’m definitely going to have a salad,” Raitt declares. “Hmm… your food all looks good,” she tells the server, whom she soon starts calling by her first name. She orders sweet soy-lacquered halibut with rosti and charred broccoli, and a small salad to start.
'A consuming challenge'
The biggest challenge in her life, so far, has been accelerating her French-language learning, she says. “It’s not a bad challenge; it is just a consuming challenge and I like it.”
She usually spends two hours a day on French — yesterday, it was three. “Je pratique beaucoup avec mon professeur.”
“Sadly,” she continues in French, searching for the proper word, “I must read the responses because I am bored.”
“I’m nervous to respond to questions and not be on message.”
She knows that isn’t the right word. “I always get this word wrong…. What is nervous?”
“I’m nervous to respond to questions and not be on message,” she says. “But I’ll have to speak French in a scrum before too long…. I’m getting there,” she adds switching back to English.
Raitt is pretty good at staying on message. She talks about leading a government modelled on Harper’s example. She wants to return the country to balanced budgets, a focus on jobs and economic matters.
But she also wants to talk about her story. Born and raised in the Cape Breton community of Sydney, N.S., Raitt believes her working poor family history will contrast successfully with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s silver-spoon upbringing.
Raitt was born Lisa Sarah MacCormack on May 7, 1968. For much of her childhood, she believed she was Colin and Tootsie MacCormack’s seventh and youngest child. Her father loaded coal onto trains and was later a union leader. Her mother ran a canteen at the bingo hall on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
When her father died in 1979, her mom was 58 and not eligible for a widow’s pension for another two years. Money was tight, Raitt says.
At 11, she went to work at the local Dairy Queen — a job she’d return to each summer for more than a decade.
Around that time, Raitt learned the family secret.
Sitting in her sister Delores’ living room, 12-year-old Raitt was told that the couple who had raised her were not, in fact, her birth parents. Delores — 21 years her senior — was actually her mother. Her grandparents had legally adopted her.
"I wasn't angry — more confused about how to address everyone," she told The Hamilton Spectator earlier this year. "In that moment, I realized the whole town knew who I was but me."
(For more family photos, watch the video above.)
“I do my own thing. I tend to think I know best.”
Raitt describes herself as a smart and opinionated child.
“I do my own thing. I tend to think I know best,” she says candidly, eating her salad.
Schooled by nuns, she was encouraged to study science at St. Francis Xavier University because “smart girls studied science.” With plans to be a doctor, she spent a summer working at the National Research Council and in 1989 applied for graduate school because there were no jobs.
That year, her 32-year-old uncle Colin — the closest in age to her — died from occupational exposure to PCBs and dioxins, she says. He worked the coke oven, where coal is cooked to prepare it for making steel.
After his burial, Raitt drove to Guelph University and found a professor who would help her study the chemicals that contributed to her uncle’s death. After she finished her coursework, she went home to manage the Dairy Queen while she wrote her thesis.
Then she wrote the admission tests for both medical college (MCAT) and law school (LSAT): “I said whatever I am better at, I will be. And I was better at the LSAT, so I became a lawyer.”
She attended Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and met her first husband, playwright David Raitt. A scholarship and a stay in London, England, followed before she was hired as a lawyer with the Toronto Port Authority. Three years later in 2002, she became its CEO and president.
Her eldest son, John Colin, was born in 2001, followed by Billy in 2004. She and her husband separated in 2009 — a year after she was elected. They divorced in 2011. She did it online with untietheknot.ca. It was very amicable, Raitt says.
She and her second husband, Bruce Wood, met through work. Wood was the CEO and president of the Hamilton Port Authority.
“It wasn’t like ‘Ah ha!’” she says about falling in love with Wood. “My marriage broke down, Bruce was around, and he really liked me. He really liked me.”
Last September, Raitt announced that Wood, 56, had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
They found out in the spring. Wood was missing meetings. He couldn’t communicate in board rooms, and was having a hard time giving speeches. His board thought it was alcohol abuse, Raitt said, but Wood doesn’t drink. They went to doctors, were referred to a specialist, and the initial diagnosis came back a few weeks later.
“I cried for four days,” Raitt says.
On Sept. 2, 2016, the long-time couple tied the knot. Wood had wanted to do it for a while but, Raitt said, they could never find the time.
Three weeks later, Parliament was back and Raitt rose in the House of Commons to make a statement on World Alzheimer’s Day. She broke down. “What I didn’t expect was the rush of emotions that I would feel in that moment.”
Raitt doesn’t want to assume what will happen or be consumed by it. “I’m going to live my journey,” she says. “I’m not going to worry about the future until the future happens.
“I watch him carefully. He is safe. He is happy. He drives. I haven’t seen any deterioration since the diagnosis in June. But someday there will be, so we take a lot of pictures.”
She’s not being brave, she insists. “Everyone has a struggle in life. Everyone has a story.”
Raitt wrestled with the sharing her family history before making the jump into politics in 2008.
Finally, she decided it was her story, and anyone could find out on the Internet, so this way at least, she’d be able to explain it herself.
“Everyone has a struggle in life. Everyone has a story.”
“You know what I realized? No one cared. I was holding so much shame and concern about what people would think and how it was explained that once it came out, I realized it’s OK, my kids are happier, and my mother is happy and I’m not disrespecting the memory of my grandparents when I talk about the reality of my birth,” she says. “And so when I deal with hurdles in my life, I just decided to be open.”
Raitt decided — against the advice of those close to her — to open up about her struggle with postpartum depression after the birth of her second child.
Her chief of staff as well as her husband worried that people would look at her differently. But Raitt said she made the game-time decision to share her experience when accepting a 2011 Champion of Mental Health Award for her work developing a voluntary national standard for workplace mental health and safety.
“In the moment, I felt like a fraud if I didn’t say something about it.”
In a 2014 interview, Raitt also revealed that she was going into surgery to remove a growth on her ovaries with the possibility that she might have ovarian cancer. In the end, tests showed she did not.
“My message was ‘when you are not getting the diagnosis you want, continue and push for it,’” Raitt told HuffPost. Soon after the interview aired, a woman at Tim Hortons told Raitt her comments had convinced her to return her doctor and demand testing she thought she needed.
“Every step of the way, when I have been open and honest and measured in how I talk about stuff, I have had somebody in the larger community tell me that they are grateful and it helped them. So why not? If it helps, why not?”
* * *
On her website, Raitt says her “life changed when she first met Stephen Harper.” While the former prime minister may have inspired her to run in the former riding of Halton and asked her to serve in his cabinet, it was actually his campaign strategist, Doug Finley, who changed her life.
As CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, Raitt was embroiled in an ugly dispute with the City of Toronto and Porter airlines founder Robert Deluce over the construction of a footbridge to the island airport. Ottawa had just transferred $35 million to the Port Authority to settle the dispute, and the new Tory government suspected it was another a Liberal boondoggle.
Ultimately, Raitt was criticized in the final report for comments made to the media but the probe found no evidence of wrongdoing.
What the affair did do was spark Tory interest in her as a potential candidate.
In 2008, a year after Garth Turner — the maverick MP for the riding she lives in — had crossed the floor, Finley flew to the Toronto Island airport to meet with Raitt. They got together in a creaky room in the old terminal A and discussed — in a roundabout way — what it would look like if she ran.
“I can still see sitting with Doug in that crappy terminal talking about it, and that’s when I went I think I’m going to run for this guy. I think I’m going to go for it.”
Raitt checks her watch as the main course is delivered. “Oh that looks lovely,” she says, staring at the halibut. “Bon appetit.” We’re also good on time, she adds. She has a plane to catch in less than two hours.
On Sept. 7, 2008, Harper requested the dissolution of Parliament. A month later, Raitt was elected to Parliament, and 16 days after that, was sworn in as the cabinet minister for natural resources.
Raitt says her decision to join the Tories surprised a number of people. Liberals had often approached her to run but never pursued her. She’d never been partisan because her job at the port prevented that. Once, she bought a party membership: a Liberal card to support a friend during a nomination race.
A 2008 cartoon in the Calgary Herald depicted her as a Liberal mole, holding a phone saying: “Dalton, it’s me. I’m in. Now what?”
“Brought up in the Maritimes. Female lawyer, downtown Toronto. People are going to make the assumption that I’m a Liberal, but I’m not,” she says.
While the partisanship was a bit foreign at the outset, she now loves it. She also believes the party, and the Conservative caucus, is much “more united than people give us credit for.”
She loves the team aspect of politics, and makes a point of returning to Ottawa every week during this leadership race to attend caucus meetings.
The other candidates are “all my buddies,” she says, noting how she walked over to this lunch with Michael Chong, talks to Andrew Scheer all the time, and gets along great with Maxime Bernier. Everyone is her friend, she says, “except for Kevin O’Leary.”
In January, Raitt called out both O’Leary and Kellie Leitch, saying they “threaten the path to victory” for the Tories in 2019 by embracing aspects of Trump’s campaign.
Raitt dubbed O’Leary a television entertainer with “absolutely no filter,” who has attacked the military, ridiculed the poor, and pledged to make unions illegal. Canadians would never vote for a candidate with that track record, she declared as she announced www.StopKevinOLeary.com, a website created by her campaign team.
Raitt used the same press conference to accuse Leitch of trying to win votes by “pinning our problems on immigrants” and in so doing, flushing 10 years of Conservative outreach to ethnic communities down the drain.
The Tories are at risk of being hijacked by the loudest voices who are only in this race to “boost their own profiles,” she says.
Raitt denies that the criticism is her being mean to Leitch. She dislikes her colleague’s proposed policy of screening every newcomer with face-to-face interviews and believes it could to tear the party apart. But, it’s “never about Kellie. Kellie is a friend.”
“My goal in this race is to not be nasty,” she adds.
Raitt says she decided to run because she doesn’t like what Trudeau’s government is doing.
“I think fiscally it’s a mess…. I really dislike the spending,” she says, stressing “really.”
“My goal in this race is to not be nasty.”
She lists concerns over structural deficits and the 14 per cent increase in staffing in some government departments. The Liberals will not be able to dig Canada out, she says.
The Tories will need to win the next election in 2019 and can only do that by making gains in Atlantic Canada, in urban centres and with women, Raitt surmises.
“I represent all three. I’m a good contrast for Trudeau. Some people talk about tone, I don’t know if it’s about tone. I think it really is about contrast,” she states.
“Trudeau talks about the middle class and those who aspire to join it. Those are just words to him. Like, I lived it. I wasn’t middle class. I am upper middle class now…. You have to know and understand what that journey is,” she says. “These guys, it’s words to them, it’s just a lot of words.”
Decisions such as transitioning out of oil “in a short time frame” or not supporting the Energy East pipeline (the Liberals haven’t been called to make a decision on it yet), “hurt families,” she says.
“Everyone should have the chance to have a good life, instead of having a government decision muck it up so badly that your life is wasted.”
Among all the candidates running for the leadership, Raitt has the most ministerial experience. Her tenure wasn’t perfect, but she has earned wide respect.
Less than a year into her job as natural resources minister, Raitt left a folder with confidential ministerial briefings at CTV’s studio for more than a week before the content was publicly disclosed. Raitt offered to step down; instead her 26-year-old press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell resigned.
Days later, an audio recording between Raitt and Macdonnell was released after a failed attempt at a court injunction to keep it from public disclosure.
Macdonnell is heard saying the isotope issue is confusing a lot of people and Raitt responds: “But it’s sexy…. Radioactive leaks. Cancer.”
Raitt is also heard making disparaging comments about her colleague, health minister Leona Aglukaaq, suggesting she can’t handle “hot” issues in the Commons.
“People think poorly of me as a result, but I learned from it,” Raitt muses, as she finishes her plate. She’s left all the charred cherry tomatoes to the side. She’s more judicious in her comments and a much more positive person, she says. Aglukkaq has been “the bigger person in this,” Raitt adds. The two are good friends, and Aglukaaq attended Raitt’s wedding in Cape Breton last summer.
Like most of the other candidates gunning for the Tory leadership, Raitt is running on a continuation of most of the Harper agenda. She is opposed to a carbon tax. She wants to balance the budget but won’t say how long it will take until she knows how big “the hole” is going to be.
If she becomes prime minister in 2019, Raitt said she’ll probably kill the current campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat.
'People shouldn't be afraid of conversation'
She talks openly about her desire to study two-tiered health care.
“I think some provinces are already experimenting in this area, I think we should have conversations with the provinces to see what they want to do,” she says. The status quo isn’t working, she says, more efficiencies need to be found.
She asks for tea: Earl Grey without milk.
“I want to have a conversation around it, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” she adds. “People shouldn’t be afraid of conversation, and they always have the ultimate power, they can vote people out.”
Still, she’s wary of throwing the Conservatives off message. At a debate in Vancouver over the weekend, Raitt chastised her fellow contenders for wanting to engage voters in the next election on sidebar issues such as recriminalizing marijuana.
“I’m going to get real with everybody in the room: if we run an election in 2019 on the platform of recriminalizing marijuana, we will face the same result as we faced in 2015,” she told the audience. “We run on economy, we run on economic matters.”
Raitt doesn’t believe the Liberals will have pot legalized by then, but if they do, she suggests the age of consumption should be raised to 25.
While Raitt has also no plans to reopen the abortion issue or same-sex marriage to please social conservatives, she’s says she’s personally “not pro-choice.”
“Remember my mother in 1968, if she could have had an abortion, she would have aborted me. So I kind of carry with me a different perspective,” she explains. “I would much rather there be no abortion in the world quite frankly, but it’s there and it’s going to stay there.”
If she becomes leader, Raitt says she would appoint better-trained chiefs of staff, and include professional development during caucus meetings so MPs can build their skillset. She would also force her cabinet ministers to take second-language training — and she’d “monitor” it.
“We need to ready our people for any eventuality, and if it is left to your own devices ...” she says, trailing off, but likely referencing her own experience. “I would be more a hands-on boss, but that’s my training.”
HuffPost Canada is profiling each of the 2017 Conservative leadership candidates, leading up to the May decision:
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