After 13 years as an MLA, Surrey South representative Stephanie Cadieux has learned some lessons about the highs and lows of politics that she hopes will serve her well in her new position advising the federal government on accessibility issues.
“Probably unknowingly, most of my adult life I’ve worked towards doing this, so it just feels like the right step,” Cadieux told The Tyee during her last week serving in the legislature.
The federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act unanimously in 2019 and this month Cadieux took on a key role as the country’s first chief accessibility officer.
“The work is about bringing inclusivity to policy and policy design,” she said, “to how we ensure people with disabilities are hired, how we make sure they can access services, how we look at the built environment and are we being truly inclusive with that.”
It’s not just about adding ramps to buildings, she said, but what to do for people who have difficulty communicating, who are blind, or deaf, or have another disability. It’s about opportunities for employment and access to services for everyone.
The work is not directly political, but it does require an understanding of politics, Cadieux said.
Her knowledge of how politics works was hard-earned as an MLA. As she put it in her final speech in the legislature, “I have faced the worst of what this house can offer, and the best.”
While she remains enthused about what representatives can accomplish, it’s clear the sometimes nastiness of the public debate and the personal attacks have had a lasting impact.
“It’s worth it,” Cadieux said, when asked what advice she would give to others considering running for public office.
“It’s worth it to be able to have influence and to bring a voice to the table that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be there,” she said. “It’s worth it to feel and to learn about your community at the level you do as an MLA or other elected official, to be able to impact people’s lives in a really positive way, even if the changes are small, even if they are one at a time, the ability to do that is amazing.”
To have the opportunity is an honour, she said, even if it comes with unique challenges. “You have to be able to put aside the nastiness and the partisanship and understand where it comes from, what it’s about, and how in most cases it’s not personal. It’s just part of the process. If you can do that, if you can see the big picture, it’s worth it.”
Cadieux is a fiscal conservative who is on the socially progressive side of the BC Liberal coalition. She was the second person who uses a wheelchair ever elected as an MLA in the province and is the first woman with a visible disability to serve in cabinet.
In charge of social services ministries under premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark, she found herself in a position to drive needed changes.
Cadieux spent almost five years as minister of children and family development. Her tenure was marked by a series of hard-hitting and heart-wrenching reports about the deaths of children and youth. They included the 2015 death by suicide of teenager Alex Gervais in an Abbotsford motel while in the ministry's care. Premier John Horgan, then leader of the Opposition, called her performance as minister "pathetic" and demanded her resignation.
Former representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was also sharply critical of Cadieux for failing to accept responsibility for continuing problems. “Confusion is one way to say it. Incompetence is another way to say it. They don't have a handle on the situation, and kids are suffering” she commented after the death of Gervais.
Cadieux found the criticism unfair at the time and still views Turpel-Lafond's approach as unusual, unconstructive and overly political for someone in the representative's role.
And Cadieux also pointed to successes.
“We managed to find permanent homes for 1,400 kids from care in three years,” Cadieux said. “We set records for the number of kids who got to that permanency. That was the most important thing we could do for kids, in my mind. To get them families that loved them, to be loved and cared for and have that security. That meant a lot to me.”
While there were positive moves forward, she said, other initiatives didn’t get the hoped-for results and there are some issues that remain somewhat intractable.
“The minister today will find the same thing,” she said. Even when there's desire to do something differently, she added, in some cases changes don't lead to the intended and hoped for results.
And she says the rush to blame the minister is destructive.
“I’m sure every minister would like to be the minister that never has a child die while they’re in office. Unfortunately it still keeps happening. It is horrible, it is sad, but it’s not the minister’s fault.”
To suggest the minister doesn’t care is unfair, she added. “Any minister that holds that title will feel a great emotional strain when that happens on their watch, and a great desire to shift and change the system to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But they will never be able to claim success, I don’t think. It’s too sad, it’s too a part of humanity in its worst. It’s just not perfect.”
“I spent five years being blamed personally for those tragedies,” she said, including some that pre-dated her time heading the ministry.
“The commentary, largely modelled by people with platforms, like the opposition at the time, carries weight,” she said. “When they called for my head, when they said I was incompetent, those things carry weight with the public who doesn’t have the depth of understanding of the issue and who desperately feel sadness and a wish for something to be different.”
As head of the system, the minister needs to recognize that when something horrible happens their role is to look to the root causes and make the changes that could prevent similar tragedies in the future, she said.
As head of another ministry, social development, Cadieux championed the single-parent employment initiative that provided increased supports, including funding for child care and continued benefits, as people got training and transitioned into jobs.
Many single parents, the vast majority of whom are women, wanted to work outside their home and support their family, Cadieux said. “But because of the structure of income assistance it was impossible,” she said, noting that rules at the time meant that a single parent who went to school would be cut off income assistance.
“To be able to convince my colleagues that we could do it differently and we could get good outcomes, that was big,” she said. “It’s still today the only program of its size and scope in the country.”
At the time there were 15,000 people eligible for the program and about 4,500 took the opportunity, she said. By the end of the first year about 1,000 were already working and independent. “The fact that it’s still running today is great. I think the NDP actually has made a few improvements.”
The next step should be to set up a similar program for people with disabilities, Cadieux said, adding that some groups of people face significant barriers and need more support than others.
“The welfare system, the way it’s set up traps people, and there’s reasons why it’s set up that way,” she said. “But it’s also counterproductive and we can do better.”
However Cadieux takes the long view. No MLA gets everything they want and nobody gets everything right even when they have the opportunity, she said.
“The frustrations are the things that you leave wishing you’d been able to do something more,” she said. “There’s lots of those. I’m just a pragmatist and I realize you can’t change everything, you can’t do it overnight, and government, governing, is complex and there are always battling priorities and urgencies and other things that slow progress down on things that everybody often even agrees need to happen.”
She gave equal pay as an example. Six times she introduced private members' bills to address the pay gap between women and men, including once more during her last week in the legislature. All came after the BC Liberals had been defeated and formed the opposition.
“Everybody agrees we need to do something,” she said. “We don’t yet agree on what the right thing is, but we all agree something needs to happen. But it hasn’t yet risen to the level of priority to get the legislation drafted.”
She said she expects the NDP will eventually follow through on a commitment to introduce its own legislation to address the issue. “I don’t think it’s a partisan issue. They’ll get it done and that will be great.”
Another area where more work is needed is accessible housing requirements. “I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to get that through, however there’s been progress,” she said. “We have the Accessible BC Act. They’re starting to work on the first set of regulations, and that’s good. It’s progress and I know there’s a desire to do better in this area.”
Progress from Cadieux’s time in the legislature include changes to the building itself. When she was first elected, every entrance to the building required using stairs. With her advocacy, a ground floor entrance with a wide ramp was added at the front of the building and named after Doug Mowat, who from 1983 to 1991 had been the first MLA to use a wheelchair.
“The opening of the Mowat entrance at the front, that was important to me because it represented what my being here and representing people with disabilities, more than just my constituency, meant,” said Cadieux, who has lived with a spinal cord injury for more than three decades since a car crash when she was 18.
“It opened up another conversation about the need to provide access to this place.” Other changes made during her years in the building include power doors, more ramps inside the building and accessible washrooms. Since Cadieux first took her place in the legislature there have been three more people who use wheelchairs elected as MLAs.
Shirley Bond, who was still leading the BC Liberal Party in the legislature on Cadieux’s last day, recognized how Cadieux had persevered and achieved a great deal. “There is a genuine, deep feeling of care and appreciation for someone who just made such an enormous difference for us as a team and in this parliament.”
Finance Minister Selina Robinson said Cadieux had been a tremendous advocate on women’s and accessibility issues. “Yes, she’s done some things right, and she’s never lost the plot.”
Politics can be dehumanizing, said BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, and Cadieux was one MLA who really demonstrated how to push back against that. “I really like her,” she said, noting her wicked sense of humour.
Cadieux is leaving just as the new BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon, who won a byelection in Vancouver-Quilchena, prepares to take his seat in the legislature.
Falcon and Cadieux worked together in cabinet for four years and, with both of them representing Surrey constituencies, he was a mentor for her when she was first elected.
“I learned a lot from Kevin and appreciate a set of skills he has that I don’t have,” Cadieux said. “He’s very quick-witted. He’s a natural leader in terms of getting people excited. It’s great.”
She said time away from politics has been good for Falcon. “What I like about him now is he’s coming back a little wiser.... He’s got all the same energy and passion for B.C. and for getting things done, and I like that... but he’s talking about things I never heard him talk about before. He sounds a little more like me, and I like it.”
She said Falcon is talking about issues like poverty, addiction and homelessness in a way that would have been unimaginable after the 2001 election when he served in then-premier Gordon Campbell’s first cabinet as the minister of state for deregulation.
“He’s understanding it at a pretty deep level, from my personal opinion, and I think it’s great because when you want to lead a party and you want to potentially be premier, you have to be able to understand all the issues,” Cadieux said. “I have to believe, just like anybody, he will have learned from his experiences.”
In her final speech in the legislature, Cadieux talked about some of what she accomplished, and noted that she still hears from people who were on the Youth Advisory Council when she was the minister of children and family development. “For all of the abuse I took here during my five years as minister, I must have done something right,” she said.
“I share these last few things because I'm proud of them, and because I will never accept the narrative that right-of-centre politicians don't care about people,” she said. “I do. People are the reason we all come here to serve.”
She also challenged all MLAs to do better. “The push-and-pull in politics is necessary. Debate is necessary. Differentiation is necessary. But keep it about the policy. Debate the ideas. Champion the ideas. Don't make it personal.
“It's too easy, and frankly, it's lazy. Don't apply generalizations that result in character assassinations, because you are all better than that. I know you. These are divisive times. Let's not be the ones dividing. Lead instead.”
MLAs stood and applauded as Cadieux wheeled her way off the floor of the house and out through the doors one last time.