5 Women On What It’s Really Like To Run For Federal Office

‘I knock on doors with a pen when my knuckles get sore.’

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Salma Zahid, Liberal incumbent for Scarborough-Centre Ontario, campaigning
Salma Zahid, Liberal incumbent for Scarborough-Centre Ontario

Imagine knocking on 39,000 doors, driving for eight hours just to reach a community in your riding, or trading campaign war stories with your mom. Running for office is a Herculean commitment. As the number of campaign days dwindle, Chatelaine spoke with five women running for office about their experience on the trail.

Jane Philpott campaigning during Canadian election 2019
Jane Philpott (Photo: Julie Weiss)

What it’s like to run as an Independent

Jane Philpott, former Liberal minister of health and Indigenous services, incumbent candidate for Markham-Stouffville, Ontario

Up until April 2, 2019, I was planning to run for the Liberals. But, having been ejected from the party [after resigning as a minister in response to the SNC scandal], I really didn’t have much time to decide how to proceed.

There are structural advantages to being part of a party, in terms of having the party apparatus—you have party advertising and a riding association. But it’s a big commitment to join a party and I felt I wasn’t prepared to go out and represent one [that wasn’t the Liberals]. I read about the history of independent MPs in other countries, and it appealed—Ireland has had a large number of independent MPs who have had a huge impact on shaping the policies of the government.

Running as an independent has its advantages: My volunteers say, “The only person we have to defend on the doorstep is you.” I’ve had a huge number of people say they feel politically homeless. I met a gentleman the other night who said “I haven’t been able to find anybody I’ve felt I can support and you will be my first vote in 30 years.”

When I first announced I was running as an independent, all sorts of pundits said “She doesn’t have a chance.” But what they didn’t calculate is the fact that this has unleashed a phenomenal outpouring of enthusiasm from people locally and across the country. I have easily twice the number of volunteers I had in 2015 and we raised an extraordinary amount of money in the two weeks after the writ drop. It’s also incredibly freeing to be independent: As a Liberal candidate, there were regular phone calls about whatever the latest policy announcement would be. And whenever I send out an email or a social media message, I don’t have to think about whether it lines up with party policy.

I’m going this “alone” as an independent, but I don’t feel at all alone in this. I have my whole community behind me. I feel like I’m carrying all of their hopes and imaginations. There are times where I feel ‘Oh my gosh I hope I can live up to what people are hoping for.’ It really does feel like a responsibility, but that’s what I’ve signed up for.

Cyara Bird holds a Conservative election sign during the 2019 Canadian election campaign
Cyara Bird (Photo: Heather Feldbusch)

What it’s like to run for the very first time with two kids under 5

Cyara Bird, Conservative candidate for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Manitoba, stay-at-home mother of Wya, 3, and Wrenley, 8 months, former volunteer firefighter

I was in Ottawa for the 2019 Daughters of the Vote, an annual delegation of women from each riding in Canada, when I decided I needed to run for office. There were some things I wasn’t impressed with—the SNC Lavalin scandal, the Indigenous youth suicide crisis and other issues that had come up in my riding—and I decided I couldn’t wait to be a voice for First Nations people. On my way to Conservative party headquarters I called my husband to ask him what he thought, and he said “You’ll know if you need to do it, and if you do, I’ll support you.”

I got my forms and he’s been supporting me ever since. The way his shifts are arranged, he works Monday and Tuesdays, and on his days off he’s watching the girls. On the days he works, my mother-in-law watches them. I have a good support system to ensure I’m focused on this campaign. I’m trying to figure out a plan for when I do get elected, to make sure I can still be in their lives. There’s so much work to be done, but I’m going to find a way to make it work.

And we are working SO hard on this campaign. The alarms here go off at 6:30am and we are out of bed and out the door at 7. I knew going into this that things were not great out here, because things were not great in my reserve. But as I’ve gone in to different reserves and see how neglected they are, I’ve been getting emotional. I walked into one house and saw a familiar sight—mould in the entryway. My house has it, too. The fact that there are people living out here like this is shocking. But talking to these residents fuels my fire, it makes me want to win the election even more. As I go along, these issues become personal to me. I’m still thinking about them when I finally go to bed at 1:30 am.

I have not seen my kids in a really long time. I went home in early October for my birthday, but work didn’t stop then. I told my husband “You’re coming out door knocking with us, by the way –bring the stroller, bring the blankets.” It’s hard, my youngest, Wrenley, is so young. She’s started crawling, so to miss that really sucks. But it all comes with the sacrifice. I miss them so much, but I keep saying the sacrifice is going to be so worth it. I’m doing this for them.

Salma Zahid puts an election sign on a awn
Salma Zahid

What it’s like to be the party’s queen of doorknocking after battling cancer

Salma Zahid, Liberal incumbent for Scarborough-Centre Ontario, now in remission after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February

The party tracks how much doorknocking each of us candidates have done and…we’re number one in the country! I have close to 39,000 doors in my riding and we have knocked each and every door more than once in this election. I have such a hardworking team. Doorknocking and listening directly to the constituents is the most important thing—it’s how you find out the issues on their mind, what they want to see their government doing for them.

I’m a grassroots person and an immigrant who came to this country 20 years ago. We started as a family in Regent Park in downtown Toronto, so I have gone through all those struggles a middle-class family will go through and that’s why I believe it’s important we go and knock doors. I don’t believe in trying to reach people through calls. Yesterday, one lady said “I was trying to make up my mind and I said ‘let’s see who comes to my door and you are here.’”

When I knock—often with a pen when my knuckles get sore—it’s very humbling to see that many families come out and say, “You were able to help me out as my local MP.” Sometimes you might be tired knocking at doors during the evening, but that tiredness goes away when a mother comes out and says, “I’m so thankful for you for all the work you’ve done.”

This is my first time campaigning since being diagnosed with cancer. I know many of my close friends are worried about me because they think I’m pushing myself too much. But I have that passion and I’m all fired up. I think God is giving me this time now. What I feel is I think I had a fight of my life, fighting against cancer. And just being positive and being optimistic is pulling me through. I’m sure Allah will give me energy.

Claire Kelly, Green candidate for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe
Claire Kelly

What it’s like to run in the same election as your mom

Claire Kelly, Green candidate for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe—her mother, Jo-Ann Roberts, is the Green candidate for Halifax and deputy leader of the national party

I graduated in 2015 and was out in Victoria working with immigrants and refugees when my mom decided to step up and run for the Green Party. I saw first-hand that campaigning is a full-time job. I was organizing the weekend canvass, going door to door and doing whatever needed to be done. I went to every single debate and at every one I got butterflies in my stomach. It was exciting, it was nerve-wracking.

The “aha” moment that motivated me to run came last October, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said there was 12 years to change everything before the Earth experiences irreversible damage. At home, I saw the damage climate change was causing, with wildfires out west and flooding to the east, where I am now living. I thought “I can’t sit on the sidelines in this election, I need to step in now.” I called my mom and said “Mom I’m joining you.”

Having that proximity to her experience definitely gave me the courage and the representation to see what it was like, the model of what it could be and how yes it was scary, but at the same time possible. My mom’s given me great advice about how to do things like media interviews. When we were talking the other night about preparing for a debate, she said “Ugh, I dread doing those too” which I was surprised to hear because she’s such a skilled debater. I really want to impress her and my whole family–it’s really important to do well for my family and for my new campaign family (my mom and dad have been so busy on my mom’s campaign, I’ve gotten really close to the people working with me here). We have a very active family group chat, and my mom and I campaigned on Thanksgiving together. One thing we’ve said is, when we both get elected, we’ll share an apartment in Ottawa and save taxpayers money. That would be the dream.

Georgina Jolibois, NDP incumbent candidate for Desnethé-Missinippi Churchill River Saskatchewan, in Parliament
Georgina Jolibois

What it’s like to run in a massive riding

Georgina Jolibois, NDP incumbent candidate for Desnethé-Missinippi Churchill River Saskatchewan

To get across my more than 580,000 square-km riding in the northern half of Saskatchewan, there is a lot of travelling, there is a lot of driving. And you really have to know the communities, their cultural backgrounds and meet constituents at their level and hear from them. One third of the riding is farmers and rural municipalities, one third is Métis and Indigenous municipalities and one third is First Nations reserves which can be many hours away from one another—seven or eight in some cases.

I have to have a detailed plan to make sure I can reach as many people as possible. I map out how long is it going to take, if there’s cell service or not, whether there’s a gas station between towns. We have to make sure there is a break in between and that we’re prepared with food (lots of fruit and vegetables), water, flashlight, blanket and candles. I had a flat tire at the beginning of the campaign, in September on the east side of the riding. Thank god it happened closer to an urban area, Prince Albert. I had to get a new set of tires that would be suitable for the northern roads, which are all unpaved.

I listen to country music on the radio, or motivational audio of stories from my elders in keeping with my self-care plan. We are blessed in the riding because there’s plenty of fresh air and plenty of connection to nature. It’s beautiful. The other night, when I was done in Stanley Mission and coming back to La Ronge, there was a beautiful full moon, it was amazing. That can really help keep you going.

For more of our election 2019 coverage, click here.