They’re over the Hill (or are they?) — Retiring MPs talk candidly about what they will and won’t miss

OTTAWA—There are three ways to leave the House of Commons: death, defeat or voluntary resignation. Late this week, the shadow of all those kinds of departures passed over Parliament Hill, as the chamber adjourned for this pre-election summer.

The sad passing of Conservative MP Mark Warawa was marked with tears and tributes in the Commons before the formal adjournment vote on Thursday. While it is possible that MPs may need to return for a brief sitting this summer to pass the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade agreement, most were treating the winding-down of business as the real goodbye to the 42nd Parliament.

The vast majority of MPs in all parties will be running this fall to keep their jobs, but about 40 of the people who were saying farewell to the Commons knew they wouldn’t be coming back after the October election. These are the politicians who chose their own time to exit political life — by the latest count, 15 Liberals, 13 Conservatives, 11 New Democrats and three Independents.

Some of the retiring MPs are moving on after a long haul in elected life, and the decision to leave has made them more candid about the things they’re happy to leave behind.

“I’m starting to sicken of the political BS that goes on in this place down here on all sides,” says Conservative MP Larry Miller.

“I’m tired and I’m cranky,” says retiring Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, who is more known around the Hill for his humour and friendships across party lines.

“This place is sometimes kind of an abusive place to work,” says Nathan Cullen, a well-respected New Democrat calling it quits.

Many, like Cuzner and Cullen, are MPs from ridings far from Parliament Hill, who feel the need to stop the crazy commuting that elected life requires of them. Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, a B.C. Liberal, is hanging it up after just one term in office; Cullen, after 15 years.

On Thursday, as these MPs were saying farewell to the Commons, they hugged, shook hands and exchanged promises to see colleagues again soon. Anne Minh Tu Quach, an NDPer retiring after two terms in office, kept dabbing tears from her eyes.

But none who spoke to the Star for their exit interviews were talking about second thoughts. Of all the ways to leave the Commons, choosing one’s time to go is far preferable to death or defeat.

Anne Minh-Thu Quach is pictured at the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet Festival in January 2017 in Mississauga. The New Democrat, 36, is the only Vietnamese MP in the House of Commons.



Why did you decide to leave?

“It had been one and a half years that I’d been thinking about it. It’s a rhythm of life that is pretty wild. I lost my hair three times within eight years because it’s stressful, because I’m tired. Even one time, one of my colleagues said, ‘Anne, are you sniffing coke?’ I said, ‘No, why?’ And they said, ‘Because your nose is bleeding.’

“But I love what we do a lot: engaging in debates on bills, working to try and help the most people possible, for social justice. In the last year we defended the environment; that is something that energizes me.

“When I learned that I was pregnant, I said, ‘OK, it’s certainly no.’ It’s certain that I wouldn’t be able to do this work and be a mother for a second time. It’s too much stress for me … My first daughter will be 5 years old in two weeks … I’m a teacher in high school, so I find it very important to be there for my daughter when she’s starting school. And to have a family life, and to start watching concerts again, to watch movies.”

What was the biggest frustration, in your eight years here?

“In the first year (2011), I was very discouraged, because I found it was very partisan, it was difficult to share ideas. I advocated a lot for public services and the environment as a teacher, but I didn’t know exactly what the work was of an MP and I didn’t think it was so partisan. When I got here, in committees, in the House of Commons, I found that it went nowhere.

“But it’s just that it’s very slow. It’s possible to change the government, ideas, or to influence but it takes a lot of effort.”

What was your goal in coming here as a politician, and did you accomplish that goal?

“In 2011, I was elected with the Orange Wave (the party’s unprecedented breakthrough, led by Quebec rookie MPs) and I had no expectations. I just wanted to make people know the values of the NDP, I wanted people to know Jack Layton, and I wasn’t expecting at all to be elected. So, I didn’t really have any specific hope except to increase the percentage of the vote from 11 per cent to 15 per cent. That was the objective I was given.”

“Once I was elected, I discovered my riding, which is very agricultural. So I worked for the last six years to develop a Buy Local policy to support farmers. It hasn’t been realized, but in the last Liberal budget, there was money to build infrastructure for public markets, to buy fruits and vegetables for school cafeterias, for example. So it’s a step in the right direction.”

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

“The most visible was the file on Kathryn Spirit. It was my first file. It was a ship that arrived in 2011 in Beauharnois, which is the second largest city in my riding. It was in a potable water reservoir. And it took seven years so it was dismantled in a safe way.”

What was the thing that surprised you the most about being an MP?

“The number of hours you need to work here. You need to know everything, all the time. Journalists could ask you questions about any subject.”

In your opinion, what is one thing that could change that would make Parliament better?

“I think that electoral reform could change a lot, just because it would be less partisan. We would have more obligations to collaborate with other parties. It would make so every party put water in their wine, each party would have to go find votes for this or that bill to make it pass.”

What will you miss when this is done?

“My colleagues. I was saying this in caucus this morning and I started crying. It’s very human, even if it’s very stressful, it’s very intellectual. Even if I don’t agree with the Conservatives, the Conservatives are still here to improve the fate of the world. And every person has a story, every person has convictions, and I find it very rich. We’re lucky to live this. I will miss that.”

What won’t you miss?

“I won’t miss all the arrogance that lives here. The stress. Votes at night at 8:30, surprise votes. I won’t miss the rhythm of life. I’ve found it to be very destructive.”

Rodger Cuzner in the House in 2010. Cuzner is leaving the House at age 63.

Rodger Cuzner, Liberal

Cape Breton-Canso


How long have you sat in Parliament and why are you leaving now?

“Nineteen years this fall. I’m tired and I’m cranky. I think it’s a function of being re-elected to government … I was probably still naive to think, OK, we can go in and fix these problems. And what I found was really difficult was changing the tack of a bureaucracy that was heading in a specific direction. So you need an incredible amount of energy and time.”

What was the biggest surprise coming here?

“Oh Jesus, there were so many. I remember it being really lonely my first year. You spend a lot of time on your own. You got a lot of acquaintances but everybody sort of operates with a very small circle of friends.” (A goodbye/roast party for Cuzner drew about 200 people to an Ottawa pub.)

What was your biggest goal when you came? Did you reach it?

“I thought we were going to be able to keep the Cape Breton coal mines open (laughs). No … By 2000 or so the clock had run out, so the next best thing was to get some kind of adjustment package. So your focus shifts from keeping the coal mines open to making sure the men are treated fairly and that the communities have some resources to try to adjust. In those two areas, we had a certain degree of success.”

What do you now regard as your biggest personal achievement?

Cuzner cites two projects he worked on with fellow MPs to aid workers: obtaining approval in the last budget for a pilot project to provide a “lower skilled pathway to citizenship” for temporary foreign workers in the agri-food sector; and saving the Canada Summer Jobs program when he was in Opposition — an effort for which he found a sympathetic ear in Stephen Harper’s Conservative cabinet.

“ Monte Solberg was the minister. Some of the guys back home were feeding us information …they were making the snowballs and we were throwing them here. Greg Thompson was veterans affairs minister … We hit them hard every day and Greg pulled me aside after question period, and he said ‘Rodger, you’ve gotta keep going on this.’ He says ‘this is too important a program to let drop. I’m going to keep pushing from my end and he said you keep pushing on your end … After about three weeks of it Harper walked down to Monte and looked at Monte and said ‘fix this.’ ”

Did you set out with this in mind?

“No. But if you’re here for a period of time, and you pay attention and listen to those whose opinions you have respect for, I think you can do good things. I knew from the outset I wasn’t going to be Winston Churchill but I have confidence in my ability to listen to people, understand issues and stay with an issue until you’ve got some kind of resolution.”

Biggest frustration?

“The amount of time that’s wasted … There’s a churn of elected officials, ministerial staff and bureaucrats and one of the most frustrating things is the stakeholders who continue to wrestle with specific issues always seem to be going back to educate the elected officials, the ministerial support staff and the bureaucrats because of that turnover.”

What won’t you miss?

“I won’t miss the windshield, as beautiful a riding as it is … I’m tired, so there’s that. Coffee can only do so much.”

What will you miss?

(Long pause.) “I won’t be sad because I’m leaving. I’ll be happy because I had the opportunity to come and serve. You miss the people, and you miss the fact that when there’s a tough issue and whether you’re in front of someone who’s challenging your view on that issue, or if it’s a reporter who’s asking you the question that should be asked, having to come to work every day and work outside your comfort zone … I’ll miss this part too (points to a photo of himself, animated, debating in the Commons.) I enjoy the pitch and catch in the House, the thrust and parry.”

Larry Miller, 62, Conservative MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound.

Larry Miller, Conservative

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound


Why are you leaving?

“I had to give it a lot of thought (in 2015) and I decided I’d regret not running again. (But) I’m starting to sicken of the political B.S. that goes on in this place down here on all sides. At the end of the day I decided that I was all in (in 2015), but over the last three, three and a half years, I pretty much knew shortly after the last election that I wouldn’t be running again. But I wanted to make sure.”

“Fifteen years is a long time, and actually 28 if you count my time in five elections municipally. My health is good and I want to enjoy it, enjoy the next chapter of my life.”

Biggest frustration?

“Question period. And it’s not any nicer when you’re in government. To me, the only beneficiaries of question period are the media. And actually, I’ve noticed the especially in the last two to three years, there’s hardly any media who attend question period anymore. And that says something.”

Biggest achievement?

“I had two private members’ bills passed: the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act when we were in government, as well as the Transboundary Water Protection Act. My goal was to prevent major bulk diversions or sales of our fresh water to other countries. Because there were some proposals put forward by Saudi Arabia and a few other countries. Both of those passed unanimously which, it’s pretty hard to get a private member’s bill passed at all, let alone unanimously. So that gave me a lot of gratification and they’re both important to my riding.

“And the other one is ending the long-gun registry. That was one of the reasons I got involved in federal politics, but y’know that was very rewarding. I think we did some things that never in any way harmed public safety, and I knew it wouldn’t.”

What was the biggest surprise coming here?

“I think it started even before the first caucus meeting. When I came down here after winning on June 28 of ’04, coming down I presumed there’d be an office for me, there’d be a list of staff that I could interview, a place to stay. And none of that was in place. And if it hadn’t have been for a former colleague of mine, Gary Schellenberger, who I just happened to know through a mutual friend — I called him and said ‘my god, there’s no guidance down here. What do I do?’ And he said Larry, you come use my office, you need paper, whatever, interview potential staff, stuff like that.

“That was what completely dumbfounded me in coming here. And coming here, too, being a rural guy and probably naive to the big city.”

“(Another thing) is sometimes the biggest backstabbing can happen within your own party. And I know it happens in all parties, and it isn’t rampant. But there are individuals out there who are climbing the ladder. And they will walk over anyone to get up that ladder.”

What will you miss the most?

“The people. I’ve met some great colleagues. I’ve stayed in touch. Loyola Hearn, former minister from Newfoundland, I’ve gone fishing with him since he retired. We talk at least once a month via email. Merv Tweed is a super friend from Manitoba. Leona Aglukkaq from Nunavut. Gail Shea from P.E.I. The list goes all across the country. And there’s staff out there, the same, and I’ve met some people here in the media that I’ve already had beers and wings with a couple of them before I left.”

What won’t you miss?

“Nobody hates a suit and tie more than I do. I say I was born in overalls and a camo shirt. But I wear a suit and tie faithfully here, because you’ve got to respect the institution. And one thing that has irked me in recent years, I can’t believe the amount of people that sit in the House with no tie on. I absolutely hate wearing a tie, but there are some things that come with the place, and these last two or three years I just can’t believe how many people regularly sit in the House with no tie on.”

Liberal MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones in 2016.

Pam Goldsmith-Jones, Liberal

West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country


How long have you sat in Parliament and why are you leaving now?

“Sixteen years in politics when you add it all up … I absolutely love it, but I need to be based in Vancouver.”

Goldsmith-Jones, a former district councillor and former mayor of West Vancouver, entered Parliament in 2015, and after four years in which she served as parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, consular affairs and international trade, she says she needs to be closer to aging parents, but declines to elaborate other than saying Vancouver is a long haul from Ottawa.

What was the biggest surprise coming here?

“Our days are very structured and yet they’re quite unpredictable. It’s quite difficult to plan how you are going to tackle a body of work. That surprised me, as we’re asked to do a lot. I’m impressed with how much people do at all … MPs build an incredible capacity to produce.”

Goldsmith-Jones says her academic background in political science and in aboriginal and business leadership did not prepare her to understand how Parliament works, or rather, how it does not work well. In an interview, and in her final speech to the Commons, Goldsmith-Jones was blunt about the “inhumane” impact of the “working conditions” for MPs, parliamentary secretaries and ministers trying to advance projects or bills.

“I am deeply disturbed by the stultifying and soul-destroying House of Commons rules that stipulate that the House sits on Fridays every week, or until midnight, or all night long. This is not democratic. This is not even humane.”

What was your goal when you came? Did you reach it?

“To represent the West Coast to Ottawa, in part.” Goldsmith-Jones says she came to bring concerns about the environment, climate change, protection of wild salmon stocks, and the desire to dismantle measures in legislation passed under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, including the closing of fisheries department offices.

What do you now regard as your biggest personal achievement, and did you set out with that in mind?

“I’m proud of the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre. (The centre is an oceanfront aquatic research facility that incorporates traditional Indigenous knowledge and houses a number of academic, government and other scientists.)

“Stephen Harper considered selling this piece of property … We went through an incredible community process” to save it. “I had no idea it would become what it has become … I really think it’s been a cultural shift.”

Biggest frustration?

“I have a healthy recognition of how challenging representing the West Coast in Ottawa is.”

Goldsmith-Jones points to measures like medical assistance in dying and legalized cannabis that were “all ideas born in the West Coast.” She describes Ottawa as draining a lot of that energy. “Every time you go home, you feel energized and come here and spend that energy. Then you go home again and fill up that gas tank.”

What will you miss?

“A lot of incredible people, some fascinating MPs. Someone like Elizabeth May, who I’ve known for a long time. My work on international trade and foreign affairs committee. I enjoyed working with all the MPs from other parties. I’ll miss the responsibility of representing Canada abroad, it’s a huge responsibility and honour.”

What won’t you miss?

“I won’t miss the commute … If it was a four-day work week (in Parliament) it would have made all the difference. I would have been obligated to reconsider.” She says she will continue working outside Parliament to make it a more family-friendly and efficient workplace.

Goldsmith-Jones says door to door to her riding is a 20-hour return trip each weekend. “To be fair to family, friends, all the community, I just wasn’t there on Fridays; it wasn’t enough … To make a life alone in a different city is a challenge.”

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who's leaving the House at age 46.

Nathan Cullen, NDP

Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.


How long have you sat in Parliament and why are you leaving now?

“Fifteen years. I had always promised myself to leave before I became too attached and my whole identity got wrapped up or I became too cynical. This place is sometimes kind of an abusive place to work. We’re abusive to each other, we can be incredibly kind when things need to be compassionate.

“My travel is nuts. My first bunch of years, I was doing 300-320 days on the road. That had to change once the kids showed up for sure … I wanted to leave well. I wanted to keep my health, family and reputation intact.”

What was the biggest surprise coming here?

“The range of humanity and callousness … how you could see some people forgo their dignity for the pursuit of power, and then other times when people showed such strength particularly on personal struggles, I think of Mauril (Bélanger, a Liberal MP who died of ALS), I think of Jack (Layton, the NDP leader who died of cancer.” (Cullen is visibly moved here).

What was your biggest goal when you came? Did you reach it?

“Boy, was I naive, in the sense that I’d never set foot in Ottawa, I’d never run for office of anything … I wanted my time in office to look a lot more like an NGO (non-governmental organization) rather than a political machine, a party machine. I thought, looking at Skeena, this place is having amazing challenges that actually will mean something for the rest of the country if we can figure them out. So how do I talk about that, how do I project it, bring resources in, take the stories out? That was the goal, particularly the Indigenous/non-Indigenous (stories) and (the story) of a resource economy struggling up against limitations of the environment …”

Did you reach it?

“No, this is all just running the ball down the field …We’re never in a state where it’s settled and fixed.”

What do you now regard as your biggest personal achievement, and did you set out with that in mind?

“The Great Bear Rainforest was a big thing for us. In general I feel that the region is protected from the worst threats.”

Cullen points to the fact that debates within governments or corporations about big mining or pipeline projects now incorporate Indigenous perspectives as a matter of course as a big change he has witnessed, and welcomes.

““I didn’t always hold myself up to the standards that I would have wanted to. I succumbed to the 30-second cheap-shot question period and not too often maybe, but often enough that it preoccupies me.”

Biggest frustration?

“Smart people doing stupid things, and you’d have the one-on-one conversation across the table and we’d all agree this is the right thing. But because of some triangulated political map, the overconcentration of power in every leader’s office and every prime minister’s office is a huge frustration. There’s a risk-reward calculation that leads to really top-down ways of deciding things.”

What won’t you miss?

“The tin-can flying; there’s a few times of being in the Dash-8 and it’s not landing because of weather, and I’m just thin, like I’ve just been rolled out with the rolling pin.”

What will you miss?

“I like talking about things I’ve seen and being challenged. I like watching people get just a little bit of attention or justice who typically don’t have attention or justice. I’ll miss some of the travel for sure.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier

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