John Ivison: Returning to work after health scare just Lisa Raitt’s latest comeback
Lisa Raitt may be the best leader the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party will never have.
The 46-year-old federal transport minister is back at work for the first full week since undergoing surgery to remove tumours on her ovary, uterus and cervix in early November. All proved to be benign.
But the health scare throughout last fall frustrated her ambition to run for the leadership of the Ontario PCs, vacant since Tim Hudak’s crushing electoral defeat in June. “There was no way I could deal with my health issues and run for the leadership,” she said in an interview.
She said she had not definitively decided to run, even though she was encouraged to do so, with some enthusiasm, by many senior Ontario Tories. “But I knew in August I had a health issue.”
That she would have been a serious contender is clear from her adept handling of Monday’s announcement that the federal government is providing a $50-million loan to auto-parts maker Linamar Corp. to create 1,200 new jobs at its operations in Guelph, Ont. The Ontario government is injecting a further $50-million grant toward the $500-million expansion.
These kind of job-creation subsidies have been criticized as corporate welfare, lacking any kind of transparency when it comes to payback periods or return on investment estimates.
Ms. Raitt herself has said growing up in Cape Breton convinced her government interventions rarely work out.
Yet the MP for Halton, which neighbours Guelph, offered a spirited defence of this particular subsidy: it’s an investment in research and development that will increase the intellectual capacity of the company; the auto industry is critical to the Canadian economy; it’s a repayable loan (unlike Ontario’s grant); all the jobs will be full-time; and it will increase the number of skilled trades workers in the region, she said.
“Where I came from, I hated seeing government bailouts, which were often band-aid solutions. But this is not that. It makes a lot of sense,” she said. “My kids play hockey with kids whose parents work in the auto industry. I know how important it is for our communities.”
This is Ms. Raitt’s first week back at work since the operation. She said she still gets tired easily but is “at full steam” again.
Last August, it was far from certain she’d still be sitting at the Cabinet table. She says she’d been dealing with the side-effects of perimenopause for three years, but was told the symptoms were normal for a woman in her 40s.
It was only when a tumour was discovered on her ovary in September that concern grew. “For two weeks I was in a bit of limbo because I didn’t have the results from the biopsy and blood test,” she said. When they came in at the end of September, they suggested the lump was benign, but the only way to confirm that diagnosis was to remove it. It was at that point that she told her sons, Billy, 10, and John Colin, 13, what she was going through. “I used the ‘tumour’ word but in a positive way, to say ‘let’s not worry because I’m confident it’s not cancer’.”
She said the experience has taught her to listen to her own body and push healthcare professionals. “When people have an issue and they’re told it’s nothing, if they feel they need a second opinion or a referral, they should do it.
“My situation could have been dealt with more effectively three years ago. But what happened was that everyone treated the symptoms — I had an iron deficiency and anemia, so I was given iron pills. I felt guilty for complaining about the same symptoms time and again.”
But Ms. Raitt has grit borne from adversity, which drove her to insist on further inquiry.
She was raised by her grandparents in a blue collar Catholic family on Cape Breton Island, the youngest of seven children. She later discovered her biological mother was one of the girls she thought was her older sister.
She suffered post-partum depression after the birth of her second son in 2004 and says she was concerned that she might slide into a dark place after her operation.
“I went to the Mental Health Commission and asked for tips to avoid the possibility of depression. I know the perils from my past history of post-partum depression, so I made sure I was ready and rested, and I sailed through. But, going in, I knew I had to look out for not just my physical health but my mental health too.”
Ms. Raitt’s return to health and work is another comeback from a woman who is making rather a habit of them.
She was first elected as MP for Halton in 2008 and immediately found herself in Cabinet as natural resources minister. She was demoted to labour minister after an aide mislaid a recording on which Ms. Raitt could be heard referring to medical isotopes for cancer treatment as a “sexy” issue. At labour, though, she won the respect of friends and nominal foes with her handling of strikes at Air Canada and Canada Post. After being promoted to transport, she also received good reviews for the way she dealt with the aftermath of the Lac Mégantic rail disaster.
Her cancer scare stymied her shot at leadership in provincial politics. But one day the federal job will open up and there are many Conservatives who believe a female Toronto-area MP with years of senior Cabinet experience will make a formidable candidate.