Citizen Leslie | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Citizen Leslie

Former north end legal aid attorney Megan Leslie is an improbable Member of Parliament: a committed community activist who doesn’t see her career in politics as her goal in life.

January 2009

Sensible is the word that drifts to mind when describing how Megan Leslie looks, waiting in the upper foyer of the House of Commons. Wide-legged brown slacks. A slightly electric-blue shirt. Brown tweed jacket. Sturdy leather boots. Definitely one of us.

One of us is how our generation of newly engaged cynics described US president Barack Obama.

It's as rare, after all, that a member of parliament lists "community activist and environmentalist" as her primary occupation on the official Parliament of Canada website followed by "lawyer" and "legal counsel." But that's how the newly elected Halifax MP describes herself.

If it wasn't for this formal backdrop---and the hubbub of Bob Rae and 306 other MPs clamouring (in a parliamentary way) for the heavy wooden doors of Centre Block, a bit like schoolchildren finally escaping their prison---I might wonder: Is she a teacher? Or lawyer. Probably a legal aid lawyer---which is exactly what she was until last October. She says she still thinks of her former colleagues at Dalhousie Legal Aid as colleagues; her Halifax constituency office happens to be next door.

When Leslie first decided to run for office, she says she most dreaded telling Clare McNeil, a Legal Aid veteran: "I thought she would be disappointed in me. Clare, who can use the law as a shield as well as a sword, so skilled at using the right argument, the right legislation, the case law. Those are not my skills. I was afraid she would say, 'There's nothing in that.' But she was so supportive."

Leslie's jewellery was purchased off the television---or, she thinks so. "My mother probably bought it from the Home Shopping Channel," she says offhandedly over lunch in her office, not showing annoyance with the question. The office was Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's before leadership, she says with interest.

She buys lunch---she no longer has time to hydrate beans and make her own---and usually eats it at her desk.

"Are you kidding?" she snorts when asked if she dines in the House of Commons dining room. "I've been in there a couple of times for monthly Women's Caucus meetings. It's pretty fancy."

Yesterday MPs cast their first vote on Budget 2009. The one that will supposedly back the country slowly away from the edge of recession. A Bloc Quebecois amendment that would have overturned the government had it passed is defeated by both the Conservatives and Liberals.

Leslie cast her vote from Seat 58, tucked under the main viewing gallery, near the door and therefore out of my view---like all the NDP MPs. Her member's assistant hadn't issued me the visitor's pass that'll allow me to actually see Leslie.

Today Leslie introduced a statement on Black History Month---now called African Heritage Month in Nova Scotia. African heritage is also the theme on her office's "10 percenter" newsletter in February---so named because MPs can mail it out to one in 10 of their constituents for free.

Leslie's night is young: Tonight, she and Niki Ashton, the also-rookie NDP MP for Churchill Manitoba, are invited by Paul Doer, the MP for Ottawa Centre, to talk to his riding association about what it's like to be fresh, young MPs.

At 26, Ashton is one of the youngest on the Hill. She wears a slick navy-blue skirt-suit and reminds me of a student council president. Ashton's father is a cabinet minister in Manitoba's NDP government.

In front of about 75 NDP members and staffers ranging in age from 20 to 70, Leslie, 35, re-describes the story she told me a week ago in a Bridgehead coffee shop.

"In the summer, way before the election was called, before Alexa [McDonough] said she wasn't running again, I met with her because I was looking for a job in Ottawa." The room chuckles.

"My partner was moving here for school, and I was thinking, 'What can I do? What am I good at?'" More laughs.

"At first MacDonough just told me, 'I'm a lame duck. Whenever there's an election, I'm not going to run again, so no one will want to work for me. You should.' She also said, 'Maybe the House will prorogue in November.' I was afraid to ask, what does that mean? I thought, Oh, I'll just go home and look it up...."

Ultimately, it was the Candidate Search Committee which asked Leslie to run, she tells me: "Asking, being asked, feels pretty significant."

The questions I ask Leslie---about how she decided to run, why she thought she could win, what it means to be the Halifax MP---are the kind of questions she says she likes to answer: "I don't think I'm not acting in a parliamentary way."

In just three months, Leslie's life has shifted into being all about questions--- Question Period, requests from constituents, media scrums. According to one website, Leslie will have asked the fifth highest number of questions in the House during her first year as an MP. In May, her peers from all political parties will elect her Rookie MP of the Year.

"People who are elected aren't special. I'm not special," she says. "I like to be approachable, accessible. Not the guy in the blue suit who always knew he was working to be here, who feels he deserves it. And face it, when you meet The Very Important Person, that kind of person, you don't feel you can ask the questions people are asking me."

She is tickled that the Maclean's magazine blog named her question yesterday about the 15 percent tax credit on renovations its Reasonable Question of the Day: "Building a deck is a nice thing, but what about Canada's homeless who cannot front the money for the tax credit? Or, for that matter, a house upon which to add that deck."

One online reader calls her a "limousine liberal" who "uses the poor as props with which to bludgeon her opponents." An admirer calls her a "class act" and the north end neighbourhood where we both live a "grubby down-at-the-heels" area where Leslie has worked for little or nothing for poverty organizations: "For her introduction to the House she wore her only suit that she bought at a second-hand store."

Like every MP, Leslie now earns $155,400---twice what she was earning as a legal aid lawyer.

March 2009

A few days ago I tried to enter the public gallery through a door that was locked so tight it felt painted shut. I stood back, attempted to catch the eye of a security staff who was looking at me and, in the opposite direction, at a VIP, whose aide was barreling toward me, both arms outstretched and suddenly pulling me gently back into a corner---the bathroom, I think---while Stephen Harper, the biggest VIP in the house, steamed by, flanked by four, five suits, some of them very young. His face expressionless dough.

Today, we're at The Manx, a trendy basement bar on Bank Street where young public servants mingle with musicians and everyone in between over organic tapas and beer.

As the Saturday brunch crowd begins to thin, Leslie makes eye contact with one of two men poring over the Globe and Mail at the next table, someone she remembers from law school who is, as it turns out, now working for the Treasury Board of Canada, a central government agency which oversees government accountability.

"So what are you doing for work?" he asks. With far less decorum than Leslie, I laugh before her huge reveal---"I'm the MP for Halifax now"---which precedes a few smooth words about the housing bill she is writing.

In our conversation, Leslie is overflowing with some important news.

"I feel a lot of leadership pressure. Like I am being used in a way," she says thoughtfully, and then backs away from the word. "It's a real interesting thing---it's happening at the committees and partly it's the questions I'm being asked, the mentorship I'm being given---it feels very strategic."

She is both being given the opportunity and taking the initiative to ask questions in the House---questions which she rewrites with research from her legislative assistant. She describes it as earning her keep. And still feels in some way like she is campaigning.

Leslie is the housing and homelessness critic, not something that the other parties have---"It's a privilege, a big deal." She also sits on two committees: Justice, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. And she's the new co-chair of a new task force on responding to the recession and will be travelling with staff across Canada for public input. "I feel stretched. Not stressed, just stretched.

"QP has changed for me since the first questions because of the questions I'm asking: EI, other button-pushing questions. I'm heckled now," she says.

"The whole [parliamentary] system is a very patriarchal structure," Leslie explains to me, then says a little sarcastically: "We're all 'men' up there." She tells me about the fellatio comments Conservative MPs use to heckle some female MPs, the lack of decorum in the House that winter. And about the architectural structure of the House, how you could hit any MP with a silver ball on a chain if she or he stepped down from their seat, if you were standing in the centre of the House. She also tells me about the MP who plays Sudoku puzzles during committee meetings.

"The speaker says if you kick people out, they become mavericks, kind of heroes, in their ridings. The whole thing is structured in a patriarchal way."

Fighting a cold, she wipes her nose in a rectangular white linen handkerchief.

"What I'm doing is not more useful than the community activism stuff," says Leslie. "It was a very utilitarian decision for me. Back before I became a lawyer, I thought: Maybe there should be someone in the room who can change legislation. That was 'the law school decision.' I have always looked for allies within parliament and asked them, 'Can you raise this issue in the House?'"

I wonder if this is the power of Megan Leslie? That she stirs up something in people she meets. A drive to work hard and make a difference, no obstacles.

"I am good at listening to people. I am good at getting the surface of what they're saying. I'm not great at the analysis. I'm good at the performance. People will say about me, 'That Megan Leslie, she's one helluva gal!' But I would never be one of those people with incredible analysis. I could never be a judge.

"I am horribly shy. I hate interacting with people. My worst times are the casual times, at the grocery store, where I didn't go there to talk to anyone, but where I suddenly have to be on."

August 2010

I am following Halifax Member of Parliament Megan Leslie. Or I think so. I have seen Leslie in the past 17 months---at two gay pride parades, last year on a bike, this year on roller skates. Once through tinted windows in the backseat of a black shiny car, waving at me with one hand while studying her Blackberry with the other. Today she moves slowly, femininely---more girlishly than the Megan I have in mind. I am following a woman in a sundress printed with purple, blue and red flowers and wearing yellow thong sandals. I can't see them from here, but in a few minutes I can through the glass table at FRED on Agricola.

This prolonged conversation started in January 2009---she jokingly says our interviews verge on "therapy sessions"---after a Christmas party where someone suggested this would make a good story: How a Community Activist Finds Her Feet as MP for Halifax. One that would be perfect for me to write as I was living in Ottawa, working back-to-back contracts at Fisheries and Oceans.

But life is not so perfect. I left Ottawa last July. I stared into the dark maw of personal tragedy, and my life feels fundamentally changed. Hers is not so much changed, I think. Not anymore---not since 2008.

"The summer is a little more like a job," she says, blithely. "I was elected to serve, so this isn't just a regular job. It's intense when the House sits, but for now, it's like a job."

She laughs when I ask if the early hours are still sacred territory in her daytimer---for breakfast with her partner, Brendan, who is writing his dissertation on science, technology and public policy. He also sometimes helps her write her speeches---"Tell me more about that thing we were talking about at breakfast"---and gives her feedback on her interviews. "He hears what's clippable"---the soundbite.

This past May, Leslie was named the NDP Critic for Health. It's likely the promotion she was she was being groomed for last year---"Probably best to ask someone else that question"---and health-care practitioners like their breakfast meetings.

Right now, she is resorting to having Mondays and Tuesdays off. Weekends are eaten up by tomorrow's Sambro Parade, Sunday's Lemonade Tea Party with NDP MLA Leonard Preyra, and events like that.

"I spend my time listening intently to people, charged. It's a more normal pace; it's lovely." She draws out the word.

"I've been away for a big chunk of the year. People probably think that I am already immersed in community, but this is really immersed."

She tells me something about those first months which she didn't say in January: "I was unhappy." She chooses the word carefully. "One morning I couldn't find a matching pair of socks and I was like, 'Nothing goes right for us.' I was so frustrated. Brendan was in there with, 'What do you mean? Nothing goes right for us? Your socks? Who cares?' So I walked to work, and called him on my stupid House of Commons Blackberry, crying. I was just so on edge all the time."

When she talked to NDP Leader Jack Layton about it months later, he told her about the sorry-but-I'm-going-to-quit phone calls he gets from many new MPs: "I knew you were doing fine, because you never called."

"I would never quit," she says. But it wasn't until the last day the House sat last June, when she bought a bottle of champagne to watch the NFB documentary Playwright in Parliament about MP Wendy Lill with her staff that she realized, 'Hey, I'm not alone.'

Her new Health portfolio is also a "big deal" to her. Because there is an actual Minister of Health? "Yes. And there are five agencies under the Minister of Health. And it's Medicare. It's not just a senior portfolio for Liberals and Conservatives, but it's who we are as New Democrats."

But it's also a huge learning curve: "My experience in the area has to do with the social determinants of health, working with people who pretend they have a cat so that they can get cat food from the food bank." Now Jack Layton---she calls him the Leader now, "Jack" while confessing to wanting to quit---has tasked her with developing a National Pharmacare Strategy.

She explains that a strategy will not give inexpensive medications into our hands, but free ones. That would be possible by bulk buying, like Australia does. So she has been meeting with health policy analysts---"They all say that I am awfully young. Young in that world"---and learning as much as she can before September.

"It's been exhilarating, working on a longterm healthcare strategy," she smiles. "A lot of the time we say, 'Wouldn't it be great if...?' If we had a national childcare program. If we had---well now we almost have a Climate Change Accountability Act, and who thought that would happen?" (The bill, now before the upper chamber of the Senate, if it passes, will require that the Canadian government set regulations to attain a medium-term target to bring greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and a long-term target to bring emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.) Sidelined by the calling of the very election that saw Leslie become an MP, it was reintroduced by the NDP as a private member's bill in February 2009. Private member's bills do not die at prorogration.

"Tommy Douglas, he never imagined that Medicare would stop with free doctors and free hospital stays," says Leslie. The Canada Health Act legislates that the cost of drugs is free for in-patients only. "He always imagined that drugs would be added, and that the social determinants of health would be protected. If they're honest, there's a lot of money to be made---because people want to make money on it, that's why the plan is constantly under attack.

"It comes at great personal cost," says Leslie of her public life, again telling me more than she did in Ottawa. "The public figure aspect is very difficult. At the grocery store, people sometimes yell at me, sometimes they don't. I'm not saying that their behaviour is wrong, but they just don't choose another route to say what they think, to give feedback, for whatever reason."

I can see her standing in the organics section at the back of the Loeb on Bank, cornered beside the broccoli. "Anyway"---she looks up, invokes the critic---"You ran!"

I propose that Leslie wants to give people the tools to be active. "Yes," she says. "Don't just give me your letter or your petition because you know I'm on your side. Talk to other MPs, get others to talk to their MPs. Or what if you want to be a little more subversive," she says with a glint in her eye. "Give it to your MP and ask them, 'Have you heard from the minister?' I have been doing that, working with people to show them the political process.

"Here, let me give you the tools, the system, to be able to say, 'Here's how it works'---I don't give them the money, but I show them how to write the grant.

"Some MPs will say, 'I'm representing my constituents, that is my job.' Bullshit. My staff can do that, my Legal Aid colleagues do that. The fact that I have a photocopier, researchers at my access, these are the practical tools that they need. I have to give more."

It's what being an MP is for Megan Leslie.

"I'll run again next time---next year, tomorrow, whenever that election happens: But this isn't forever. It's not the most important thing to do in your life."

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