When Justin Trudeau decided to run for the post of Prime Minister, he embarked on a journey that had a clear vision to make Canada a better place. “In Canada better is always possible,” Trudeau always said during the campaign. But the road he took was unclear. As he said in his own words, “Soon after I made up my mind to run, I recognized this leadership campaign would be different. We would have to draw in the passengers, build the train as we rode it, and lay most of the track at the same time.”
Who would have thought that a journey started without any tracks would lay the strongest foundations for the coming generations. The foundations that challenge traditions and give opportunities to those who want to make things better for Canada. His victory in itself proved that. He challenged many traditional traits associated with the post of the prime minister. He was young, not a seasoned politician, never became MP.
With him he brought a new wave of many rookie MPs who too are challenging traditions in their own way. One biggest example is Bardish Chagger, the newly appointed Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. She is the first woman, first South Asian and one of the youngest MPs to hold this position. In the past most House leaders have been seasoned MPs with a command on parliamentary rules, procedures and protocols.
Chagger was elected for the first time in October last year. Trudeau put her in the cabinet immediately as minister of Small Business and Tourism and in this year she was appointed house of leader in addition to the profile she already had. Huffington Post called her rise “nothing short of a meteoric”. On her appointment she was surrounded with one question — what experience she brings to the job. And her response was most honest. “I have been involved in the political process basically my whole life.” She said, “I know what democracy should look like. Democracy should be engaging with Canadians. That is the leadership of our prime minister.”
Chagger comes from a family of Sikh immigrants who came to Canada, like many others in search of a better life and settled in Waterloo, Ontario. Her father got involved in politics to bridge the gap between Waterloo community and its small visible minority. He was grateful to the Liberal government of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for its liberalized immigration policy and its commitment to minority rights. Chagger’s father, joined the Liberal riding association. At 13, she helped him put up election signs for Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi.
Chagger obtained a Bachelor of Science from the University of Waterloo (UW), where she was also President of the UW Young Liberals. During her time at UW, she was a support worker for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
After graduation, Chagger was executive assistant to Telegdi from 2004 to 2008. This experience provided her with front-line exposure to the work of an MP, giving her significant insight into the daily challenges of constituents in the riding of Waterloo.
In an exclusive interview with Desi Today, she talks about her new role and the story behind her success.
Your historic appointment is inspirational and exciting not only for the youth but also for the entire visible minority of Canada especially the South Asian women. You think the time has finally arrived that visible minority and the South Asian community step out of its comfort zone of skilled labour to take up more challenging roles of leadership in the Canadian society?
Of course, and let’s remember this has been happening for a long time, not just in our community, but also within the diversity of our nation. Members of the South Asian community are well established doctors, lawyers, accountants, police officers, teachers, nurses – and the list goes on. We must always challenge the status quo.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not your position or job that defines you as a leader or defines your success – it’s about who you are and how you interact with others. Be proud of what you do, do what makes you happy – and you will be an inspiration to others.
Your father was an immigrant who came to Waterloo for his living. How did you and your family develop interest in politics?
India is the largest democracy in the world and that is part of our identity. When my father arrived in Waterloo it was far less diverse than it is now. So one of the ways he wanted to build ties to his new community and create opportunities for his children was to engage with public officials, get to know them and work with them.
He was also a great admirer of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and so in the 1990s he became active in the Liberal party.
I have always wanted to help people and work with people. I studied science in university as I wanted to be a nurse. I ended-up changing direction a little – I am still working with and for people, just in a different way than I had first imagined!
If you can tell us something about your growing up days in Waterloo and the Waterloo’s South Asian community?
As I mentioned, Waterloo was less diverse when I was growing up and yet has always been a tight-knit community. I remember when I was growing up I was first going to a school that didn’t offer French immersion. My father always recognized the importance of bilingualism in Canada as well as maintaining our culture. So he worked with the school board to transfer my sister, followed by me, to Sandowne Public School which did have French immersion.
Today, this community is much more diverse and still just as close-knit. I’m proud to be a Canadian, proud of my South Asian heritage; I embrace all parts of my identity. One of our greatest assets in Canada is embracing where you and where your family comes from while also embracing Canadian values. We are a nation made up of many cultures and we welcome all of them.
You joined the team of Liberal nominee Andrew Telegdi and he mentored you. What was the most important lesson that you learned under him?
Andrew would always say, “My Canada is an inclusive Canada.”
He really demonstrated what it means to represent your constituents and that’s something I carry with me every day. I am a child of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms generation – and that’s why I am a passionate defender of people and their rights. Everything I believe in really flows from the Charter.
It’s the people in the riding of Waterloo who elected me to represent them in the House of Commons – and I will never forget who I represent.
You were always behind the scenes of election campaign. What encouraged you to run for the post in the last general elections?
I really do believe that everyone who participates in the political process has a very important role to play, regardless of how one partakes – from volunteering to donating to hosting a town hall to representing in the House of Commons.
For me, it comes down to the vision that the Prime Minister set for Canadians – and that’s the kind of Canada that I want to live in. It’s the kind of Canada I want to leave for future generations. I believe Canadian values are Liberal values of equity, inclusion and respect for all.
When I volunteer, and now as an elected official, I work hard for my community and I work hard for Canada. I feel truly blessed to be part of this government.
I want to give back to the country that has given me and my family such wonderful opportunities and this is another way I can do that.
Your appointment as a Cabinet minister and now as government house leader has been very fast proving success and being a leader has nothing to do with age. What do you attribute your success to then — power of positive thinking or common personality traits that you share with leaders?
I work hard and stay true to what I believe. If you have that, age is far less important. I have spent most of my life in the political realm. I’ve always wanted to help people and work with people, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
In terms of positive thinking, our Prime Minister – the Rt. Honourable Justin Trudeau – really does put it best when he says “In Canada, better is always possible.” When we work together, when we include people from all walks of life, then better really is possible and we can be the change want to see.
Really, I attribute it to the people who came before me and to the people who continue to walk with me.
What is the biggest challenge in front of you as the leader of the government in the House of Commons?
The challenge really is balancing the needs of MPs to do their job and be heard – and making sure the business of the nation, the mandate Canadians gave us to implement, is getting done. Among the responsibilities the Prime Minister gave me in the mandate letter our government made public is to make sure all MPs are able to represent their constituents – not just the ones who voted for usbut the best interest all Canadians.
That means all MPs have a role to play in making sure debates in the House of Commons are respectful and productive. When you have 338 passionate people each defending their constituents, things can get heated – which is why we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s not about 338 competing politicians; we are the Parliament of our nation, we are the Parliament of the people. We each have a role to play.
You are also part of Canada’s innovation agenda. How does it aim to benefit entrepreneurs and small businesses? What is your vision for Canada as innovation hub?
Our goal is to gather all of the assets we have in our nation and get them to work together. To harness the talents we have, the talents we want to attract from around the world – to make sure they have the resources and networks needed to develop their ideas and grow their businesses.
The country is at its most prosperous when everyone has a fair chance at success.
Innovation is needed for growth for our economy. When companies grow, they create more jobs. It is the path to inclusive growth and will help Canada foster a thriving middle class and open the country to new economic, social and environmental possibilities. Through the Innovation Agenda, Canada will be globally competitive in promoting research, translating ideas into new products and services, accelerating business growth and propelling entrepreneurs from the start up phase to international success.
And last but not the least what is your message to the Canadian young girls?
You define your success. Seek out what you want for yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Believe in yourself, keep good company – and anything is possible.
As I mentioned earlier: better really is always possible – if you believe that and work towards it, then you can make that real for you – hope and hard work!