MP for Thunder Bay Superior-North speaks candidly on what she’s been up to, advocating for the north, raising awareness about gender issues, and about youth in politics.
By: Leah Ching, News Editor
The Honourable Patty Hajdu has been blazing a trail for herself since long before her landslide victory against two-time Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Bruce Hyer in last November’s elections. Today, Minister Hajdu has her hands full, also acting as the Minister of the Status of Women in the Trudeau Liberals’ Federal Cabinet.
No stranger to activism, Minister Hajdu has previously worked as the head of Thunder Bay’s Shelter House, and has addressed issues such as prevention, homelessness, and drug addiction. A strong and outspoken leader, the Minister has kept busy since the election, still always managing to come back home and engage with her constituency. Now, she’s getting ready to engage youth on a new level, via a Constituency Youth Council for her riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North.
Very outspoken and impassioned in parliament, Minister Hajdu is proving to be a strong voice for the North, and for women across Canada. When she’s home in Thunder Bay, you can manage to run into her attending local community events like Ribfest, or stopping downtown for gelato with her partner and kids.
The busy minister took time to sit down with The Argus for our first issue of the year to let us know what she’s been up to, tell us a bit about her new Constituency Youth Council, and about advocating for women and the North on the national level.
Q: Tell me a bit about what you’ve been up to over the summer?
A: Well, it’s been a really busy summer in the riding – and also in the country. In the riding, I’ve been visiting all of my communities; I have a number of small communities as well as twelve First Nations communities, so I’ve been trying to visit as many as possible. I’ve been there for some funding announcements, to take place in community events, and to meet with the local political leaders to get a sense of what they’re working on and what we might be able to support them with.
Also, I’ve been able to talk to residents a lot. We’ve held some town halls in the riding, and certainly had a few on innovation. We’ve had climate change, defense policy review, and so forth. We’ve been quite busy, and it’s been awesome. It’s great to come back as the MP and see people’s enthusiasm for change, and for a government that really, essentially, sees them.
And then, in terms of my ministerial work, I’ve been travelling the country and going to all kinds of different communities to talk about gender-based violence – so, violence primarily toward women and girls. But we’ve definitely expanded that definition to include people that are targeted because of their gender identity or sexual identity.
So I’ve been talking to frontline workers, academics, researchers, organizations that are advocates and activists, as well as people that identify as survivors – people that want to share their experiences. I’ve heard of some really amazing work that’s being done across the country. It’s been a really busy summer across the board, and I think people are relieved to have a federal government that’s interested in supporting the work that’s being done at the provincial and local levels.
Q: You definitely have a lot of work ahead of you. Can that be daunting at times?
A: For me, the goal of this work is to get a sense of what we can do better as a federal government. Our perspective is that we’re working with Canadians. The federal government for too long has been absent, and people have a lot of outrage about the previous government and its inaction. I think we now have an opportunity with a current government that is open, willing to meet with citizens, and that is willing to have those difficult conversations that need to take place. And, I think one of the things that I have come to realize as a politician is that certainly there are a lot of things we can do as a government, and we’re working on all of those things. But we also need the support of Canadians.
So many people think that the government can actually legislate its way out, or fund its way out of some very big problems. And gender-based violence is a perfect example. There [are] a certain number of initiatives that we can do from a legislative perspective – from funding programs about prevention and awareness, support, data, and seeking to really get a handle on what’s going on. But at the end of the day, gender-based violence is a cultural phenomenon rooted in misogyny that’s going to take more than a federal government to fix. So one of the things I’ve found most exciting is having this conversation with Canadians and saying, “Absolutely, we are totally willing to do what we have to do with the levers that we have.” But we need all of you to talk about it and say, “This is wrong.” Talk about the misogyny in popular culture, advertising, and media. Call it out and support each other. Work together and highlight the issues, rather than turning a blind eye. We really need to work together as a country, and it’s exciting to me that student groups are some of the ones most engaged politically.
When it comes to money, we have spent money on [ending] gender-based violence in the past. It [hasn’t] been a lot over the past number of years. We’ve had no real coordination of our efforts; we’ve had no real evaluation of those efforts as well, so we don’t really know if what we were doing in the past was making a difference. Additionally, we don’t have any data. Locally, Canadian data has been absent. So that’s really the goal for me: understanding what Canadians want us to do, and how they can see us playing a supportive role. Because from my perspective, you can’t talk about gender equality if you aren’t going to address this significant real impact that violence in all its forms has on women and girls in this country.
I’m really busy, but I love it. I love my portfolio – it’s very much about activism and agency, and it’s a good fit for me, because as you know I come from a bit of an activist background, so this is a perfect fit. It is tough… I mean, you’ve seen what politicians go through and it is a tough gig, but it’s very worth it from my perspective. I know that I won’t make all people happy all the time, and that’s just part of politics. Policy is complicated and messy, and when you’re trying to make policy, whether it’s for an entire city or an entire country, there’s just no way you can please everyone. But you use the evidence, you stick to your foundational values, have compassion, and you end up with some pretty good policy.
Q: We at The Argus are really excited about the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, and the announcement that there will also be a Thunder Bay-Superior North Youth Council. What can you tell me about this initiative, its origins, and your overall hopes for the council?
A: So, the Prime Minister, as you know, has had a very vocal campaign to get youth from across the country to sit on his council. He’s been very clear that the youth council will not just advise on “youth issues” – and I raise those quotations because often times, when we think about youth we pigeonhole them into, “Oh, they’re only going to talk about the cost of education, or getting that first job, et cetera et cetera.” But really, his perspective is that youth have a variety of great thoughts on all of the issues that we’re struggling with as a country.
And Justin Trudeau is the Minister of Youth, so his focus as a former teacher, as a young-ish man himself, is that youth are leading in our country, and we have to tap into that – into those great ideas, into that passion, into that vision – and invite them into the process of politics. So it’s very exciting.
We thought that was a great idea, so we’re going to have our own youth council, in a very similar fashion, for Thunder Bay-Superior North. The deadline for applications is at the end of September. We will be striking a council where I’ll be able to run ideas by [them] that I’ve been working on in my ministerial portfolio, or things that affect our riding, or that the Government of Canada is grappling with as a whole, and see what youth have to say. We’ll be able to hear what their perspectives are, and feed that back to the Prime Minister and Cabinet team. We’re really looking forward to it.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for youth to come forward and participate in these initiatives? Do you really think youth can have meaningful impact in their communities from local councils like these?
A: One of the phrases that I hate the most is, “Our youth are our future.” I hate it for a whole bunch of reasons. One, I hate the possessive pronoun, like somehow we own these youths. But I also hate it because it implies that youth are not contributing right now. So from my work previously in public health, I did a lot of work alongside youth. I did a lot of work in youth engagement, and what the research and the evidence says about youth engagement is that if you give youth an opportunity to lead, often times the product or decision is that much better.
During my campaign I actually had a number of youth that were very active in leadership roles. I had an eighteen-year-old volunteer coordinator and a nineteen-year-old who ended up being my campaign director. So I trusted the young people to give me advice on how to engage people, how to interact with the public through social media, and all kinds of other decisions on how we were going to position ourselves going into the debates. The outcome, as you know, was phenomenal, and we did actually attract a lot of youth that were either active with the campaign or voted for me in the end. My campaign coordinator, Matt, actually is with me now as my Special Assistant, Communications.
When youth have an opportunity to be meaningfully involved and provide input in a way that’s respected and utilized, I think that the results are always better. I think youth understand that we have a number of really urgent issues that we’re facing as a country: innovation, climate change, climate readiness, economic issues, and issues around reconciliation. [In] all of those areas, youth have really amazing ideas and we would be foolish not to tap into them.
Q: Since the election, you’ve been very vocal in the house. You’ve spoken about gender-based analysis, the wage gap, and women’s participation in political life. What challenges have you encountered in advocating for women’s issues on a national level?
A: One challenge that I’ve had is that there is still a misconception from both genders that gender equality is not a real thing. There [are] people that say, “Well, why isn’t there a Minister of Status of Men?” And then there are still many young women that don’t necessarily see barriers in front of them, and that think that we have arrived to a place where women have equal opportunities. And what the data says is that this is just not true. We still have a gendered wage gap of 27 cents. We still see very few women in leadership roles. Certainly, we’re seeing few women on boards, whether they’re public or private, and we still see extremely high rates of violence toward women and girls. So all of those things say to me, “Okay, no, we haven’t yet arrived at a place where there is true gender equality.” That’s been one of the biggest challenges, that people – both men and women – think that this is not necessarily a real thing.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the data that we do have, and really trying to educate Canadians that it’s in all of our benefits that women have the opportunity to succeed in an equal way. We want people to know that when women thrive, children thrive. It affects generations, and it contributes astronomically to our economy. We just can’t see the kind of growth we want to see as a country unless all people have an opportunity to participate in a full and equal way. With the gendered wage gap, even when we account for pay equity there’s still this unexplainable gap which we attribute mainly to stereotypes and prejudice. Even if you were able to put in all the pay equity mechanisms, in all of the fields, there would still be somewhere between 10-15% that is quote-unquote unexplainable. To me, that means that there are stereotypes and prejudices that exist that are preventing women from reaching their full potential.
When we talk about stereotypes and prejudice it’s not just in the hiring process; it’s also about how we socialize girls to think about their careers. So when we know that the higher earning careers are in sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and we’re also implicitly dividing jobs into “boy jobs” and “girl jobs”, it really does set up a long-standing, very entrenched gender wage gap that’s very difficult to break.
Q: As the MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, you play a really important role in advocating and speaking for Northern Ontario. Lots of constituents think that the North is underrepresented, sometimes ignored, and takes a back seat in comparison to its southern counterparts. Have you encountered any challenges particular to advocating for the North in Parliament?
A: I think it’s a new era we’re in. I personally haven’t encountered challenges because I’m there for the first time, speaking about Northern Ontario in a really loud way. Certainly I think our government understands that academic success is important. Lakehead and Confederation College have both received a number of grants. I’m excited about some of the funding opportunities that are coming forward, and while I don’t attribute that all to myself, I do think that it does help to have a voice expressing what life is like in the North. I can often bring a perspective, a very real-life perspective of what living in a remote area means.
All of my First Nations communities are road access, but frequently I can still talk about what it’s like to live in Northern Ontario off of Highway 11/17 when in fact you need to travel back and forth for, let’s say dialysis, which is a common kind of story for many residents in my riding. Those kinds of stories, I think, are very helpful. I tell a lot of stories in cabinet about people that I have met that are living in extremely difficult circumstances because of the geographical realities of the North, and also because of our faltering economy. We’ve been stuck in a rut for a long time.
I’m also able to bring perspectives on the vitality of our region. So many people don’t understand that it is an extremely resilient region and that there is a lot to quote-unquote invest in. So I’m also enthusiastic about talking about the great things that are happening here. I’ve been thrilled to have a number of ministers visit me. Minister Kent Hehr has been here announcing the reopening of the Veterans Affairs Canada office here in Thunder Bay. Minister Morneau of Finance has been here, as well as Minister Monsef, speaking about democratic reform. So we’re seeing people come to Thunder Bay, which is also fantastic. The Prime Minister has been here once since he’s been elected, and twice during campaigning. I think that when you have that many eyes visiting our region, it certainly helps in highlighting the challenges in front of us, our strength, and the overall vitality of the region.