Carole James reflects on a remarkable 30 years of B.C. public service
VICTORIA -- Carole James’ office is largely all packed up, as the former Finance Minister prepares for retirement, pending the new government being formed and cabinet ministers being sworn in.
She laughs as she shows us the orange boxing gloves she was given by MLA-elect Selina Robinson for taking up boxing, to help combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
“This will definitely be out of my comfort zone, but I figured I’d give it a try,” James says about the idea of taking boxing lessons.
The truth is, of course, in 30 years of public service, she’s always been a fighter.
Whether fighting to secure better programs for kids – in a decade as a school board trustee and chair – or later, to end the claw back of support for single parents while she was in opposition government, or fighting for free university tuition for former foster children when she was in government. Over 30 years, she has always tried to make a difference for those who most need it.
It was in 2003 when she emerged most prominently on the provincial scene, after being elected the new NDP leader and resurrecting the party from the near extinction of just two seats in 2001. She led the party to 41 percent of the popular vote in 2005, and again in 2009 — only to be forced to step down as leader by a mutiny from within her own party.
James reflects on that tough time in 2010, saying with humour it showed her the good, the bad and the ugly of politics.
She also says quitting politics wasn’t something that appealed to her at the time, because she wasn’t in it for the title.
“I had a chance after I stepped down to be an MLA, and as long as I thought I could make a difference I’d stay in that position as well,” she says. “So it wasn’t about the position, it was about the opportunity to make a difference.”
Former Liberal Premier Christy Clark says James’ resilience stands out as part of her legacy, as does her role calling out sexism during a time when James was a trailblazing female leader.
“She was the first to really call attention to it, and I think we all as women in politics have really benefitted from that work that she did,” said Clark.
James’ battles extended to her private life, even while she was such a public figure.
Her son, Evan, overcame addiction that he fought during the 2009 provincial campaign. At the time, he overdosed two days before the televised leader’s debate.
He has since recovered from addiction and now excels as a leader in peer counselling, helping others recover.
He stands as a leader in his community and James is extremely proud of him and his journey, calling him one of the most courageous people she knows.
“I’m incredibly proud,” she says. “I knew I’d choke up when I talk about family,” she says, becoming visibly emotional.
James is that rare politician who is respected, admired and liked by both sides of the aisle.
Vancouver Sun political writer Rob Shaw notes her remarkable popularity after three decades in public life.
“There’s almost no one who’s had the political career that she’s had who can leave on such a high note,” said Shaw.
He attributes that popularity — in part — to her kindness and willingness to set partisan issues aside.
“So, she leaves this legacy of goodwill from even the people who shouldn’t have liked her, but nonetheless couldn’t help themselves because Carole was genuine and she took the job seriously,” he said. “And she never let anything get in the way of helping someone she could.”
James is the one who persuaded her friend John Horgan to run for leader and ultimately premier.
On Sunday, following his party’s surge to a majority government, Horgan was asked about new cabinet positions once the government is formed.
“My only regret is that Carole James will no longer be sitting beside me,” he said. “And that is a hole in my personal life and the government that will be very, very hard to fill.”
A recognition of her importance to the current incarnation of the New Democratic Party is something that was on display back in 2017, when the party formed government and its cabinet ministers were sworn in.
It was James who was enveloped by the biggest standing ovation by fellow cabinet ministers and those watching the ceremony.
Even her former foes, some of whom were still in government, who’d forced her from leadership years earlier had become staunch supporters and admired her major contributions to the party.
James was given a rousing and prolonged ovation when she was sworn in as Finance Minister and Deputy Premier.
The 62-year-old also recently inspired British Columbians with her candour — announcing in March she has Parkinson’s and would not be seeking another term in office.
James says she has been touched by the outpouring of responses from the public since then, including from families offering advice and those saying they’re grateful for her grace and courage, along with her willingness to come forward and help eliminate the stigma associated with the disease and its visible symptoms, including tremors.
As she signs off on a remarkable career, she says she plans to stay busy, and is looking for her next projects.
Looking back, she says it’s the people she will miss the most about political life, but she leaves the political ring with no regrets.
“There is no other experience in my life that I’ve had that is like this, where you have the chance to really make a difference,” she said.