Jean Crowder. MP.
It’s hard to think of her any other way but Nanaimo-Cowichan’s hard-working and personable member of parliament has retired.
“It’s bittersweet, that’s what it is. This last 11 years have been amazing,” she said.
“It’s a special place to live. Most people say this about their community but we have people here who are so committed, who advocate so hard on behalf of their community and care about it. So I have always felt that we worked together,” she said as she sat in her familiar office at The Green Door building in Duncan.
While admitting that there are loose ends she’ll never tie up, Crowder also said she knows it’s time to let someone else step up.
“I always want to be able to put in 110 per cent and when I start finding my energy starting to wane it’s time for me to go.”
She’s covered hundreds of thousands of kilometres as part of her job, not just travelling to and from Ottawa but in her specific duties, mainly as Aboriginal Affairs Critic for the New Democrats, which has seen her in communities large and small all over Canada.
That’s a big, big beat with a big footprint, stretching right to the Arctic.
“It’s been such a privilege. I’ve always said to people that I have three jobs: the Ottawa job, where you deal with policy and legislation, my national critic role, and then I have my constituency job, which is really about dealing with people here.”
During her time as MP, Crowder has attended a huge number of local events, making her a well-known face everywhere in the riding.
“It gives you a chance to meet people where you don’t usually see them. And if you’re in their community, they are more comfortable talking to you. The other thing is, because politicians are not held in high esteem, the more you are out there, the more approachable you seem. It’s not uncommon, when in the grocery store or doing my personal chores, that someone will come up to me and talk to me. I think that needs to be a cornerstone of politics.”
When she started, Crowder didn’t really know what to expect from her new job.
“One of my very first acts as a member of parliament was on the day after the election in June 2004. I went to the funeral of a young man who’d committed suicide. My very first official act. It was a reminder of the fragility of life for some people. I didn’t know anything at that point but when I was at the cemetery I realized it was part of the process, that it was what I would be doing,” she said.
Crowder’s been part of many big Cowichan events over the years: the re-opening of the Kinsol Trestle, the Seniors Games, the North American Indigenous Games.
“I’ll never forget NAIG. I was part of the Spirit Drummers. Ron George (Tousilm) had that vision of having the indigenous and non-indigenous communities come together. It was beautiful.
“NAIG was magical. I also paddled one day on Tribal Journeys to Penelakut from Ladysmith. I was with all these young people and it was their first day out in the canoe. We were all learning together about pulling it. And none of us would let each other quit.
“There were also a variety of fundraisers I attended, like the one for the Kidney Foundation where they put you in jail and you had to phone around to find money to get out. And Community Kitchens: I went and found they were preparing meals. These are the things you get involved in. Doing this job involves you in things you would never expect to do,” she said.
Like many others, Crowder said that the Valley’s cadre of enthusiastic volunteers has always been a source of inspiration to her.
Her work in Ottawa, however, reached a high point with the passing of Jordan’s Principle.
This huge milestone is all about putting First Nations kids first where levels of government or government departments are in dispute.
“It was all about this little boy whose story just tugged at my heartstrings. He never really knew a family home. He could have been in a specialized foster care home for the last two years of his life but governments were
fighting over who should pay for that. He died in hospital before he ever got to be in a home. It seemed ludicrous in this day and age that we would be fighting about who would pay for that special bed in order to allow him to sleep.”
Crowder said that although Jordan’s Principle hasn’t been implemented widely yet across the country, it’s having an impact.
“It’s being cited in court cases, it’s being cited at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and, in the recent Truth and Reconciliation Report, out of the 94 recommendations it was No. 3,” she said.
“This is something that is going to eventually make a significant difference in kids’ lives across this country. It’s being built into the fabric of Canada.”
Her own experience in formulating the bill was lifted by the bravery and generosity of Jordan’s family.
“I was invited to his isolated community — Norway House — for his cremation. Again it was a humbling experience. You’re thanked and you’re blanketed but it isn’t really about you, it’s all the other people who have worked to make this happen. The family gifted me with Jordan’s blanket and I am looking for a place for it to reside because I don’t believe it should stay with me personally. After all, it’s a national story. The First Nations Family Child Caring Society is going to hold the blanket until a permanent home is found for it,” she said, admitting that just having received this memento was special.
“When I made my final speech in the House on Jordan’s Principle, I had the blanket over my arm. The family was in the gallery. It was very emotional. And there were other families that had come with their own children who had complex medical needs. There were severely disabled children in the gallery with their families bearing witness to something that could affect their futures.”
A final accolade to celebrate Jordan’s Principle is that “apparently there is somebody right now who is trying to make a documentary film through the National Film Board on Jordan’s Principle featuring the family and the community that helped make this come about.”
Another signature Crowder campaign was against the pernicious problem of dumping derelict vessels on Canadian shores.
Her actual bill was defeated in the House but it’s had an impact, too.
“What I now know is that when I started working on this hardly anybody was talking about derelict vessels. It’s being talked about nationally now and for the first time in years the Ministry of Transport has actually struck a working group to look at it. They’re examining the Washington State model, they commissioned that survey in B.C. that took a look at the number of derelict vessels. It would never have happened without the work that our team did on that. I’m confident that with the increased public pressure the federal government will need to step up and take leadership on this.”
In her role as Aboriginal Affairs Critic, Crowder has been involved in celebrating successes as well as trying to right past wrongs.
“Aboriginal children are the poorest of the poor in this country. There’s no question about it. It’s shocking. And in British Columbia, in particular, we have no strategy on poverty. And federally, there is no strategy around it, either. But there is a roadmap forward and it’s tied to education, to training, to economic development. However, having said that, there are large numbers of young, indigenous people who have got an education who are now making headway.
“We need to look at both parts. We need a plan. We need to look at housing and water and education but we also need to celebrate the successes. If we just talk about the one, it feeds into a stereotype and those are so dangerous,” she said.
Crowder has spent a lot of time in Ottawa working as an MP and leaving those friends and connections is going to be a wrench.
“There are folks I won’t easily see again. Libby Davies from Vancouver East is a good example. She has been a mentor and a close friend and even though Vancouver’s only across the water, it’s not likely that we’re going to see that much of each other. And there are many, many others. It’s sad. It will leave a hole. I’m ready to leave but I’m surprised at how wrenching it is. Someone told me I’m going to become a P.I.P.” she laughed. “That’s a Previously Important Person.”
For Crowder and her NDP colleagues the death of their national party leader Jack Layton right at the climax of his and his party’s career was devastating.
“It happened so fast. We’d just become Official Opposition. But the outpouring at the funeral across the country was incredible. It was a rare place of coming together.”
That final campaign with Layton will have a place in Canada’s history.
“It was amazing. You’re always optimistic when you go into a campaign but then as each week went by, we started to see it was sneaking up on us.
In my 11 years, we saw three minority governments and then became the Official Opposition. I was very fortunate to be in this time and place,” she said.
Now that she’s back in the Valley, what is Crowder going to do now?
First up: spend some time with her three grandkids and then do some serious thinking.
“People have given me very good advice: make sure you take the time, figure out what you want to do, don’t jump into anything too quickly. I’m kind of a driven person who likes to be busy but some very successful people have cautioned me. I kind of think at my age that whatever I do next is going to be my last big thing in life, my big project. I want to make sure it’s something that really fits, something that really contributes to the life of the community.”