Bring It.

Irene Mathyssen – MP London, Fanshawe (NDP), Veterans Critic, NDP Deputy Whip

How did you end up doing what you do? Did your journey end up reflecting what you thought it would be?

I was always very interested in what was happening in the world around me and understood from an early age that a great deal of that which impacted me and my family was political. I came from a very poor household and was under-housed until I was about 14. That taught me about economic justice and the social justice piece came again from experience. My brother was born with a development challenge. I remember shortly after his birth overhearing my father talking on the phone to the family doctor. I understood that my brother was a very sick baby and that my parents were very worried. I recall my father saying, “ I don’t care how much it costs, you have to help my son.” I knew how poor we were and that there just wasn’t any extra money for medical bills. This was before there was universal health care. As I said, I paid attention to outside events and for whatever reason, I watched the founding convention of the NDP. Tommy Douglas talked about the importance of universal health care in Canada and how we must have that as part of our social safety net along with public pensions, affordable housing and unemployment insurance. That was the kind of social and economic justice I believed should be part of Canadian policy and I decided to support that policy. And eventually I had the opportunity to help create it and ensure it was protected. I believe social and economic justice are fragile parts of our social safety net and that these public policy pieces are vulnerable. I will always work to protect and enhance them. It is political.

As I said, I watched that NDP founding and policy convention and wondered what it took to be in such a place and to have the chance to influence the nation. As a poor kid , it seemed impossible to be able to walk and work among people like Tommy Douglas. When the opportunity to join a riding association came along, I did join and have been blessed by the support of good and dedicated people. My family and particularly my husband has always believed that I could and should play a role in government. The job as an MPP and MP is sometimes gruelling: but, when that chance to help someone or change the status quo for the better comes along, there isn’t any greater joy. I am privileged to do this job.

Are there any significant challenges you had growing up – that you wish to share – and what helped you through?

As I indicated, I came for a poor household. However, my family believed in the power and importance of education. I was always encouraged to aspire to post-secondary education. It wasn’t always easy, but in those days, there was some support for students who were economically disadvantaged. I started summer jobs at age 16 and worked every summer and part time through the winter to save for tuition. One way or another I managed to save and get almost enough in student loans to manage tuition for a BA and B.Ed. I wanted to make a contribution and believed and still believe that teaching is a very valuable contribution. Sadly government support for post-secondary education is much less than when I went to school. One of my goals as an MP, is to convince governments in regard to the importance of the investment in education is to our students, communities and country.

Confidence doesn’t happen overnight and as women ours can still be shaken. What helps keeps yours strong?

It is true that many of us don’t see ourselves as leaders. There is a steep learning curve no matter what one chooses to do. I took great comfort from the remarkable people and incredible women I met along the way. As a child, I knew incredible role models among London, Ontario activists. My grandmother belonged to the London chapter of the Voice of Women. The dedication of those women to peace, ending racism, poverty and classism was just what I heard on a daily basis. They raised money with bake sales, making toys, holding dinners; and all that money went to welcome new Canadians, celebrate International Women’s Day, Labour Day, and International Children’s Day. As a young woman I met people like Marion Boyd, Ontario’s first female Attorney General, Ruth Grier, one of the leaders in the environmental movement, and Mary Campbell, a pioneer for affordable housing. They showed me that it can be done. Of course I met Ed Broadbent, Stephen Lewis and Jack Layton. These men believed in the importance of women’s equality and the part we must play in public life. On a regular basis I come back home to London and am inspired all over again by the strength and determination of our women’s community of activists. They make me proud.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Believe in what you have to offer because you are magnificent. Don’t let anyone undermine or devalue you; it can happen so easily. Think of all the battles and the brave, strong shoulders you stand on as a young woman in 2016. There was the first wave of feminism that got us the vote, the second wave that saw women playing a key role in the development economy and security of our country; the third wave of women who refused to take a back seat in regard to women’s equality, and now your generation. It is up to you and all your sisters to continue the battle for pay equity, a national child care programme and affordable housing. Keep hammering at that glass ceiling because it is most certainly still there and you are worth the effort it will take to shatter it.

Irene Mathyssen

Irene Mathyssen
Member of Parliament for London-Fanshawe | Députée pour London-Fanshawe
Veterans Critic / Porte-parole des Anciens combattants
NDP Deputy Whip / NPD whip adjoint
New Democratic Party | Nouveau Parti démocratique
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