Carole James has advice for first-time members of B.C.’s legislative assembly.
“Trust your gut. Trust your heart,” B.C.’s deputy premier and finance minister, and MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill, said Saturday, at the end of her 30-year political career. “And listen and learn to begin with. The job is like drinking from a firehose. It can be so overwhelming.”
James said she has been so busy during the past month, she hadn’t really thought about her impending retirement until the day before the election.
“It kind of hit me last night when I was getting notes from people saying goodbye and saying thank you that this really was the end of a large portion of my life,” said James, 62. “I had someone remind me that I had been on the ballot in this community every election since 1990. I was on the school board from 1990 to 2000 and I’ve been on the ballot every provincial election.”
Leaving the political whirlwind will be a big adjustment. But James, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in January, knows it’s the right decision. She’s been warned by retired or “recovering” politicians that the first six months will be challenging because politics has filled up so much of her life.
“To go from that to not being as busy takes some time to adjust. So I’m preparing myself … I’m not planning to sit around and not do anything. My family would hate that the most, because I wouldn’t be happy. So I’ll be looking for something else. I have nothing planned.”
James is looking forward to spending more time up north with her husband, First Nations artist Albert Gerow, an elected chief of the Burns Lake First Nation. “We’ve spent a lot of time apart, so that will be nice.”
She’s also fortunate to have her grandchildren, Hayden and Charlie, in town and wants to spend more time with them.
Looking after her health is also a priority. Much to her children’s amusement, she plans to take boxing lessons to help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s. “It’s one of the exercises that’s been proven to help with Parkinson’s,” she said. “It touches on brain-eye co-ordination. It touches on balance.”
Friends have given her one pair of pink and one pair of orange boxing gloves. “I think that will be something completely out of my comfort zone.”
Retirement will also include other things she had no time for in the past few years — reconnecting with people, having lunch, going for long walks with friends.
Looking back on her career, James believes the school board gave her the best grounding in governance. One of her best experiences was saving the school strings program in the 1990s, then going to her granddaughter’s Christmas concert in 2016 to hear her play viola and clarinet. “The joy of seeing something you were involved in benefiting so many children years later is extraordinary.”
As a member of the opposition, James said, she learned that you can’t make a big difference, but you can make a difference. “We ended the clawback of child support for women on income assistance when we were in opposition, because we were focused and determined.”
Her most rewarding accomplishment in government was getting free tuition for former youth in care, she said.
“That will always stand out for me, because that’s life-changing for generations,” said James. “We know what happens, generationally, if someone gets stuck in the cycle of poverty and how hard it is for the next generation to get out. That was a significant change.”
During the next four years, the government will have to focus on the issues of homelessness and mental health that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief, said James. “It will need attention and need a focus that was obvious to people who worked in the field, but wasn’t necessarily obvious to society, to communities, as it is now. The pandemic has really shown the stresses and the strains for people who are vulnerable and struggling.”
James has one more piece of advice for first-time MLAs: Don’t forget family and friends.
“Politics will come and go, but your friends and family are always going to be there and they will help you get through the tough times. And don’t spend so much time on social media,” said James with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to not checking Facebook and Twitter obsessively.”