Jim Hartshorne is a West Shore developer, hardly the image that comes to mind when thinking of who might heap praise on a New Democrat politician.
But then that politician, Mitzi Dean, doesn’t exactly fit the mould, either. First thing you notice is the accent, which is more Kent than Colwood. The Esquimalt-Metchosin MLA emigrated from England 15 years ago, might be the only person in her constituency who uses the word “whilst” without it sounding like an affectation.
In England, she worked for the country’s largest child-protection charity. On this side of the pond, prior to her election in 2017, she was executive director of the West Shore’s Pacific Centre Family Services Association, which offers programs tackling issues ranging from mental health, to drugs and alcohol, to domestic violence.
That’s where she crossed paths with Hartshorne, a supporter of the organization’s efforts.
“What I really liked about her was she didn’t really care about the political lines in the sand,” he says. She worked hard, would team up with anyone who could help get the job done.
Well, Dean has a big job now, being elevated to John Horgan’s cabinet as B.C.’s new minister of children and family development this week.
In a way that makes her a bit of a rarity. Sometimes cabinet ministers are odd fits, having no previous knowledge of or particular interest in the portfolios in which they suddenly find themselves the big boss. Not this time. Dean might have been an MLA for only three years, but she has been in this field for 30. It’s her passion.
It’s an area of government that can eat up those in charge, though. A cautionary tale is presented in former Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott’s new book Big Promises, Small Government, which dives in grim detail into what happened after his party took power in 2001.
Back then, the combination of a 25 per cent personal income tax cut and a tanking economy collided with a demand that the provincial budget not only be balanced, but that it be balanced without cutting into health or education, two areas that consumed the majority of government spending. That resulted in the remaining ministries bearing the brunt of the cuts.
Hard-hit were not just the so-called “dirt” ministries — those dealing with transportation, the environment, forests, agriculture and the like — but people-focused portfolios like Children and Family Development and Human Resources. The ministers themselves, decent people, agonized over the decisions they were forced to take.
Even in the best of times, such portfolios are tough. When tragedy strikes children in government care, responsibility stops with the minister. Former TC columnist Jim Hume used to refer to Human Resources as the Ministry of Misery.
Dean, the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, says she has no illusions about the potential sorrows of her new appointment, but the chance to make a meaningful difference in the area is why she got into politics. “I’ve always done hard and difficult work,” she says.
That includes ground-level experience in child protection. “I have literally carried a six-week baby out of a hospital to take it to a foster home.”
It all left her with a clear sense of purpose. “I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
In an interview five years ago, Dean spoke of the challenges facing social-services agencies like PCFSA. “Broadly, our sector is dying the death of a thousand cuts,” she said then. “It’s getting worse. It’s grinding us down more and more and more.”
Now she has gone from there, the passenger seat, to the driver’s seat of a ministry with a $2.3-billion budget. Outgoing minister Katrine Conroy, who has shifted to the forests portfolio, leaves the ministry with the lowest number of children in care in 30 years, the lowest number of Indigenous children in care in 20, Dean says. “We’re on the right trajectory.”
Like all of the new cabinet ministers, she has much to learn about her new job. She only got her mandate letter from Horgan on Thursday night, then spent Friday trying to absorb a mind-numbing amount of information. Time to get to work.