Then there was her reaction to the Conservative government’s introduction of the $100-a-month child care benefit in 2006. “That benefit was supposed to help families out with child care, but it doesn’t get you far if you can’t access the care,” says Gardiner. “It infuriated me.” Her response was to seek nomination as the Liberal Party of Canada candidate in her riding.
She chose the Liberal party for its stand on the environment and its approach to social issues, including first steps toward the creation of a national child care program. “I was also impressed that the Liberals, including Stéphane Dion, were encouraging women to run and willing to show us what to do,” says Gardiner. She attended an Ontario Women’s Liberal Commission workshop designed to get women involved and says she derived great benefit from Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett’s weekly teleconference calls, which offered support and advice to candidates. “Women are given a much rougher ride in politics than men are. I experienced that myself, in the language some journalists used to describe me.”
She learned to think quickly on her feet to accommodate the media’s predilection for five-second sound bites. She also found out how difficult a candidate’s job is and the sacrifice required in terms of time with family and friends. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who enter political life. I had no idea just how hard the work can be during a campaign; you are working 14 hours a day for almost the entire time.”
The commitment is one that Gardiner felt she could make; she believes that anyone who wants to change the political landscape has to get involved: “It’s important to have representation of the average family in the House of Commons. We need to have MPs from a variety of backgrounds.”
Gardiner’s nursing skills and experience were big assets during the campaign. She could not, and did not, ask people to vote for her because she is a nurse, but she was able to stress her understanding of health-care issues. Her listening and advocacy skills proved equally valuable. “I did a lot of door-to-door canvassing, and found that people often just wanted someone to listen to their concern,” she says. “Sometimes you have an answer, and sometimes you don’t. If you don’t, you can take the concern and formulate it into an issue and send it up through the party. It’s the same with nursing; you’re always pleading the case of those you’re caring for. As a case manager, I often run into situations that don’t quite fit the mould, so I filter them up the ladder and negotiate a change to the rules.”
Advocating on behalf of her community is something Gardiner is passionate about, In addition to better access to child care, she would like to see the implementation of a national autism strategy for a disability that affects 1 in 165 children in Canada, as well as a national home care program that provides equal access to care, and to the same quality of care, in every part of the country. “It’s a personal goal of mine,” she says, “especially as our population ages.”
Although unsuccessful in her bid to become MP for Perth-Wellington, Gardiner is adamant that, if nominated, she’ll run in the next election. Her graciousness in the face of defeat is encapsulated in her response to her nomination for a 2007 Women of the Year Award from Optimism Place. Far from being disappointed at not winning the honour, she was delighted for the 93-year-old social activist who did. After all, Gardiner herself had nominated her.