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A political force for health

Party affiliations aside, these new and re-elected members of Parliament share a background in nursing and a commitment to serve Canadians

Jan 01, 2016, By: Laura Eggertson
Eva Nassif talking on a cellphone.
Teckles Photography Inc.
Quebec Liberal MP Eva Nassif was an RN in Lebanon. 

When Eva Nassif was weaving her way through military checkpoints, narrowly escaping exploding artillery shells on her way to work at the American University Hospital in Beirut, she could scarcely imagine a peaceful future — much less that she would become a member of Parliament in Canada.

“Many times, I saw people blown up in front of me,” Nassif remembers, describing her years as a registered nurse in her home country during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). “Even when I was training at the hospital, we used to work double shifts, day and night, to help. I don’t have good memories.”

Nassif, whose father and brother were killed during the war, graduated in 1986 at the height of the hostilities. She was pressed into service immediately as a staff nurse on the oncology ward.

Although Nassif loved being able to help patients, the workload and the devastation in her country were overwhelming. She was thankful to leave Lebanon and come to Canada in 1993, putting her nursing experiences behind her.

More than 20 years later, after a second career as a translator, Nassif is one of two individuals with a background in nursing who were voted into Parliament for first terms.

A Liberal MP who represents the Quebec riding of Vimy, Nassif lives in Laval with her husband and their 19-year-old triplets. She first gained experience in politics as a student at Concordia University, where she served on the Graduate Students Association in Translation while earning a BA and an MA.

The organizational skills she honed in nursing helped her recruit more than 2,000 new Liberal party members to support her nomination. During the campaign, she attended countless community events in her riding and fielded calls from people who were asking for help, even though they weren’t yet her constituents. “I was on the ground day and night.” She jokes that nursing and motherhood prepared her to function with just a few hours of sleep.

Kamal Khera, Eva Nassif and Cathy McLeod

Much of her first month as an MP was taken up with administrative work: renting an office in her riding, setting up her office on Parliament Hill, recruiting employees and renting a home in Ottawa. She is looking forward to tackling issues in Parliament and “doing my best to resolve them.”

One of Nassif’s new Liberal colleagues is Kamal Khera, the other first-timer. At 26, Khera, who represents the Ontario riding of Brampton West, believes she is the youngest MP in this Parliament. She’s also an oncology nurse who is fresh off the unit at Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre, where she worked after graduating from York University’s school of nursing in 2013. She adds that she’s a proud CNA member.

Born in Delhi, India, Khera came to Canada at age eight with her family. Like many new immigrants, her parents were unable to find jobs in their fields. They worked in factories to support their children and embraced community service. Together, the family volunteered at the Sikh temple they attended and became active in politics.

By age nine, Khera had joined the Young Liberals of Canada and worked on a federal campaign; in high school, she was president of her student council.

It was her father’s recovery from a brain aneurysm while she was at university that propelled her into health care. “The way the nurses and all the staff took care of my dad — that’s something I can’t forget,” she says. “That’s when I knew that nursing was something I was going to do.”

Khera’s interest in entering federal politics stemmed from her volunteer work with a local family violence shelter, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Peel and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Being involved with these organizations at a grassroots level gave me a need to protect the people, serve the people, be their voice and improve their health care,” she says.

In Parliament, Khera hopes to champion improvements to the health system that will shift its focus to prevention of chronic illnesses. She plans to draw on the experience she has gained working on health-care teams in sometimes difficult environments. “Nursing has taught me well to work under pressure and to deal with the many issues that come my way,” she says.

In December, Khera was appointed parliamentary secretary to Minister of Health Jane Philpott. “My desire is to ensure we have a strong and stable health-care system that will be there for our seniors and future generations.”

Finding ways to make the health system more effective and efficient is important to Cathy McLeod, who represents the British Columbia riding of Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo. McLeod is a Conservative MP who was first elected in 2008 and is returning for her third term. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario with her B.Sc. in nursing in 1981, McLeod went on to earn a master’s degree in international primary health care through University College London in England. She was a general duty nurse at Vancouver General and also practised in rural and aboriginal communities before moving to rural community health centre management. In one community, she also served as mayor.

“I gained a passion for primary health care reform,” McLeod says. “I thought many of the rural communities had the concepts down pretty well; they all had interdisciplinary teams with shared practice.”

The experience of combining municipal politics and health-care reform efforts eventually led her to Ottawa, where she has served on the standing committee on health and as parliamentary secretary to Rona Ambrose, who was the health minister. McLeod is proud of her work on the committee, including advocating for a regulatory framework around e-cigarettes and supporting the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s advocacy for best practices to address mental health issues in the workplace. In addition, she sought changes to the Canada Labour Code that would ensure unpaid interns are guaranteed health and safety protections.

McLeod says she brings her diagnostic and listening skills to her constituency work and to the House. There, a typical day involves a scan of the day’s news, votes in the Commons, question period, meetings with organizations and individuals eager to ensure their concerns are conveyed to government, and committee work.

Commuting from Ottawa to a far-away riding is among the most difficult parts of being an MP, says McLeod, especially for anyone with young children. She is grateful that her youngest daughter was already 19 when she was elected, because the trip from Ottawa to Kamloops takes 12 hours door to door, making it difficult to get home every weekend.

One of McLeod’s health committee colleagues was Christine Moore, who was also re-elected. Like Khera, Moore plans to continue to practise nursing. Even when the House is in session, she puts in two to three shifts a month in the intensive care unit or emergency department at her local hospital.

Moore, who represents the NDP in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue riding, says she is used to juggling many roles. She returned to the campaign trail nine days after the birth of her daughter on Sept. 8, six weeks before election day. A reservist in the Canadian Armed Forces before she became a nurse, Moore believes her skills in stress management and organization serve her well in the House of Commons.

“When I learned that I won the campaign, I was calm; maybe it’s a nurse thing,” she says with a laugh. “We are pretty good at dealing with a lot of things at the same time.” During the 2011 campaign, she says, she “sometimes got up at 6 a.m., campaigned until 2 p.m., drove an hour or two back to my hospital, put on the uniform I had rolled up in my car and then worked until midnight.”

Formerly her party’s deputy health critic, Moore has been named spokesperson for Rural Affairs and for the Canada Economic Development Agency for Quebec. However, she says she will continue her focus on health issues. “In politics, there are so many decisions to be made that have an impact on health.” At the end of November, she travelled to South Africa for the Global TB Summit.

The side of the House these MPs sit on doesn’t matter. All four have carried the dedication they brought to patient care and their passion for helping others with them into their political careers.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.