What do a lawyer, a baptist minister, a farmer and a nurse have in common? At one point, they’ve all walked into the legislature to serve as MLAs. In episode two of Off Script, hear the stories that turned regular citizens into lawmakers, and the challenges they faced along the way.

Subscribe to the Off Script podcast in your favourite podcast listening app:

Apple Podcasts | Overcast | Pocket Casts | Stitcher Radio | PlayerFM | Castbox | BeyondPod | Podbean

Episode Transcript

Becoming a Nova Scotia MLA

Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script. The podcast.

My name is Mark Coffin, and I’m one of the hosts.

For the past two years, me and the Off Script team have been tracking down former members of the Nova Scotia legislature.

Whenever we found one, we invited them to take part in an exit interview.

Exit interviews are conversations that employers have with their employees once they’ve left or decided to leave a job, to get answers to the questions that would be uncomfortable or unwelcome if the employee had to keep showing up to work in the weeks and months ahead.

We sat down with dozens of former MLAs, and had them reflect on their time in public life.

We asked them to tell us about the good the bad and the ugly of how Nova Scotia politics works from the inside.

All of our interviews were on the record, but what we heard didn’t sound much like the usual script.

This is the spot. This is the spot in the podcast where we’re going to start putting advertising. Unless we get enough donations to not have to sell any advertising at all.

Okay, this is the uncomfortable part that nobody really likes talking about.

We’re almost certainly going to have to include some advertising in the podcast to help us cover the costs of writing and production.

And it’s almost certainly not going to be enough to cover all of those costs, so we’re asking you to pitch in. We’ve spent two years in pre-production to make this podcast, mostly volunteer time.

If you’ve listened to last week’s podcast you’ve got a taste of what kind of recordings we’re sitting on, and we want your help to make sure they make it to air.

We’ve sketched out at least thirty more episodes that we’d like to produce for you in the next year.

And what we’re hoping for is just a little bit of support—just a teensie bit of support from each listener—to make sure those episodes, and the stories we heard make it to that little device in your pocket.

If everyone who listened to last week’s episode gave us just $3 per month, we’d have enough to produce two episodes a month. That’s a basic cup of drop coffee, plus a generous tip to your barista.

This podcast is worth way more than a cup of coffee a month. It’s worth at least the price of a beer. You can also give us five dollars, which is cheap for a beer.

So you can also give eight dollars, which is getting steep, but we’ll take it.

So, if you’d like to support the podcast, go to OffScript.ca/Donate.  

Okay. Back to your podcast for this week.  

Mark Coffin: Close your eyes. Picture the average politician. What kind of clothes are they wearing? How old are they? Are they a man or a woman? Now picture them surrounded by their friends, their family, their brothers and sisters, their spouse and their parents… What kind of image are you left with? Does it sound like this?

Mark Coffin: So tell me what you did before you entered politics?

Francene Cosman: I began as a nurse. I studied as a nurse and did a post-graduate in nursing before I graduated.

George Archibald: Prior to politics I was a farmer. We milked registered holsteins.

Mark Parent: I was a Baptist minister, and also taught university part time.

David Nantes: I was a consulting engineer. First political meeting I ever attended in my life was the night I was nominated.

Danny Graham: I was a lawyer in Nova Scotia. The first political meeting I ever attended as an adult was one to determine whether or not I would run for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Gary Burrill: I edited a regional, radical regional progressive magazine here called new maritimes, in the ‘80s. So, I’m kind of writer, minister, politician.

Eleanor Norrie: I began first of all as a school teacher, prior to being married. Then I was a stay-at-home-mom, if you will, with my three daughters. I just became sort of a well known volunteer, if you will, and kept doing that right up until a time I was asked to run.

Howard Epstein: I practised law, I taught law, I was the director of various organizations, some of them labour organisations, one of them a major environmental organisation, the Ecology Action Centre here in Nova Scotia.

Leonard Preyra: I was a professor at St. Mary’s University.

Robert Chisholm: My job as CUPE (Canadian Union of public Employees) representative was in  education, and I used to teach political action workshops for CUPE members.

Gordon Balser: I was a school teacher and a school administrator.

Mark Coffin: It would be an understatement to say that politicians are a misunderstood lot. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding the public has is the popular belief about where politicians come from, what motivates them to run, and how exactly they rise to power.
If you read the comments section on online news articles, listen to talk radio, or skim the letters to the editor section of newspapers, it’s not hard to develop a pretty clear image of  what certain people think a politician is. They are power hungry. They are only in it for the pension and the expense account. They’re  like moths to a spotlight, always looking for attention and credit. That’s the stereotype. But of course, anybody who knows stereotypes, knows they aren’t always accurate.

Stereotypes are a portrait of something that we’ve all helped create over time. They are painted with shades of truths, half-truths, straight up fiction, and a good coating of exaggeration. When we asked MLAs why they ran for office, we heard a variety of responses. But we also heard something else.

In their answers, we heard why they initially ran, but they also framed it with the perspective granted to them by hindsight. Their decision to seek elected office often came at the expense of certain things they hadn’t planned for, like the destruction of life-long friendships, the end of marriages, endless public criticism, verbal, sometimes even physical abuse, and public embarrassment. Nobody plans for this stuff to happen. In these stories, there was something incredibly human. Now, before doing these interviews, we weren’t quick to accept the conclusions about what motivates someone to seek elected office, as expressed by talk radio listeners and the people who take up most of the space in the comments sections of online news articles.

But, after hearing the stories of MLAs reflecting on their motivations for entering public life, it was even harder to believe that these people were initially motivated by a primal drive for money, power and the spotlight.

When we asked them why they ran for public office, here’s what they said.

You be the judge.

Gary Burrill: People often ask me what is a minister doing in politics? And I say, if you go get a Bible and open it to any page and if you can find a page that doesn’t have both politics and religion on it, I’ll go buy you lunch.

Danny Graham: I realized that even if the criminal justice system was going to be fixed, we were still going to have most of the fundamental problems that  we have in society. The best way to begin to tackle those challenges might be to get involved in politics.

Graham Steele: I’m not going to say I got into politics because I wanted to make a difference, I’m going to say because it looked really fun and interesting.

Mark Coffin: All of the responses you just heard were from people whose answers were somewhat unique, compared to their peers.

For many of the MLAs, it was the right time in their lives, and in their communities, to run for office. Many were near retirement-age when they decided to run. Their youngest children had finally left home, and they had some space in their schedules. They would have liked to have run for office earlier before, but they didn’t see becoming an MLA as a family friendly decision.

For some, the political climate in their riding had something to do with their decision to run. The seat they ran for might’ve been held by their own party, but the person who held the seat wasn’t reoffering.

For others, the incumbent from another party wasn’t reoffering, so it was a competitive race. There were others still, who ran simply because another party’s incumbent was re-offering.

Percy Paris: What really I think drew me into politics was, the Conservatives had a representative here in the riding that wasn’t a very nice person—especially for women and minority groups. He was the complete opposite of me. So somebody said, well why don’t you run against him if you feel that strongly. Why don’t you do something about it?

Mark Coffin: Okay, I’m going to make an audio footnote here, to explain something we’re doing with this podcast. One thing you might be wondering is, why aren’t we telling you the names of these MLAs? Why aren’t we naming names?

There’s two parts to that answer.

One is that we don’t think the names matter so much as the patterns. The patterns that we can see in how people’s answers compare to one another.

And the other answer is that there’s a lot of names, and I suspect it wouldn’t be very fun to listen to. I’ve tried jumping in and recording myself saying, “That’s Jane Doe, she was the MLA for Forest Hills and she belonged to this party…” and it probably makes it hard to listen to.

That said, if you’re real curious, you can find out who the speakers are on the Off Script website. We publish a transcript of the full podcast where we tell you who the speaker is for each clip you hear on the show. End of footnote.

So, The majority of the MLAs we interviewed were asked to run, either by their parties, their friends or their families.

Mark Coffin: And was it your own initiative to become a candidate? Were you recruited or—

Percy Paris: I was asked if I would run.

Robert Chisholm:  I went to this meeting, and towards the end of this meeting somebody said, “Oh by the way we gotta talk about this by-election in Halifax Atlantic. We needed a candidate.” Somebody turned to me and said, “What about you?”

Michele Raymond: It was a surprise, it really came out of left field. I was really afraid that I was going to lose friends and neighbors as allies, and this whole thing would in fact bring me into disrepute. So I originally said no, thank you very much.

Mark Coffin: Some of the MLAs we spoke to would not have run had it not been for the push from their party, family or friends. Ramona Jennex, the former MLA for Kings South, a riding that includes wolfville and surrounding areas, had volunteered for the NDP for years, and was responsible for recruiting candidates.

Despite being involved in several candidate searches, she’d never considered running herself. That is, until someone from the party gave her a nudge:

Ramona Jennex: I was always on the hunt, and one day I got a phone call after I had put some names forward for the area that I had lived in, and I got a phone call from someone in the party. They said, “Has anyone ever asked you to run?” and I said, “No one’s ever asked me to run. I’ve always done the asking.” They said, “Well, will you?”

I said, “Just let me think about that, I want to talk to my kids.” I talked to the children, and the children said yes. My son—who is now deceased—said, “Mom, I don’t know why you didn’t do it before.” Well, you usually wait to be asked.

Louise Cockram: Did somebody ask you to run?

David Nantes: Yes, people in the community.

Jamie Muir: Yes, actually the people who encouraged me the most were my brother-in-law and his wife.

Howard Epstein: I think I was kind of encouraged to run. The tradition of the NDP is to a fairly thorough candidate search.

Mark Coffin: 21 of the forty former MLAs we interviewed were asked to run.

Of course, there was something implied in the answer to that question. The answer almost suggests that if they were never asked, they would never have run. Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat, the folks behind the federal exit interviews with former members of parliament, called this the ‘creation myth’ of a politician.

I can’t prove this next part, but I suspect the people giving this answer fell into two categories. In the first category are the people who said it, and meant it. They’d never really put much thought into running, and being asked was the first stage in the decision-making process of whether or not to run.

In the second category are the people who were just waiting to be asked. For them, being asked wasn’t the first step of the process of deciding to run, it was the final step.

It was almost as if it was a symbolic gesture, or ritual, like something you had to wait for; almost like a push over the edge they needed in order to run. Maybe it was that last boost of confidence they needed, or maybe it was what they had to needed in order to position themselves as helpers, and not power seekers.

Most people were asked to run. But you might be surprised by some of the people who didn’t have to wait to be asked.

In 2001, a member of the NDP’s research staff was discouraged by his colleagues to seek the nomination in the riding that Eileen O’Connell had held until she’d passed away earlier that year.

Graham Steele: Nobody was encouraging me to run. In fact, I was actively discouraged from running by the senior staff members in the NDP caucus office. They were deathly afraid of being accused of favouritism, so they bent over backwards to make things as difficult as possible for me to run. Inside the NDP, they are just so afraid of being accused of favouritism, so for good reasons they said all the staff needed to be neutral.

Mark Coffin: Graham had heard who the other prospective candidates were, and he knew he could do the job better, so he decided to run.

Graham Steele: I couldn’t get any help, any of my colleagues. When I told them I was thinking of running, they were the opposite of excited.

Mark Coffin: At what point would the thought have first occurred to you that you wanted to be a politician?

Rodney MacDonald: My father asked me at one point—shortly after I graduated from university—what my interests were for politics. I think he was questioned me about what that might be, if I had an interest in running municipally someday or something like that, and I knew my interest was provincial.

Mark Coffin: That’s former Premier, and former Progressive Conservative Party Leader, Rodney MacDonald, talking about a conversation he had with his father, who was a former municipal politician in Inverness county.

Rodney MacDonald: At that point I was 22 and said I wasn’t interested in running for politics anytime soon.

Mark Coffin: Just five years later, the 1998 election left his party in third place, and saw the party’s candidate in his riding lose by over 2000 votes.  The same election saw the NDP and the Liberals tied with 19 seats each, and it was well-understood that the Liberal government wouldn’t keep their hold to power long, and another election was right around the corner.

Rodney had been an active member of the PC party throughout his university days, well before he became a candidate. So all this time, he’d been attending local riding association meetings anyway.

Rodney MacDonald: Daniel Rankin actually, I believe I went to the meeting with him at the time with him, I went and I met with a few of the people. The meeting was in Whycocomagh. They indicated that they would have a nomination, I didn’t really indicate any interest. They indicated that they would have a nomination, I didn’t really indicate any interest, I was just listening.

Mark Coffin: In the back of his mind, he knew he would someday want to be a provincial candidate, but he hadn’t shown his hand yet.

And it didn’t quite look like the party’s chances would be very good if he did get involved. But he was persuaded by a speech from his party’s leader.

Rodney MacDonald: So when I heard John Hamm, I decided I’d run for the nomination, it was a contested nomination, there were over 700 people signed up. There was almost 500 there and I became the nominated candidate.

Mark Coffin: Did you know at the time that you had recruited more supporters?

Rodney MacDonald: I suspected I did, yes.

Mark Coffin: That was former Progressive Conservative leader and premier of Nova Scotia, Rodney MacDonald.

Before Danny Graham was politician, he was a defense attorney, and in 2001 he was working for the Department of Justice in Ottawa. Danny was one of those people who was asked to run, but there was a catch. He wasn’t just asked to join the Liberal nomination to become the Liberal candidate. He was asked to run for a position that had a bit more responsibility than that.

Danny Graham: I had been approached a number of months earlier to consider getting involved in politics, running for the leadership of the Liberal party. After careful consideration I said no, and a pretty emphatic no.

Mark Coffin: At the Department of Justice, he was working on a proposal for Canada’s first national restorative justice program, and on September 11th, 2001, he was two weeks away from taking his proposal to the federal cabinet.

When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened in the United States, he was handed a new assignment.

Danny Graham: I spent time at the federal house of commons as the liaison for members of parliament on the government side in terms of helping them to understand what this really important piece of legislation was about, because it was potentially changing the relationship between government and Canadian citizens around liberties.

I realized—oh my heavens, this group of political leaders has very little knowledge of what they’re talking about. I’m a courier of speeches that are being written by government officials to be read in the house of commons that they had nothing to do in drafting.

Mark Coffin: During his time on Parliament Hill, his appreciation of the need for meaningful public policy debate grew. He thought it might be something he’d be able to work on, in Nova Scotia.
Danny Graham: But after this experience of working on the anti-terrorism legislation and realizing just how challenging it is to bring an informed, meaningful discussion in our legislatures, I felt forced to reconsider the question of whether or not I would step up to public life. That was really the tipping point for me.

I went back to my wife in Ottawa—Sheila— and said I think that we’ve gotta rethink this and potentially move back to Nova scotia. Within a month and a half, I was in the middle of a leadership race involving a party that I hadn’t been particularly involved in up until then.

Mark Coffin: For Danny, the decision to run involved an interruption in a stable and accomplished career.
Danny Graham: I was having trouble appreciating the double standard. I was enjoying the benefits of a Nova Scotian lifestyle that so many others didn’t. I was enjoying the benefits of a Canadian lifestyle that so many people don’t enjoy. So, if not me then who? Get out of the bleachers, and get onto the field, and try to make a difference in some fashion.

Robert Chisholm: My wife and I engaged in these conversations about you know if not me, who? And maybe it’s time I stood up and had a say and spoke up about these things. So that’s what I did.

Mark Coffin: That’s Robert Chisholm, he’s best known for leading the Nova Scotia NDP from their sleepy third-party status, to the 19 seats they won when they tied the governing Liberals in seat count in the 1998 election, which ultimately left the Liberals in government but positioned the NDP in a kind of ‘government in waiting’ place.

But before he became NDP leader, he sat as the the MLA for Halifax Atlantic. He made the decision to run in December of 1990—the same day as the first anniversary of the massacre at ecole polytechnique in Montreal.  

Robert Chisholm: I was going to a meeting of the political action group, the NS Federation of Labour and the NDP. I remember to this day, sitting and having coffee early in the morning, reading the Globe and Mail [at the] Scotia Square [Mall] before going to this meeting. [In it were] stories about the anniversary of the massacre, Ecole Polytechnique, there had been a big announcement of massive layoffs [at] Air Canada, or CBC, and I was just all wound up about that, wanting to speak up. We weren’t doing enough.

Mark Coffin: The sentiment expressed by Danny and Robert, this notion that you might be able to affect more change from the inside of system than outside of it, was one echoed by only some of their colleagues.

Tim Olive: When I was faced with the situation of living in a community, working in a community, running a business in a community, and seeing the negative effect that lack of attention has. The lack of attention by government has on a certain segment of society that are less fortunate, it kind of bothered me. I was active in the community at that point. I was involved in a lot of community organizations, and that’s when I was asked if I’d like to run and I thought, maybe you fix it from the inside.

Mark Coffin: It wasn’t uncommon to hear of people who ran with some very specific issues in mind, issues that they saw big potential for the provincial government to have an impact on.

Michele Raymond: The affordability of healthy food—huge problem. Lack of emphasis on practical education.

Howard Epstein: What I liked about provincial politics was that it gave the opportunity to be engaged in larger scale economic development matters or larger scale environmental matters. Or larger scale health and occupational safety issues, things that I thought were important.

Wayne Adams: I carefully looked at the parties who did the most for my people for the most number of years, particularly in the history of my race in the province of Nova Scotia.

Mark Coffin: That last voice, was from Wayne Adams. Throughout the ‘70s, Wayne was a journalist, municipal councillor, and general man about the community. When he was elected to Province House in 1993, he became the first African Nova Scotian to take a seat in the legislature.

He represented the riding of Preston. He left a position he held on municipal council—one he held for five terms—to run for provincial office.

Both times, he ran because of encouragement from family and friends in his community. The hardest part wasn’t whether or not to run, but which party he wanted to run for.

Wayne Adams: I was courted heavily by both parties, all three parties I should say. In fact, to this day Alexa McDonough will say that she regrets so much that I didn’t run for them, especially in ‘88 when she really had the pressure on me, and I almost did it.

I talked to a lot of senior folks, some who were near death when I was making that decision. I asked them, “I’m thinking about running provincially, should it be NDP, Tory or Liberal?” And inadvertently, unanimously, with no exceptions, I was told “You better run Liberal. Take care of your people because no one else will.”

Mark Coffin: The image of a party candidate being a partisan insider, wasn’t one that held up for all of the former MLAs we spoke with. A handful of them—now some of the most household names in Nova Scotia politics—actually took a meandering path to land at their own parties, one that took  them through other parties first.

Alexa McDonough, who would go on to be the leader of the provincial and federal new democratic parties, actually started out as a Liberal.

Alexa McDonough: I was inspired by Trudeau. He captured the youth of my generation. But then I was really appalled by the shortfall between what was espoused on the election trail and what they actually did with the power that they got.

Mark Coffin: Alexa wasn’t the only young Liberal who would eventually make the leap to the NDP. Former NDP finance minister, Graham Steele, and NDP backbencher Clarrie MacKinnon were also supporters of Pierre Trudeau.

Leonard Preyra—another NDP MLA—is a self-described lifelong social democrat. Being a social democrat meant supporting candidates that championed social democratic values, something Leonard also saw in parties other than the NDP.

Leonard Preyra: When I was at university I supported Flora MacDonald, who was a conservative and she was in many ways a role model during those years. She had worked at Queen’s university and I was at Queen’s university. You know, I suppose I could just as easily run for a Red Tory, a Red Tory leader. Oddly enough John Hamm and I got along very well in the years that we worked together, we still do. And you know, ideologically I think the idea of social justice, is something the red Tories and the NDP have in common.

Mark Coffin: What drew you to the Liberal Party?

Francene Cosman: That’s really a hard question to answer. At one time I was a candidate for the Tory party, because I wanted the government of the day—which was then a Liberal government who were putting the garbage dump in Bedford—to change. So I put my name forward and didn’t have a sweet clue what any of it was about. I was a young woman with two small children.

Mark Coffin: Anyone who follows Nova Scotia politics is aware of the level of partisanship that can exist, the passion with which some members of all of the parties believe in their own agenda, and the mistrust those same people have towards the motives of the parties that aren’t their own.

We wanted to know: how did MLAs decide to join one of these groups?

The answers weren’t always easy to understand…

Louise Cockram: Why did you decide to join the PC as opposed to the Liberals or the NDP?

George Archibald: Oh, I guess ‘cus they asked me to.

Louise Cockram: Okay.

Jamie Muir: My father and mother were both came from staunch conservative families. Not that that should influence a person..

Mark Coffin: Some of these MLAs recognized that choosing a party because it was the one your parents belonged to wasn’t a sufficient reason, including that last voice you heard which belongs to Jamie Muir, a former cabinet minister in John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald’s conservative governments.

Nevertheless, It wasn’t always easy to get a clear answer when we asked MLAs why they’d joined their own parties.

Most of those who answered, however, drew a clear line between the values or ideas the party held, and their own values, issues and priorities. The rest—which were a minority—were brought to their parties by their families, friends, or were attracted to the character of the party’s leader.

Of course, it’s not as easy as just choosing a party, or even being the preferred choice of party insiders.

Except in a few rare circumstances, you need to win the vote of the local party membership in order to run under that party’s banner in the election.



Zach Churchill, Nomination speech (June 11 2010): Thank you. This is a historic occasion for Yarmouth. The largest political gathering in recent memory. Two months ago there were approximately 40 members, of our Liberal party in yarmouth. We are now over 1300 strong, united behind whoever secures this nomination…

Mark Coffin: That’s Zach Churchill, who now serves as the MLA for Yarmouth, and Minister for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Affairs for Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government.

On the tape you just heard, he was speaking at the nomination meeting where liberal party members made him their candidate in a by-election in the summer of 2010. The MLAs we spoke to described the contested nominations they participated in as a battle for recruiting new members.

Gordon Balser: Basically the way it works is you sell memberships, and if you sell the most memberships the idea is that those people will show up at the nominating meeting and vote for you.

Charlie Parker: Seeking the nomination is the first step in the process of course, but it becomes a numbers game, primarily in that you have to sign up as many family and friends and relatives and supporters and people everywhere in the riding, and not only get them to sign up as members but also get them out to the nomination meeting.

Mark Coffin: The kind of nomination meeting we didn’t hear much about was the meeting you might hear described in some outdated, or out of touch, political science text, about how an ideal party nomination would work.

One where party memberspeople with deeply held, shared valuesgot together and choose from amongst themselves who the best candidate to represent those values in the election, and ultimately, the legislature would be.

Pam Birdsall: For any party, you bring in new membership because you have to be a member to vote. The people that supported him were friends of his, not necessarily New Democrats, because when I won they were no longer members.

Mark Coffin: There was one simple strategy for winning the nomination: recruit the most members. This is the grassroots of partisan politics in Nova Scotia. This is the the local presence of political parties and this is where MLAs begin their political journey. The kind of nomination meetings we heard aboutthe meetings that launch political careerscould be generally categorized in three ways.

The stacked room, the empty room, and the rubber stamp.

The first one, the stacked room seemed to be the most common. There would be least two candidates, and each of them did everything they could to get their friends and family out to vote for them. Most of the voters didn’t have any allegiance to the party, they were there to support their friend, their co-worker, or their cousin. In the end whoever brings the most people out wins.

Usually, it was pretty clear who had the most supporters at the beginning of the evening. The room was stacked.

Then there’s the empty room. The interest level is low, maybe the riding association didn’t do much to get the word out, perhaps because they didn’t think they could win the district, but eventually they do, and so a political career quietly begins.

Then there’s the rubber stamp. For instance, when the party currently holds the riding, and the serving MLA intends to run again, there’s rarely a contest. The room is still stacked, but everyone is there to support that MLA. The rubber stamp also shows up when there is a clear party favourite—someone that’s been hand-picked by the leader, or the local riding association—without much effort being spent to recruit alternative candidates.

At the other end of spectrum, if the party and voters don’t think there’s a chance of winning the riding, then there’s unlikely to be a competition, and the rubber stamp happens in the almost empty room.

Then there’s the kind of nomination meetings like the one Francene Cosman faced when she sought the liberal nomination in Bedford.

These ones are, from what we’ve heard, quite rare.

They’re the nomination meetings where, at the beginning of the evening—these contests always seem to happen in the evening—nobody has any clue which candidate is going to win.

Francene Cosman: It was hotly contested. He was a retired RCMP. He was well-known in hockey circles. His son was a star player in hockey. So we were all out beating the bushes trying to drum up people to come and support us at the nomination meeting. And the night of the nomination, there were about between 1,100 and 1,200 people showed up to vote and the rumour was there were going to be busloads of hockey players coming in to vote for my opponent. It was pretty good, pretty tense.

Mark Coffin: Francene had been an active feminist, had worked with the advisory council on the status of women, and her opponent began spreading rumours about her position on abortion, and that became the defining issue of the nomination race.

Francene Cosman: There was a lot of misinformation floating around saying I was all for abortion. I had a nice little speech all written and one of my supporters came to me and said, “Look, this is what’s rippling around the room right now.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll throw my speech away and I’ll get up and talk on the issue.”

Mark Coffin: What were they saying and what was your actual position?

Francene Cosman: Because I am a feminist and I had worked for the [Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the] Status of Women, they just assumed automatically that I was somebody who was not pro-life.

Pro-life is totally against abortion and I’m pro-choice, but I talked about the fact that I had teenage daughters and if it ever happened that they came to me and said that they were pregnant [and asked] could they have an abortion, these were the steps I would take to advise them what they need to think about before they’d make such a life-altering change for themselves. I talked about that. I really did give an overview of my own personal thinking on the subject and that I wouldn’t want my family to have to have an abortion but in the end if that was their choice, I would support their choice.

Mark Coffin: And if you hadn’t have said that, you don’t think you would have won?

Francene Cosman: The odds were against me winning with the numbers that my opponent had signed up. Truly, they were against me. So I did it. And I won.

Mark Coffin: However candidates won their nominationthrough a contested nomination like Francene’s, by being on the right side of a stacked room, by being the only candidate in an empty room, or being on the receiving end of the rubber stampthe next step was the same. Win their local district seat. Some MLAs ran in a by-election, but most ran in the general election. Oh, and there is another way to get elected – without the support of  a political party. You run as an independent.

However, in the last 30 years, there have been just nine independent candidates elected to the Nova Scotia legislature, and all of them were originally elected on a party ticket… but were either removed from the party or left on their own before running for re-election. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to get elected to the legislature without going through the party system.

Once a candidate has been nominated, the job shifts from recruiting members for the party, to meeting the voters.

Marie Dechman: The candidates job is to meet people, and to speak to them, and to try to put your side of the story across. How you can make a difference, or why you feel you should.

Mark Coffin: Good old-fashioned door-knocking remains one of the most effective ways to meet potential voters. Most xMLAs enjoyed it.

Alexa McDonough: That was always my favourite thing to do. People said: “how can you stand going to all those doors where you feel stupid standing on doorsteps, on your own, “I want your vote”? I just found it fascinating. I loved every bit of it. You know it’s just always interesting “I wonder who’s gonna answer this door.” You got a real sense this being a microcosm of society.

Wayne Adams: I loved campaigning anyway, quite frankly, the best part of politics is the campaign, because you’re around and about meeting people in person and that’s just…it’s almost like Hollywood to a certain extent.

Pam Birdsall: It was gratifying in that—I’m very fit, and healthy and always have been, so walking miles and miles and knocking on doors wasn’t a problem.

Mark Coffin: Door knocking often opened their eyes of candidates to the range of voices that exist in a community, but also to their living situations.

They were going to the door with a very explicit purpose—to ask for a voter’s support—but they left each door having quite literally peered into the homes of the people they wanted to represent.

Michelle Raymond: But it’s quite something to knock on a door and not to be turned away as a complete stranger. Doors opened to an incredible diversity of experiences and lives. Sometimes you’d run across things that [make you think] oh dear, somebody has never thought they don’t need to live this way.

Mark Coffin: That’s  Michele Raymond, who served as the MLA for Halifax Atlantic—a riding that included Spryfield, a community with high poverty and high school dropout rates. She ran for the NDP, and served as the MLA from 20022013.

She ran in four elections, but it only took her one campaign to see the realities of what some of the residents of her constituency were facing.  She recalls arriving at an apartment building on one of her days of canvassing:

Michele Raymond: Everybody was outside,  it was not a well-to-do building by any means. It was a sunny afternoon and everybody was sitting outside in beat-up lawn chairs and some of them lived in the apartment building and some of them didn’t live anywhere. What emerged was that they were afraid to be inside because the electrical box was shorting out.

Mark Coffin: Michele paused her campaign for the day and called the fire marshal to resolve the situation with the electrical box.

Michele Raymond: That was not something that really I took on as any kind of candidate or anything, it was just that you can’t let that happen.

Mark Coffin: The fire marshal eventually came, and resolved that particular issue, and Michele resumed campaigning for the day. But the lasting impact of this experience, at least for Michele, was a sustained awareness of what kind of challenges the people she would go on to represent were facing in their everyday lives. And this wasn’t the only time Michele provided one-on-one help to voters during the campaign, something most MLAs only recalled doing once they had been elected.

Michele Raymond: Things like that, you don’t really expect it. Until you’re actually in somebody’s space, in their life, and people do admit you into their life for that couple of minutes, you don’t know. And to be able to tell them that ‘yes, there’s help.’

Mark Coffin: Michele wasn’t the only person we spoke to who was awakened by what she saw on the campaign trail. For many of the MLAs we spoke to, being a candidate is like nothing  they had ever experienced before.

Mark Coffin: Running in the actual election campaign were there any moments of surprise or learning there?

Pam Birdsall: It was not a steep learning curve, it was straight up, it was vertical.  I had never been a candidate, it doesn’t matter what you think you know. Until you’re the one out there with the name on the sign and you’re knocking on doors you don’t know what you’re in for, you never do. But it’s like everything in life! You get married—you think you know what that’s gonna be like? You have a baby—you think you know what it’s going to be like to be a parent? No.

Mark Coffin: The vertical learning curve described by candidates on the campaign trail was a sign of things to come for the MLAs. On our next podcast we ask the question: once you get elected, how to do you become an MLA?

Thank you for tuning in. If you like what you heard, make sure to subscribe in iTunes, or wherever you store podcasts. Do us a favour by sharing with friends you think will be interested. A shareable version of each podcast can be found at audioboom.com/offscript.

Off Script is produced by Springtide, and this is one of a handful of projects we’re working to help Nova Scotians learn about, and better engage with, politics. Be sure to like us on Facebook at facebook.com/springtidecollective. Follow us on Twitter @springtideco or sign up for our newsletter at springtidecollective.ca for updates on our projects.

This episode of Off Script was written and produced by Louise Cockram, Sandra Hannebohm, and Mark Coffin, as well as many volunteer transcribers.

The theme music comes from Josh Spacek at Needledrop.co and the other music is from Kevin Macleod at Incompetech.

Thank you to the Association of Ex MLAs and all the MLAs who participated in our interviews.

Off Script is made possible by funding we got from the Democracy 250 Youth Engagement Legacy Trust. That funding got us started, but in order to keep it going and produce higher quality podcasts, we need support from people like you.

You can donate at Offscript.ca/donate. If you want to share something with the Off Script team, contact us at offscript@springtidecollective.ca.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here