As a cabinet minister, George Abbott had civil servants to do his research. Now the veteran municipal and provincial politician is flying solo as a PhD student working on his thesis at the University of Victoria.
The former education, health and aboriginal relations minister did not seek re-election in May, ending a run of 34 years in municipal and provincial politics. Before entering the legislature, Mr. Abbott was a lecturer in political science at Okanagan University College. Since retiring, Mr. Abbott, 60, has returned to the classroom, teaching B.C. politics at the University of Victoria where he earned a masters degree 35 years ago.
More recently, he has shifted his focus to writing a 200-plus-page thesis on how the Tsay Keh Dene had their lands flooded out due to the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam in the 1960s and the impact of Canada’s division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces on aboriginal public policy. He expects his work will take four years.
You were a powerful cabinet minister. Is it humbling to be a student?
A little bit. It’s also, in lots of ways, a great relief. In cabinet, your time is never really your own. I never really felt the full impact of that until I left politics. Cabinet ministers work hard all week. When they go home on the weekend, everybody has expectations about what they’re going to do. You’re always feeling the pressure of public expectation. You go to the store and someone wants to tell you about what, in particular, has annoyed them about their provincial government. It’s a challenging life. I have absolutely no regrets about leaving it.
What was it like discovering time that was your own?
It was terrific being able to get up in the morning and go for a walk with my wife or a bike ride or to the golf course and not have to worry about getting into the office for eight or 10 or 12 hours of meetings or deadlines.
Does Victoria feel like a different place to live as a student and not a cabinet minister or MLA?
Yes. Even though, as a cabinet minister, you may leave the office, the office never really leaves you. You have to be conscious of where you’re going, what you’re doing there, who you’re talking to, why you’re talking to them. There’s always that pressure in the background.
What’s the most challenging thing about returning to school?
For 17 years I’ve had people to assist me. If I needed something written, people would write it for me. Now I have to – apart from the generous assistance, periodically, of my wife – figure these things out for myself. Now when I have a 15-page paper due as I had last Friday, I am writing it and researching it. It’s a bit of a stressful challenge of confidence. I haven’t written a term paper for 35 years. It’s feeling pretty challenging going back to university at this stage. I felt good about the first paper I submitted. Whether my professor will feel good about it or not remains to be seen.
It’s a lot of work. Did you need to get a PhD?
No. When I was 25, 26 years old I had to make a decision about whether to go on and do a doctorate. I certainly could have done it at that time. But I also wanted to do some other things in life, including get away from university for a while, get married, have a family, start a business. I am convinced I made the right choice but I always, in a lot of ways, wondered what it would have been like to do a doctorate and I am finding that out now. It’s challenging as hell and really a lot of hard work.
Why this topic?
It’s an important story. I think there’s some things governments, federal and provincial, still have to learn about things like aboriginal education, aboriginal health and so on. We have come a long way since 1960, 1970. But there are still challenges in the way in which, because of the division of powers in Canada, the respective governments go about their work. We remain less collaborative, less collegial in aboriginal public policy than we need to.
Are you seeing things as a student that you wish you could have added to the cabinet debates on postsecondary education?
I used to get quite involved in the cabinet debates on postsecondary. I taught for 15 years. I had those experiences to bring to the debate. I can’t think of a lot of things I would have said or done differently in those discussions than what I would do today because of the experience I had as a teacher.
Does your experience in all this suggest it’s never too late to return to university?
I am very much a believer in lifelong education. I am never going to be a tenure-track professor. But I do want to keep my brain engaged. I want to do this in a way where I learn but in a way that fits into a slightly more relaxed lifestyle than the one they are accustomed to.
Mike Harcourt often jokes about a club of ex-politicians fighting to not relapse and return to politics. Have you signed up?
I am on the 10-step program for recovering politicians. I am entirely confident that my days in elected office are done. Having said that, I had 34 consecutive, uninterrupted years in local and provincial government. Looking back on it, it is a kind of addiction. We are recovering politicians. I am just glad I got to pick the time at which I got to leave. Not everybody gets that opportunity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.