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Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews photographed in her office on Feb. 8, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews photographed in her office on Feb. 8, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Profile

Poised under fire, Deb Matthews tackles Ontario's ailing health-care system Add to ...

After high school, she went to McMaster University in Hamilton for a year, dropped out to campaign in her father’s second unsuccessful run for the House of Commons and then went to Ottawa to work as his assistant when he served as national president of the party. Along the way, Ms. Matthews became disillusioned with the party and was “soured” by the way she felt the establishment turned against her father when he wanted a second term as national president..

Politics was still personal for her, as it was when her brother-in-law David Peterson decided to run as a Liberal in London Centre in the 1975 provincial election. She declared herself a “free agent” and switched to the Grits. Ms. Matthews was 21 and just back from her honeymoon, having married Robert “Robbie” Nash, a stockbroker and the son of the proprietor of an upscale London jewellery store. “She was key to winning the nomination,” Mr. Peterson said. “She got out about 2,000 people,” he said. And then she worked for him.

Family got her into politics, but what kept her there was the realization that she was a Liberal. For her, that means concentrating on “social-justice issues, caring for those who have the least; but it also means being pragmatic, balancing budgets, making tough decisions” – and having a clear understanding of the power, the responsibility and the limitations of government.

What isn’t so clear is why she went from running other people’s election campaigns to putting herself out there as a candidate.

After Ms. Matthews and Mr. Nash divorced in 1990, she married her second husband, Bruce McCaffrey, a William Davis-era cabinet minister, in 1995. They had separated but not divorced by the time he died in 2002. In the late 1990s, she was a single mother and a mature student at UWO, who had been picking up courses for years to complete first her BA, then her MA and finally her PhD. Studying with students from different backgrounds, she saw “the gap between rich and poor was getting wider not narrower,” at least in part because of Conservative policies.

When tuition fees were increased at Western, she joined a protest march to the constituency office of Dianne Cunningham, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities in the second Harris majority. That night she had “a little soul search” and said to herself: “If you really care about these issues you can protest, you can march or you can actually get to work and run for office.”

She knew the riding because it incorporated Mr. Peterson’s old stronghold of London North, and she figured she had as good a chance as any Liberal to hold the minister to account. “I put my money where my mouth was,” she said. “It was that important to me.”

First of all, though, she had to get her kids on side. All three of them were university students and they knew how hard she had worked to complete her own education. They made her promise that if she ran, she wouldn’t abandon her doctorate. “If I had not made that solemn promise, there is no way I would have finished it,” she admitted. Even so, it took her four years of 1-hour days during legislative breaks to write her dissertation.

She loved campaigning. “I had the best education imaginable listening to people in my community and those stories still guide me today.” A retired janitor exacted a promise on his doorstep: She said he told her, “Every time you make a decision about spending money, just remember it is me who is paying for it in my taxes. If you think it would be okay with me, then go ahead. But if you think I might not think it is such a good idea, then I want you to think twice.”

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