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women in politics

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Eleanor McMahon's path to the Ontario legislature began a decade ago on the worst day of her life – the day her husband, Ontario Provincial Police officer Greg Stobbart, was killed by a careless driver while cycling on a country road near Milton, Ont.

Last week, Ms. McMahon was appointed to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's cabinet as the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport – one of five new women to be appointed, bringing female representation in the cabinet to 40 per cent.

It was one of the best days of her life – and her late husband was very much on her mind. After all, it was his death that motivated her to get into politics, and got her to this very point.

Ms. McMahon and Mr. Stobbart were married for only four years, but had been together for six, when he was killed. It occurred to her a few years ago that she had reached a point that "I had been longer without him than with him."

"But we packed a lot into those six years," says the 54-year-old Liberal MPP for Burlington. Married later in life after working as a political staffer on Parliament Hill for former Liberal leaders John Turner and Jean Chrétien, and then as a communications consultant, she says she found a best friend and supportive partner who "just let me rip" when it came to her career.

His death, however, gave her a new urgency to make a difference that "literally drove me for a long time," she says.

The man who killed her husband – local truck driver Michael Dougan – was found guilty of careless driving and sentenced to 100 hours of community service and lost his driver's licence for a year.

At his sentencing, she discovered he had five violations for driving with a suspended licence and $14,000 in fines. Two months after the accident that killed her husband, he was charged again with another traffic offence.

After spending that summer alone at her cottage, grieving and planting a garden in her husband's memory, Ms. McMahon figured out what she needed to do. She founded a cycling advocacy organization – Share the Road Cycling Coalition.

"It really helped me process his death in a way that for me was very personal but allowed me to feel I was doing something about it," she says.

She was successful in lobbying the Ontario government to pass "Greg's Law" in 2009, which increased the penalties under the Highway Traffic Act for driving with a suspended licence.

In the fall of 2013, however, Ms. McMahon felt it was time to move on. Ms. Wynne, who as Transportation Minister in Dalton McGuinty's cabinet had met Ms. McMahon through her advocacy group, asked her to run for office.

In January, 2014, she got the nod as the Liberal candidate in Burlington and started campaigning full-time. The riding had been represented by the Progressive Conservatives for 71 years; clearly, it was a long shot but she wanted to represent the community where she lived.

She prevailed in the June, 2014, election, and promptly took a seat on the Wynne backbench.

Bilingual, feisty and effective, Ms. McMahon had been touted as a potential cabinet minister. That's because she came to the legislature with a wealth of experience – not only from her advocacy work but also from her work on Parliament Hill as a 20-something staffer in the 1980s, and later with the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and various other organizations, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

She saw how politics worked from the opposition side and also learned how to navigate the misogyny in the corridors of the Centre Block. Back then, she knew which MPs to avoid, and not allow herself to be in a vulnerable situation.

Sitting in the legislature for the past two years, however, Ms. McMahon is concerned about the aggressive tone, and the personal attacks. She wants the best and the brightest to be attracted to public service – and fears this will turn women off.

Recently, a group of Grade 8 girls came to the legislature to watch Question Period – and it happened to be one of the most partisan sessions ever, recalled Ms. McMahon.

She had met earlier with the girls and some of them indicated they wanted to be MPPs. When they met afterward, she polled them about whether being an MPP was a job for them. Not one raised their hands.

"I find it deeply personal," she says about the culture of the legislature. "I sigh and sometimes think this is not our finest hour."

In her new cabinet role, Ms. McMahon, who says she's never been "terribly partisan," will again be taking inspiration from her late husband. As sports minister, she wants to get more kids competing in cycling; in tourism, she wants to promote cycle tourism as an economic development piece.

Just days before she was appointed to cabinet and on the 10th anniversary of her husband's death, Ms. McMahon introduced a private members' bill to amend the Highway Traffic Act to include a new offence of careless driving causing death.

Her bill calls for a fine of up to $50,000 when someone is killed or suffers bodily harm and up to two years in jail, compared with a $2,000 fine now and a jail sentence of up to six months.

It will be in committee in September – and has support from all sides of the legislature.

"Mr. Dougan was careless," she says. "My sentence for his momentary lapse of judgment was a life sentence without my husband and his sentence was 100 hours of community service."