At 16, Patty Hajdu was living on her own in Thunder Bay, struggling to finish high school.
She went on to work in adult literacy and public health, a single mother of two boys who put herself through university. Later, she ran the largest homeless shelter in Northwestern Ontario, where she strove to treat her clients with compassion – even as some succumbed to addiction and suicide.
But Ms. Hajdu, now the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in Justin Trudeau's government, still considers herself an optimist.
"I don't know if it's nature or nurture, but I know that I'm grateful for it, because it does allow me, even in dark moments, to sort of look up and go, 'Okay this really sucks, but it's probably going to be better tomorrow,' " Ms. Hajdu, 51, said recently during lunch in the parliamentary dining room.
"So let's just hang on."
Her personal and professional history gives her a sense of purpose: to protect the vulnerable.
It is an ethos she brings to one of the most culturally salient files in Canada, as the minister in charge of ensuring federal workplaces – including, for the first time, Parliament Hill – are free from harassment.
Last fall, Ms. Hajdu introduced the Liberal government's Bill C-65, which puts the onus on federal employers – including members of Parliament – to prevent harassment and protect their employees. It also outlines a process for dealing with complaints, including giving employees the option to bring a complaint to a neutral third-party. With agreement from all political parties, the bill was recently fast-tracked to committee, which will begin its study on Monday.
Ms. Hajdu admits the workplace dynamic is more complicated on Parliament Hill, where the #MeToo movement has touched off a debate about acceptable behaviour and appropriate punishment for public figures.
She can't answer every question about where to draw the line, or why some MPs are removed from caucus amid allegations and others not. But she notes the bill, for the first time, guarantees protections for political staffers and would include possible sanctions for MPs who break the rules, such as fines or the shame of being named in a public report.
"Politically, it's pretty toxic to get something tabled in the House of Commons that says you're a ritual harasser," Ms. Hajdu said.
Well-spoken and forthright, Ms. Hajdu's trajectory to public life is unusual. Born in Montreal, she spent her early years in Chisholm, Minn., raised alongside her younger brother by her aunt and uncle, because her mother, who struggled with mental-health issues, couldn't care for them.
At 12, she moved to Thunder Bay to be with her mother. But their relationship was tumultuous and Ms. Hajdu ended up on her own at 16, living on what was called "student welfare" and finishing her high-school education. She cites a series of supportive adults, including her grandmother and a geography teacher, who helped her get through it. "It was very difficult," she said.
Through an employment-insurance initiative, she got a job in Thunder Bay at a non-profit adult-literacy group, where she trained in graphic design and eventually earned her university degree in anthropology. She ended up working in public health as a planner with a focus on youth and substance abuse and, eventually, as the executive director of Shelter House Thunder Bay. She had personal experience, too: Ms. Hajdu's brother, who had served in the military, was homeless. He died at the age of 34 from a congenital heart defect.
Ms. Hajdu said she learned to cope with traumatic incidents in her life through counselling and mentorship.
"I've never been afraid to reach out," she said. "It's actually really healthy to be able to say, 'I need some help.' "
She first considered running for public office after the 2011 election, in which the Conservative Party won a majority.
"I was pretty mad at the Harper government. The kinds of people that I cared about, they were awful to, quite frankly, " Ms. Hajdu said.
One of the nurse practitioners with whom she worked submitted Ms. Hajdu's name to a Liberal Party initiative urging more women to engage in politics. Ms. Hajdu met with the NDP, too, but said she felt disconnected from former leader Tom Mulcair's moderate message. She was acclaimed as the Liberal candidate for Thunder Bay-Superior North in the fall of 2014.
She met Mr. Trudeau in February, 2015, when he visited Thunder Bay in the lead-up to the election. Ms. Hajdu tears up when she recalls how Mr. Trudeau spent two hours meeting with people at her shelter.
In October, 2015, she won her seat – previously held by the NDP – and, in November of that year, Mr. Trudeau named her Status of Women minister. A little more than a year later, she was promoted to Employment minister.
Recently, Ms. Hajdu has defended her government's decision to require groups seeking federal summer-job funding to sign an "attestation" in their application form that their core mandate respects reproductive and LGBTQ rights, among others. In response to the backlash, Ms. Hajdu has said the requirement has nothing to do with beliefs of values. Many religious groups, however, have said publicly that they feel the new criteria conflicts with their faith – something, they say, a government should not do.
But for the next few months, the focus for Ms. Hajdu will be on harassment and how Parliament Hill responds to an ever-evolving debate.
Is Ms. Hajdu worried that the pendulum has swung too far – that some men, for instance, may be concerned about simply hugging a female co-worker?
"I'm not personally worried about that," she said. "It's okay for people to be questioning right now what appropriate behaviour is in the workplace. I think that's a perfectly normal place to be. And I think as elected officials, we're always under a magnifying glass."