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Labour Minister Lisa Raitt relaxes at her Oakville, Ont., home on June 17, 2011. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt relaxes at her Oakville, Ont., home on June 17, 2011. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Labour unrest

Lisa Raitt's affinity with labour 'in the blood' Add to ...

Lisa Raitt is an awkward foil for critics portraying the Conservative government as an enemy of Canada's labour movement.

The federal Labour Minister raised hackles this week, pledging back-to-work legislation to resolve disputes at Air Canada and Canada Post. An "assault on workers," according to one union boss.

Yet the Conservative minister at the centre of the storm is the unlikely product of Whitney Pier - a working class Sydney, N.S., neighbourhood where Tories are said to be as "rare as hens' teeth."

One of her earliest memories of her late father - a union organizer for what would become the Canadian Auto Workers - is watching him seated at their kitchen table leading a passionate debate with transit workers over whether to launch a bus strike.

Her family's frugal self-reliance skewed her toward conservatism, she said, but she has a fond memories of summers spent door-knocking across Cape Breton as her father signed up new union members.

"It's in the blood," said Ms. Raitt, who helped bring an end this week to the strike by Air Canada workers, who are members of the CAW.

Senior government officials are praising her smarts - not only for her active, hands-on work on Air Canada - but generally as a member of cabinet. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently signalled his faith in her by placing her on a new cabinet committee responsible for cutting spending.

She was on the phone with Air Canada's chief operating officer, Duncan Dee, and CAW president Ken Lewenza right up until Thursday's deal. Mr. Dee said she was "a real super star," while Mr. Lewenza said her calls made little difference - although he appreciates her personal affinity with labour.

Ms. Raitt's reputation is on the rise again after a controversy-filled 2009 as natural resources minister.

"It was a tough, tough year," recalled John Challinor, a friend of Ms. Raitt's who has served on her Halton, Ont., riding association and helped with her 2008 rookie campaign.

"The Prime Minister deserves a lot of credit for not throwing her under the bus," he said. "He could have very easily done that."

He said the Conservative minority government had a hard time attracting experienced staff to balance Ms. Raitt's lack of political experience. Two of the most embarrassing incidents involved a young staffer, Jasmine MacDonnell, who left the minister's documents in a newsroom. She also accidently taped a private conversation with the minister and lost the recorder.

The tape was later found, and Ms. Raitt was heard on it calling the shutdown of Chalk River's nuclear isotope production facility "sexy" because it had to do with cancer. Ms. Raitt offered an emotional apology in the House, noting she had been deeply affected by cancer.

Her brother Colin's death from lung cancer, at 36, provides another union connection. He worked in the Sydney Coke Ovens. Ms. Raitt saw how his union fought to ensure that his wife and one-year-old daughter were compensated.

The death prompted her to pursue a master's degree in science to study the health effects of PCBs in Cape Breton. She then put herself through law school before a fast climb at the Toronto Port Authority, managing controversial files like the island airport - and negotiating labour deals as CEO. Ms. Raitt said her experience there - which included criticism over Port expenses - helped her prepare for the attacks that come with public life.

"The surprise in 2009 was it just seemed like one thing after another, after another, after another," she said. In the time since, the mother of two boys aged 10 and seven said she's made an effort to encourage other women to enter politics in spite of the rough patches that come with the job.

"Not once did I regret throwing my hat in the race."

With a report from Jane Taber

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