As Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Candice Bergen says she provides the leader with strategic advice and is his sounding board. Ms. Bergen has been a force in her party and though she may be known for fierce performances in Question Period, much of her influential work has happened behind the scenes.
Ms. Bergen says she jokes that her first political battle was won sitting at her dining-room table in her pajamas, talking to people on the phone. The Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar is a staunch Conservative riding and the battle was for the party’s nomination. She remembers her opponents busy in the community, while she simply clocked hours listening to people and selling party memberships.
It is her ability to listen and provide thoughtful advice that her colleagues say helped propel her career. Ms. Bergen said what has benefited her is that she is genuinely interested in people and wants to hear their stories. “I don’t fake it, I’m interested,” she said.
Ms. Bergen was elected member of Parliament in 2008 and re-elected four times. She was a minister in Stephen Harper’s government, named House leader by interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and reappointed to that position by former leader Andrew Scheer. New Leader Erin O’Toole chose Ms. Bergen as his deputy.
Mr. O’Toole said Ms. Bergen is a leader in the party’s movement, a great policy mind, “takes on tough files and can be both tenacious and compassionate.”
Ms. Bergen considered running in the party’s last leadership race, but decided against it because she can’t speak French fluently. But that aside, she said she’s confident in her role as Deputy Leader. “I feel like I’ve earned this,” she said.
Sitting in her Ottawa office recently, Ms. Bergen warmly offers cookies and appears at ease despite having to rush to the mall to pick up a Christmas present for her granddaughter before returning to Manitoba. Ms. Bergen has two sons, a daughter, a granddaughter and a grandson.
She grew up in the southern Manitoba community of Morden. Her dad sold car parts and her mom worked in the hospital as part of the cleaning staff. She said growing up, she thought it was normal to have homeless people in her house because her mom brought people home, offering them a place to stay. “That was my mom and dad, very giving good, good people.”
After high school, Ms. Bergen moved to Winnipeg and later to British Columbia. She returned home, got married, began raising their family and worked to put her husband through university. She was frustrated, she said, by decisions made in Ottawa, such as wasteful spending that she saw as debt her kids would later pay.
“And I could just hear my mom’s voice: ‘Candice, if you don’t do something, you can’t complain,’ ” she said.
She volunteered at the local Canadian Alliance riding association – the party later became the Conservatives – and was immediately drawn to politics. She helped with campaigns while continuing to work and raise her family. She said her ex-husband encouraged her to run.
Ms. Bergen said she learned a lot of life lessons growing up in Morden, but that she was shy in school, not a kid who wanted to be called on in class. She wasn’t the president of the student council or the student saying they wanted to be a member of Parliament, “That was not me,” she said.
Ontario Government House Leader Paul Calandra said he remembers sitting on the backbench with Ms. Bergen when they were first elected, thinking she was shy. But he soon learned that was not the case.
He recalled Ms. Bergen’s effectiveness in caucus, saying that when he was parliamentary secretary to Mr. Harper, some of his answers in the Commons would “irritate people to no end,” including his colleagues.
“And often I would ask Candace, ‘Can you go help me mend some fences?’ She is well liked with everybody.” He said she is fierce and somebody who values people who work hard. Mr. Calandra calls her regularly seeking advice, but said her sense of humour gets the best of him and they end up laughing more than talking politics.
Ms. Ambrose said Ms. Bergen has the combination of “humility, common sense, intelligence and courage,” all which make her “a great leader and so effective at managing caucus.” Ms. Ambrose said she was the “strongest” House leader she has witnessed, and that if she had run in the leadership contest “she could have won.”
Ms. Bergen said her ability to work well with caucus comes from growing up the youngest of eight kids, and figuring out how to fight for what she needed, while getting along with everyone.
“It’s been a bit of a hard summer,” she said, thinking of her siblings. Ms. Bergen, who had lost one sister to cancer 12 years ago, lost another one to the disease in July. Three weeks later, a third sister died suddenly after having a stroke.
She also hasn’t been able to see her 91-year-old mother who has severe dementia and is living in a nursing home.
“She was very, very proud of me,” she said through tears. “She’s such a strong, caring person. And she really has led by example of being strong.”
Ms. Bergen has visited her mom from outside her window while speaking with her on the phone.
“She’ll see me and she’ll go, ‘You’re so beautiful. You remind me of my daughter, Candice.’ I’m like ‘Mom, I am your daughter, Candice,’ but she’s such a sweetheart.”
Former deputy leader Lisa Raitt said Ms. Bergen has been very supportive as she cares for her husband, Bruce, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Ms. Bergen was one of the first people she turned to.
“She is the only person outside of my family I have ever let come inside the house and see what’s going on. I mean, that’s how much I think of her,” said Ms. Raitt, saying Ms. Bergen is comforting, logical and genuine.
Ms. Bergen pointed to one bright light of 2020, getting remarried to a “wonderful, wonderful man.” He plays guitar and they sing together, sometimes Pearl Jam or U2. Giving him a little plug, she said he is an extra in a movie called Project Christmas Wish.
“And if there’s a blurry, good-looking guy, that’s him!”