It’s been a difficult time for everyone — but consider Kamal Khera’s last 19 months.
In the uncertain days of March, 2020, the Liberal MP for Brampton West was one of the first Canadian politicians to test positive for COVID-19.
A registered nurse, Khera later dusted off her scrubs to pitch in on the front lines.
Her father and a beloved uncle died within weeks of each other during that dreadful year.
In January, she resigned as a parliamentary secretary to the international development minister after flying to Seattle for a memorial for those family members — just as the federal government was urging Canadians to stay put.
Last month, the 32-year-old became the youngest member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, tasked with tending to Canada’s aging population as the seniors minister.
It’s not the highest-profile role at the table but it’s one that could see higher stakes now — in light of all the pandemic laid bare about how seniors are cared for in this country.
“She will bring to it both her experience, her passion for serving, for caring for others that she’s always brought as a nurse and a parliamentarian,” Trudeau said after announcing Khera’s appointment.
Khera was born in New Delhi, India and came to Canada when she was about 10. She said her family taught her the “values of service” and hard work, “like many immigrant stories in Canada.”
After graduating from York University, Khera worked as a nurse in the oncology unit at Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre before winning her seat in 2015 at age 26.
She was promptly named parliamentary secretary to the health minister and was later shuffled to support the ministers of national revenue and international development.
Khera said she has “leaned in” on her experiences as a nurse, often invoking her former job in the House of Commons. During debates on the emotional issue of medical assistance in dying, she told MPs she had seen end-of-life care first hand.
Khera told CBC News that being a nurse teaches empathy — a quality sometimes left behind in politics.
“I think kindness and compassion goes a long way in serving. And that is something that is very dear to my heart,” she said.
Khera said she did a lot of public outreach after her recovery, talking about “the realities of COVID,” because many people in her community thought that young, healthy people couldn’t catch the virus.
Brampton — among the Ontario cities hit hardest by the pandemic — is home to a large number of essential workers. Advocates said community health services were badly underfunded in Brampton when the pandemic hit.
Watch: Kamal Khera describes COVID-19 symptoms in 2020
When the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario put out a call for retired and former nurses to return to work to ease staff shortages during the first wave, Khera stepped forward.
“I did what was clear to me at the time. I had to put my hand up,” she said. “It came as a no-brainer to me.”
She volunteered at Brampton’s Grace Manor long-term care facility — one of several homes where members of the Canadian Armed Forces were deployed last year.
“It was chaos,” she said. “Half the residents (had) tested positive … half the staff had tested positive for COVID … and other staff members were too afraid to come.”
She worked on an isolation floor for residents who had tested positive for COVID-19.
THREAD: As you know, before I tested + for <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a>, I signed up to help ease a nursing shortage. What you might not know is that over the past few weeks I’ve had the extraordinary experience of working alongside our <a href=”https://twitter.com/CanadianForces?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CanadianForces</a> at a LTC in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Brampton?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Brampton</a> hard hit by the virus. <a href=”https://t.co/s1dbedEdva”>pic.twitter.com/s1dbedEdva</a>
Khera recalled the moment when the final resident who had tested positive was moved off the floor. Nurses, long-term care staff and military personnel all cheered and cried at the same time, she said — sharing a sense of light emerging at the end of a dark tunnel.
“That’s something that I’ll always remember and think a lot about when I think of my role as minister of seniors,” she said.
The pandemic “shone a light” on problems that had long existed and the work that still needs doing, Khera said.
“With my very personal experience at the long-term care (facility), I want to ensure that we improve care for seniors regardless of where they live in the country,” she said.
In the recent election, Liberals promised to spend $9 billion over five years to address shortages of facilities and spaces in the long-term care sector, and to bring in a Safe Long-Term Care Act to implement national standards of care.
‘Canada’s seniors … paved the way’
Khera told CBC News she wants to strengthen income supports for seniors and do more to ensure they can live longer in their own homes.
“Canada’s seniors … paved the way and the path to making this the greatest country on Earth. It’s now our turn to ensure we improve the services and support that they receive and depend on,” she said.
When she gave up her parliamentary secretary position at the beginning of the year, politicians of different party stripes were facing heavy pressure to justify personal travel. Khera said in a statement at the time that while her trip was “essential,” she did not want to “distract” from the government’s work fighting the pandemic.
Asked if she worried back then that she’d scuttled her chances at a cabinet spot, Khera suggested her thoughts were focused on her personal losses during “a very tragic time.”
She said she channelled her energy into volunteering, helping to administer vaccines to front-line workers and seniors at a local retirement residence.
Khera was re-elected in September with more than 50 per cent of her riding’s vote. She said she was shocked to get the call to cabinet and said she feels a responsibility to bring forward her perspective as a young woman of colour and someone who immigrated to Canada.
“There are many people behind me that are … looking to me to ensure that I do better and create that pathway for them,” she said.