‘There’s a lot of love’: Outgoing federal minister Deb Schulte reflects on defeat, cancer battle

October 25, 2021
'There's a lot of love': Outgoing federal minister Deb Schulte reflects on defeat, cancer battle

Deb Schulte’s first day as a former federal cabinet minister will be spent undergoing a stem cell transplant to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a procedure she said she believes will give her a good chance at a long remission.

“I’m really hopeful and very positive about it,” she told CBC News of the transplant, set to take place a day after a new cabinet is named in Ottawa on Tuesday.

The outgoing minister for seniors was diagnosed in 2019 and finished her sixth round of chemotherapy in the thick of that year’s federal election campaign.

In a video posted online at the time, Schulte jubilantly rang a bell at a local hospital to mark the milestone and flashed a thumbs-up gesture at the camera with a wide smile on her face.

Days before another election call in August, Schulte went public with the news that the cancer had returned in a more aggressive form and she would need to seek treatment again.

“Timing seems to be not brilliant on elections and chemo,” she told CBC News.

Though she was re-elected two years ago, Schulte was defeated last month in the Greater Toronto Area riding of King-Vaughan, falling to Conservative candidate Anna Roberts by more than 1,000 votes.

“My phone … blew up after I lost, with everybody reaching out to me. And it’s been continuous all the way along, especially with the cancer as well,” she said. “So there’s a lot of love, there’s a lot of support. And I’m going to miss that.”

Schulte said she felt the disappointment of her team members, who worked hard for her in a complicated situation. “But the voters decide who represents them in the community and I accept that,” she said.

Schulte suggested that accepting things as they are will help her in the next leg of her journey.

Like many Canadians, Schulte said, she has “a lot of experience with cancer.” Her dad, mom and other family members have all had it. The key thing, she said, is to push on with the work that needs doing.

“You just know that you’ve got to get through it,” she said. “It is something that knocks you back but I’m strong and I’m positive, and I think that really makes all the difference. So … you just get on with what you need to do.”

Deb Schulte is sworn in as minister of seniors at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 20, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Schulte said chemotherapy treatments left her unable to hit the hustings until the third week of the 36-day campaign, “when it was safe.” She said she tried to connect with people in her riding by phone each day and through Zoom meetings.

“Your first week, you’re through the process of treatment,” she said. “Secondly, you’re climbing slowly back up from all of that, and then the third week, you’re going like crazy, using the energy that you have to get out there and do all the work that needs to be done.”

And because it was a “COVID campaign,” Schulte said, she needed to be “super, super careful.”

“Even though I’m vaccinated, when you’re going through chemo, your vaccination is not as powerful as it would be in a normal person,” she said. “And I could not get sick.”

Schulte ‘excited’ for cabinet newcomers

Schulte said she doesn’t think it will be personally difficult to watch a new team of Liberal ministers sworn in this week. She said she is “excited for all those new ones that are going to come in.”

She is one of four female ministers who aren’t returning to a cabinet that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said will be gender-balanced.

Two others — Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef — were defeated, while Catherine McKenna, who most recently served as infrastructure minister, opted not to run for re-election.

Serving around the table with so many strong women was a “real joy,” Schulte said. It was also quite different from her two decades in management at Bombardier Aerospace, she said, where there were “many times around those decision-making tables that I was the only woman.”

Schulte said it came as a surprise when Trudeau asked her to join his cabinet two years ago. “I kind of threw my hands in the air,” she said.

Schulte told CBC News that the time she spent as a backbencher and parliamentary secretary helped her become a better minister and stay “grounded” after joining a cabinet team that had already been working together for four years.

Watch: ‘At Issue’ discusses Trudeau’s next cabinet

Trudeau’s next cabinet, Transitioning pandemic supports | At Issue

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The pandemic that rocked the world mere months later led to her highest and lowest moments in politics.

The early days of the crisis, she said, saw the cabinet grappling with difficult questions: “How serious was this going to be? What kind of supports (were) needed to… keep Canadians safe and keep them home?”

She said she is most proud of securing emergency COVID aid of up to $500 for seniors and, in the spring budget, a 10 per cent boost in Old Age Security for pensioners 75 or older starting July 1, 2022. Older seniors also received a taxable, one-time payment of $500 in August.

But Schulte said she also felt the pain of those with loved ones in long-term care. 

Her mother-in-law had been placed in a facility just weeks before the pandemic hit and struggled with the isolation from her husband and family. Schulte’s mother-in-law died months later.

“She just stopped eating and drinking and it was very, very hard to know that we couldn’t go and see her and be with her and hold her hand,” she said. “As a family, we were experiencing the same trauma that families were feeling and the same pressures and frustrations.”

‘I have no shortage of opportunities’

Asked if she’ll run again, Schulte said her focus now is on stepping back, giving her body a chance to heal and “not thinking too far down the road.” 

But she added that she is a “competitive person” and noted there is a provincial election in Ontario next spring and municipal elections in the fall of 2022.

“I have no shortage of opportunities,” she said. “I just need to get well.”

Her advice for those entering cabinet for the first time is to learn as much about their departments as possible, to listen closely and to speak up with confidence.

The prime minister expects ministers to bring their experiences to the table, she said: “That’s why he’s put you there.”

And Schulte stressed that politics is a team sport where close relationships can be forged over long hours of work.

“Absolutely, I’ll miss it,” she said. “It’s like a family, right? You build a family of support.”

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