‘The opportunity to move toward prosperity’: Gerry Rogers

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A Stephen Harper rally “catapulted” Gerry Rogers into politics back in 2011. In April this year she became Newfoundland and Labrador’s first openly gay leader of a political party. Still, she says it “doesn’t roll off my tongue very easily to say I’m a politician.”  I wanted to know how she made the transition from filmmaking to politics and what her plans are as leader. Here’s what she had to say. 

Q: When did you know you wanted to get involved in politics?

I never knew that I wanted to get involved in politics. Did I ever think that I would do this? No. I’ve always been on the margins pushing from that space. But I was a breech birth, so I always knew that there was always more than one way of doing things.

Q: How did you make the decision? 

So in 2011, just before the federal election, Kathey Dunderdale was premier and she and her cabinet ministers organized a rally for Stephen Harper and I thought ‘oh my God, this is not who we are this is not what we want.’ And it just catapulted me into action. A few people had organized a protest at the Delta hotel and I went down and I just knew that I had to get involved. That was it. So I have Stephen Harper to thank for that.

Lorraine Michael was the leader of the NDP at the time. Jack Layton was a federal leader and I thought ‘this is the time.’ Because it was so crucial and because the NDP were on the move. My values are so aligned with the New Democrats.

Q: You were living and working as a filmmaker in Montreal. What brought you back to NL ?

My father was sick. So I wanted to come and hang out with him–and I was doing a project. Then I hooked up with Peg, my partner. And the rest is history.

Q: How did you imagine your career developing back then?

I never saw it as a career. I still don’t see it as a career. I see it as the opportunity I have at this point to do some work that I believe in.

It doesn’t roll off my tongue very easily to say I’m a politician. I’m an activist and politics is the particular space where I’m doing work right now. I don’t feel that our formalized political structures through our parliamentary process define who I am and how I do my work.

I’m not oppositional in my nature, I’m more propositional. That’s how I try to do my work. But dammit, I will push and push and push if I see an injustice and feel that there’s something that needs to be done.

Q: What do you imagine the next five years in NL? 

I believe that we have the opportunity to move towards prosperity again. We have some real challenges, but they’re not insurmountable. I’m not at all against mega projects, but I believe that there are better ways of dancing together and of partnering and that the past few successive governments have done nothing to create and to support an environment where we can create real sustainable jobs embedded in our communities. I believe that’s what people from Newfoundland and Labrador want.

I also believe that we need to open our doors widely and wildly. And it’s not enough just to say to folks come on in we have to make sure when we say to folks come in that there’s a chair here too for them.

So, I believe that it’s an exciting time, a difficult time because when we look at the economic disparity in our province, some folks really have benefited from the mega projects in our province from the oil and gas industry and some folks have been creamed along the way.

Q: What can we do going forward to change this dance between the megaprojets and the people who are not benefitting?

There are a number of things we can do. Part of that is in the way that we do politics. For instance, we have the capability of having all-party committees and they are not used.

I pushed and pushed for the all party committee on mental health and addictions. I believe that the work was really successful because we’re seeing a transformation and change in our mental health system and services.

Every one of us in that house of assembly all 40 members have been elected by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and we have to work together. We cannot afford not to work together. We simply cannot.

Q: How do you see the jobs crisis?

I believe we need an all party committee on jobs and the future of the province. The premier has established a cabinet committee on jobs, but they’re in their cabinet room. We need to do an all-party committee on jobs and the future of the province where all of us work together and where there’s real engagement with people in every part of the province.

You can’t build policies and plans unless you have a vision of where you want to go and I don’t believe that has happened yet. We need to that in-depth work. People of the province need to be part of envisioning our future, the short-term and the long-term. How do we want to live together as communities in this province?

Q: What’s your take on Muskrat Falls?

When we look at that process of sanctioning Muskrat Falls, anybody who had any questions, anybody who pushed back, anybody who opposed, were deemed as traitors and unpatriotic.

When we looked at Muskrat Falls we couldn’t support it because we had three outstanding questions: was this economically viable; was this environmentally sustainable; was this good for the people? We kept asking those questions.

The government is saying we’re going to be okay because we’re going to get the taxpayers to mitigate the rate for the ratepayers. Do they think that the taxpayers are on the moon? We’re one and the same. The taxpayers and the ratepayers are one and the same. So any money from oil and gas will go towards paying for the boondoggle that’s Muskrat Falls. That means money that’s not going to post-secondary education, not going into innovation, not going into research, not going into services for seniors.

Q: How did your family impact the kind of politician you became?

I was a breech birth, so I always knew that there was always more than one way of doing things. I came from a family where my father left school when he was 13, he was from town, and he was being beat up by the Christian Brothers. So he never finished grade 8. And my mother’s from the Northern Peninsula and she saw the parish priest assault her girlfriend. She was 14. He sent her away to work in service as a maid. And so she never finished grade 9.

And then in 1949 when Canada joined Newfoundland-let’s get that straight-Dad was 16 and he said he was 17. He was the first group of Newfoundland men to join the Canadian army as Canadians, right after Confederation.

So I was born in Corner Book, my sister was born in Corner Brook, my brother was born on the mainland because dad was in the army and we moved around a lot. So my parents instilled in us a love of community because we never had family around us and we always moved around.

And they were very active in their community and in their church. And they taught us how to be responsible for what was going on around us. They taught us about the importance of giving and being involved because they knew what injustice was. They knew what it was to grow up without a whole lot of resources. And so they taught us about that.

Q: How did you become a filmmaker?

I did a degree in social work here at MUN and then I got accepted at the London school of economics. That was the path I was going to take. Just before going I got involved in film because I had been working at the Women’s Centre on Military Road. It was at a time when violence against women was never out there in the public agenda, but now you can’t turn on the tv or listen to the radio or read a paper without hearing about child sexual abuse or domestic violence. But nobody was talking about that at that time. And we were dealing with it as feminist activists, trying to train the police, and trying to train the medical system about the needs of women. Working at the women’s centre I saw individual women coming in, but there was no acknowledgement at that time about issues of systemic violence and I thought well I can use film to get this out on the public agenda and so that’s what I did. I moved to Montreal and worked at Studio D which was the only state-funded women’s feminist filmmaking studio in the world at the time and started making films.

I made films that were recognized and won a lot of awards. I was at that for 30 years. Came home to do a short film project. I never thought I’d leave Montreal, never thought I’d come home to live and 26 years later I’m still here.

Q: What would you like to say to people who are going into politics now?

Politics is just about how we live together: how we see what our resources are, how we envision how we can use them, how we make sure everybody has what they need in order to be included and to thrive. There’s a way to be involved in politics in so many different levels. I just, I never thought I’d be doing this.

Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.