Everybody says Lisa Raitt is a lovely person. "Lovely" is the word you hear most often when her name comes up. And she is.

It's probably the absence of political disease in her manner.  

She looks at you when she talks, not over your shoulder. She's self-referential – all politicians are, it's the way they breathe – but she's more subtle than most. She answers questions instantly, mine and the waitress's.

"I know exactly what I want," and she orders an egg-white omelette, no potatoes and coffee. Then, unbidden, she volunteers that a female in a political race has to eat healthy and carefully, or everything just goes to hell. She reaches into her bag, fishing out a tinfoil-wrapped package. "I carry snacks with me."

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Raitt grew up thinking her mother was her older sister, and that her grandparents were mom and dad. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

She volunteers personal information a lot. She had a hysterectomy because of abnormalities in her ovaries, and made sure everyone knew why she was having the operation, because she knew if she didn't, people would say it was weight loss surgery. She also suffered from depression. And she grew up thinking her mother was her older sister, and that her grandparents were mom and dad (a common cover-up in days gone past for young, single pregnancy).

"I have no shame. It's better to talk openly."

Her answers often involve coming from Cape Breton; like most Cape Bretoners, she seems to believe that coming from Cape Breton confers some sort of salty, intrinsic wisdom. She's also extensively educated – both a scientist and a lawyer, with an advanced degree in chemistry, specializing in environmental biochemical toxicology.

"Education is what gets you out of Cape Breton."

There's not much question about her accomplishment; she was running the Toronto Port Authority before standing for office in 2008, and she went directly into Stephen Harper's cabinet after winning, and stayed there. Minister of natural resources, minister of labour, minister of transport.

She has an obvious ease with authority and power, which is something she desires very much to regain.

Health care and trade barriers

I ask over breakfast whether she's open to allowing two-tier health care. The very subject is third-rail stuff in Canada, and stepping into it can be so lose-lose that most politicians equivocate, punt, or declare total admiration for the status quo, with its shabby rationing and long waiting lists.

Raitt's answer: "Yes, I am."

"I am not saying that as prime minister, that I would do it. But I would want to pilot it. I would want to have the discussion."

I ask about the de minimis, the threshold above which a purchase coming into Canada is taxed and subject to duty.

Canada's de minimis level is $20, is among the lowest in the world, and effectively functions as a trade barrier, gumming up trans-border e-commerce with paperwork and fees. By comparison, the American border is wide open; any package worth less than $800 US sails right on through, unimpeded and untaxed.

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Raitt is the fourth Conservative leadership candidate I have asked about the de minimis, and is the only one who was even aware of it. (Darryl Dyck/ Canadian Press)

A slew of businesses in the United States and Canada want Canada's de minimis level raised. And now, according to the New York Times, the Trump administration, which is every bit as protectionist as Canada, intends to demand it.

Raitt is the fourth Conservative leadership candidate I have asked about the de minimis, and is the only one who was even aware of it. While in government, she says she advocated raising it, a position that angers the influential Retail Council of Canada, which wants it frozen in perpetuity.

"I am sure it would have been in the 2016 budget," says Raitt, "but we lost."

If the Trump administration comes looking for reasons to set up its own trade barriers and tariffs, Raitt says compromise is the only sensible path.

Trump, she says, needs to be met and carefully dealt with.

"The bureaucracy in Ottawa is risk averse, and so is the Trudeau government. Donald Trump is not risk averse. I worry Trudeau will not be able to deal with him."

Lisa Raitt targets O'Leary and Leitch8:18

And with that, she pivots – "I am going to pivot now" – to her other cause: stopping rival contender Kevin O'Leary, a reality TV blowhard embraced by Canadian Conservatives who love sweeping, Trumpy, simplistic nonsense-bombs, as in: I'd outlaw unions and put union members in jail.

Raitt operates a stop-O'Leary website.

Why give him the oxygen?

Please, she says. The media inflates O'Leary with oxygen every time he opens his mouth. (Hard to argue with that).

"But I want us to win in 2019. In Ontario, most voters belong to a union or professional organization. He's going to win in Ontario?"

Well, maybe he's just giving voice to humid right-wing fantasies, like Trump does.

"Well, maybe a Cape Bretoner is not savvy and urbane enough to understand the difference between reality TV truth and and reality, but I'd rather not have to."

Raitt takes a sip of coffee, then offers an opinion on Kellie Leitch, another leadership rival, who's trying to capitalize on fear of immigrants, rubbing up against the legs of the same voters O'Leary is targeting.

"She might be leader of the opposition, but she'd stay leader of the opposition for 16 years."

French lessons

Now. About speaking French.

Raitt is trying. Two hours a day plus summer school in Quebec, throwing herself against the hard rock of le subjonctif, le conditionnel, gender assignment, and all the quirks of Quebec's particular dialect. It's devilishly hard, and she's still at the novice stage, but she has to master the language, and she knows it. The last Anglo to win government despite lousy to nonexistent French was John Diefenbaker, back in the previous century.

She'll conquer it, she says. It's like getting out of Cape Breton.

Then she spots Maxime Bernier, Quebecer, former fellow cabinet minister and prominent leadership rival, sitting at another table, and she's off to hug him and chat and be introduced to his coterie … in English. She calls him Max. Bernier's pleasure is obvious.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.