Byelection winner Jean Yip 'not different than anyone else who's lost a spouse'

Jean Yip says her husband, Arnold Chan, would have been proud of what she accomplished Monday night. Yip has picked up the legacy of what the late Liberal MP started, winning the Liberal seat in the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt in a byelection.

Liberal wins Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, taking over Commons seat of late husband, Arnold Chan

Jean Yip won the Scarborough-Agincourt riding in Toronto for the Liberals Monday, following her late husband Arnold Chan into the House of Commons. 'I'm not different than anyone else who's lost a spouse,' she says. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Jean Yip says her husband, Arnold Chan, would have been proud of her for what she accomplished Monday night.

Yip has picked up Chan's legacy, becoming the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt.

Her victory in Monday's byelection, with 49.4 per cent of the vote, contributed to a good night for the governing Liberals. They took three of four federal byelections, holding the Newfoundland and Labrador riding of Bonavista–Burin–Trinity and upsetting the Conservatives in the British Columbia riding of South Surrey–White Rock.

The Conservatives, however, retained Battlefords–Lloydminster in Saskatchewan. The results give the Liberals 183 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.

Chan died in September after a three-year battle with cancer, but he and Yip managed to discuss the idea of her continuing what he had begun.

Yip with her mother-in-law Sandra Chan. Before winning the byelection, Yip was her husband's best political aide. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In an interview several weeks ago, Yip reflected on Chan's first reaction to her idea of running.

"He was surprised, and then he thought about the kids," Yip said from her in-laws' home in the Scarborough area of east end Toronto. "It's always been about the kids for Arnold."

But their three teenage boys, Nathaniel, Ethan and Theo, gave the idea the green light. With everybody on board, Yip worked to secure the Liberal nomination and then the seat.

A CBC News records search shows Yip is the 11th woman to succeed her spouse in the House of Commons following a death or resignation because of illness.

In the early 1900s, it was relatively common for women to succeed their husbands after death, a process known as "widow's succession." 

The most recent example is Conservative Dona Cadman's election as MP for Surrey North in B.C. in 2008 after the death of her husband, Chuck Cadman.

It was perhaps not surprising that Yip would end up in politics.

She and Chan were married for 19 years. They met at a Liberal nomination meeting and got married four years later.

From the beginning, Yip knew what politics and public service meant to Chan.

"He said, 'Oh, you know, it's my mistress. Right. Politics is my mistress," Yip said with a laugh. "So, at least it wasn't anybody or anything else."

In many ways, Yip was Chan's best political aide. She would not only hold down the fort at home but also help Chan take care of the riding, so she is already well known in the community.

Chan and Yip speak with reporters on Parliament Hill after his emotional speech June 12 in the House of Commons about his battle with cancer. He died in September. (Victor Modderman/CBC)

When asked how someone makes such a big decision as entering federal politics just months after her husband dies, Yip downplayed what she had accomplished.

By staying in politics, I still feel connected to him and also the ability to give back. That's very important in our family.— Jean Yip

"I'm not different than anyone else who's lost a spouse," she said. 

"You know, there are plenty of single parents who have no choice. They have to pick up. They have to look forward. 

"And by staying in politics, I still feel connected to him and also the ability to give back. That's very important in our family."

Chan was first elected in a byelection in 2014, but six months after winning, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. Last summer, it became clear he was unlikely to survive.

In June, Chan gave one last speech in the place he loved, calling on his House of Commons colleagues to practise more civility and to listen more.

He also used the moment to thank his parents, children and Yip.

"I simply could not have asked for a more devoted partner in life as I have walked through this journey," he said in his emotional address to the House.

Chan's last few weeks were about friends and family. Yip said many people came by to say goodbye, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Yip's campaign materials included a photo with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who visited Chan shortly before he died. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Yip says the two shared a love of country. As Trudeau was at his bedside, Chan asked him to sing Elton John's Your Song with him.  

For Chan's family, the end came too quickly and too soon, Yip said. 

Yip and her sons thought they had more weeks with Chan. Instead, the boys had just a day and a half with their father, time they spent playing board games together.

Chan died knowing Yip would at least try to continue his political legacy — and he gave her the same advice he had given to his colleagues just months before.

"Listen to everybody," he said. "Don't just talk. Listen."

Now Yip says she will do just that.

About the Author

Rosemary Barton

Politics

Rosemary Barton co-hosts The National. She has interviewed many high-profile politicians including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Stephen Harper, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde.

With files from Christina Romualdo