British Columbia

Carole James, pillar of the NDP, supported by all sides after Parkinson's diagnosis

B.C.'s finance minister and deputy premier has received a flood of well-wishes that knows no political bounds.

B.C. finance minister and deputy premier receives flood of well-wishes that knows no political bounds

'Parkinson's isn't something you die from, it's something you die with,' said B.C. Finance Minister Carole James as she announced her diagnosis Thursday at the legislature. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

"You don't die from Parkinson's, you die with Parkinson's," said B.C. Finance Minister and Deputy Premier Carole James, standing before a few dozen people gathered in the legislative library for her announcement Thursday. 

Before she even began her press conference, it was clear the news would be personal: members of her family were there.

It was also clear this was an announcement that would cross political lines: MLAs from all parties were there, many swallowing back tears as she spoke.  

James's voice wavered as she delivered news of her diagnosis, hardly a dry eye in the room as the implications — not only for her personally, but also for the NDP politically — began to sink in.

"I will continue in my role as long as I am able to give 100 per cent to the job," she said. "But I will not be running for re-election."

Premier John Horgan hugs Deputy Premier Carole James after being sworn in following the 2017 provincial election. ( THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

James, 62, made it clear she has no intention of letting the diagnosis slow her down. She emphasized her symptoms right now are mild: a minor hand tremor and trouble with her balance from time to time, not enough to begin medication.

Those symptoms first surfaced in the summer, eventually leading to an appointment with a neurologist at the end of January. That's when the tests confirmed she had Parkinson's.

That was also just weeks before she delivered Budget 2020, a time when she showed no sign of having just learned of a life-altering diagnosis. She proceeded to table a third consecutive balanced budget and spoke nothing of her personal health issues.

Publicly announcing the news isn't stopping her either; she still plans to spend the next few weeks selling the budget across British Columbia as planned.

Emotional reaction flows from all sides

The reaction that's poured in since has been nothing short of remarkable; not only the sheer amount of support, but who's been offering it. 

Not surprisingly, the first to formally respond was Premier John Horgan, arguably her biggest political ally and a longtime friend.

"Parkinson's is tough. Without diminishing the seriousness of the illness, Carole James is tougher," he said in a statement immediately following her announcement. "She has spent her entire public life fighting as hard as she can to make life better for people and I know she'll bring that spirit to this next challenge."

The sentiment echoed through the political arena all the way up to the prime minister's office.

"For three decades ... Carole James has served her community and her province with strength and courage," Justin Trudeau said on Twitter. "My thoughts are with her and her loved ones as she faces this challenge with that same resolve."

But just as strong was the support that came from across the aisle of the House, with countless members from all sides voicing the respect she's long held from all parties.

"Minister, your courage in sharing this news is admirable and reflects the class and compassion you have for others," said B.C. Liberal MLA Todd Stone, one of many opposition members to express well-wishes on Twitter. 

"To say that I feel sad today would be an understatement," longtime Liberal MLA, Shirley Bond, wrote in a tweet. "Carole James and I have been in the B.C. legislature for a long time together ... Carole, I appreciate the person you are and your public service."

"It has been a privilege to have known Minister James for over 20 years," Green Party Leader-turned-Independent MLA Andrew Weaver said in a statement. "Minister James has had a distinguished career dedicated to the service of British Columbians and she has been a steady hand in this NDP government."

A storied political past

James has had a long political career with the B.C. NDP, one that has not always been easy.

In 2003, James became party leader even before winning her seat in the House. She first entered the B.C. Legislature two years later as MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill.

Not long after, she was hit with other health issues. In 2006, she underwent surgery and radiation treatment after being diagnosed with localized uterine endometrial cancer.

B.C. NDP Leader Carole James in 2013 while in opposition during Premier Gordon Campbell's time in office. ((CBC))

Years later, James would face perhaps her toughest political test: growing dissent among her own party. After a failed 2009 election, some in the NDP caucus joined forces to try to oust James as leader.

She stepped aside, but stayed on as MLA and was a key figure in nudging Horgan toward eventual party leadership after the New Democrats lost the 2013 election.

James has served as finance minister and deputy premier since the NDP came to power in July 2017, and played a critical role in striking a deal with the B.C. Greens that led to the current minority government.

Her successes were not lost on anyone in the room when she wrapped up her announcement this week. As she walked away from the podium, she was surrounded by a standing ovation — one that had nothing to do with politics.

About the Author

Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political: tanya.fletcher@cbc.ca

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