An 'incredible adventure': MPs calling it quits reflect on their time in office

Dozens of rank-and-file MPs say they won't be running again in the fall election. CBC News talked to three of them to learn more about the demands and rewards of life on the back bench.

CBC News speaks to 3 outgoing MPs about life in the Commons

MPs Rodger Cuzner, left, Anne Minh-Thu Quach, middle, and Brad Trost, right, will not be running in the 2019 election. (Canadian Press/NDP photo/Canadian Press)

The hours are long, the workload can be overwhelming. The people you work for don't always like you and, after four years, they can fire you without saying why.

Still, current and former MPs tend to say the job has perks that few jobs can offer — the chance to connect with citizens from coast to coast, to help shape public policy, to take part in history as it's being made. Even the MPs who walk away from the job willingly know it's an experience like no other.

As the 42nd Parliament nears its end and the 2019 federal election draws closer, dozens of MPs have announced they won't be running again. Some say they want to spend more time with family. Some say they're tired of the partisan politics. And some say they can't commit to another four years without burning out.

CBC News conducted 'exit interviews' with three MPs who have opted to call it quits — Anne Minh-Thu Quach (NDP, Salaberry—Suroît), Brad Trost (Conservative, Saskatoon—University) and Rodger Cuzner (Liberal, Cape Breton—Canso). We asked them what they liked about the job, what they didn't like about it, and whether their time in office lived up to their expectations.

Here's what they had to say.

'I learned very fast'

People decide to get into federal politics for all sorts of reasons — but not every candidate knows what they're letting themselves in for.

Ann Minh-Thu Quach didn't know much about the work of an MP when she was elected in 2011, beyond the fact that she would help to draft and vote on legislation. Quach was a rookie MP who rode the NDP's 'Orange Wave' into office during that election, when the party won 59 out of Quebec's 75 seats and became the Official Opposition for the first time.

Anne Minh-Thu Quach, the New Democrat MP for Salaberry-Suroît in Quebec, was elected during the 2011 federal election when the NDP formed the Official Opposition for the first time. (Submitted photo)

"I learned very fast that I would have to go around to all the municipalities in my riding to consult with a lot of people  — young people, workers, people who were in hospitals, farmers — so I could have an idea of the issues that were important for the people in my riding," she said.

Cuzner and Trost, on the other hand, both had experience on the periphery of politics before they were elected. Trost had worked on several political campaigns prior to his successful federal run in 2004.

"I knew that every so often you'd go to events, you'd explain positions, you'd help people with issues dealing with the government," said Trost. "The constituency work, I had a pretty good grasp on, [but] when it came to Ottawa, I honestly didn't know."

Watch New Democrat Ann Minh-Thu Quach deliver her farewell speech in the House of Commons:

Cuzner had worked for the municipal governments in Cape Breton, N.S. and Fort McMurray, Alta., before being elected for the first time in 2000. Cuzner said his previous work experience also helped him to prepare for Ottawa.

"I had some kind of a feel for what it took to work in that type of atmosphere and to be responsible to the to the public and the electorate," said Cuzner.

'It's all-consuming'

Life in federal politics can be demanding. There's parliamentary business, party responsibilities, committee work and, of course, meeting with constituents in the riding.

The full extent of the work can come as a shock for new MPs.

Rodger Cuzner, left, the Liberal MP for Cape Breton-Canso in Nova Scotia, was first elected in 2000. (Submitted photo)

"I didn't realize just the amount of time it would take away from the family," said Cuzner. "That that was probably the greatest surprise, but it's one that comes with taking on the responsibility and taking on the job."

Cuzner had a gruelling travel schedule: up at 4 a.m. on Mondays to catch a flight to Ottawa, midnight arrivals back home in Cape Breton at the end of the week, criss-crossing his rural riding on weekends to attend community events.  

"It's all-consuming," he said.

Trost, who endured a similar weekly commute between Ottawa and Saskatoon, said he was surprised by the daily grind of parliamentary business.

"I had the vision that there was going to be a lot of meetings. I just had no clue how many meetings there would be," said Trost. "We do meetings beyond meetings, and meetings about meetings here in Ottawa."

Trost said he thought MPs would have more of a "hands-on" role in developing government policy, and was disappointed to learn that most of that work is delegated to staffers and analysts.

Watch Liberal Rodger Cuzner deliver his farewell speech:

Conservative Brad Trost, the MP for Saskatoon-University, gives his final speech in the House of Commons 5:09

Quach, who spent her entire political career outside of government, said she also thought the policy development process would be different — less partisan, more collegial.

"I was expecting to be able to work more in close collaboration with the other parties," she said. "I thought … we would be more able to influence the government decisions, to propose some ideas, and in fact it was more difficult than I thought."

The good days

It wasn't all hard work, red-eye flights and partisan sniping. Quach, Trost and Cuzner all said they're leaving Ottawa with memories of moments when they saw their work making Canada a better place to live.

For Quach, it was a policy win: the inclusion of funding in the Liberal government's 2019 budget for a Canadian food policy that includes investments in infrastructure for local farmers' markets. Quach had been advocating on food policy issues for years and had tabled two private members bills (which didn't pass).

"We were really happy to see that in the last budget because we fought really hard for that," said Quach.

Cuzner said his best moment came at the beginning of his political career, when he served Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's parliamentary secretary. In 2003, after the United States and the United Kingdom abandoned efforts to secure the United Nations' sanction for the war in Iraq, Chrétien announced that Canada would not be joining the invasion.

"We stood proud as a nation that day and I think it still stands up as the right decision at the time," said Cuzner.

Brad Trost, the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-University, ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2017. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Trost said his best moments came when he was nowhere near Ottawa. In 2017, he travelled the country meeting and talking with Canadians as he campaigned for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Trost ended up placing fourth in that race — but the experience of getting outside the Ottawa bubble, he said, was eye-opening.

"Being able to get out and cross the country and engage with people, that was fascinating," Trost said. "Canadians think very differently from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia."

A 'life-enriching experience'

Despite the long meetings, midnight sittings, constant media attention and partisan mudslinging, all three retiring MPs said the experience of representing Canadians at the federal level changed their lives.

Quach described it as an "incredible adventure" that taught her how to be a leader.

Trost said he still thrills to his memories of seeing history in action — of watching Governor General Michaëlle Jean prorogue Parliament at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2008, helping his government avoid a confidence vote it might have lost.

Watch Conservative Brad Trost deliver his farewell speech:

Liberal Rodger Cuzner, the MP for Cape Breton-Canso, gives his final speech in the House of Commons. 11:43

"That sense of history, that sense of meeting people from all over the place and getting a different perspective, those things blend together in one very fascinating and life-enriching experience," said Trost.

"I would never want to have missed the opportunity to serve the people that I did," Cuzner said. "You meet some incredible people, just a lot of average people that do really neat things and and inspire others."

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