Politics and 'pillow talk': On the campaign trail with Canada's political spouses

It's no picnic being married to a federal party leader in the middle of a closely fought election campaign. It's weeks of whistle stop travel, jet lag and anxiety, sometimes with kids in tow.

The federal leaders' spouses knock on doors, lead volunteers, offer reassurance - or even run themselves

Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu watches her husband, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, respond to questions from reporters at the Atwater Market in Montreal, earlier this month. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

It's no picnic being married to a federal party leader in the middle of a closely fought election campaign. It's weeks of whistle stop travel, jet lag and anxiety, sometimes with kids in tow.

But while it's easy to view campaigning leaders' partners as political props, tasked with smiling and waving through one familiar stump speech after another, they actually play a lot of other roles — as door-knockers, volunteer recruiters and unofficial advisers.

And when the campaign trail gets particularly taxing, they're the ones reminding the leaders that they're more than the sum of their opponents' Twitter insults.

"When it gets difficult, we sit down and we look at each other in the eyes and we speak our truth," Sophie Grégoire Trudeau told CBC News during a recent campaign stop in Mississauga, Ont. with her husband, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. "Life has tough moments. So when it gets tough, it's an opportunity to show what you're made of and to rise above."

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is joined by his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and children, Ella-Grace (front), Hadrien (centre) and Xavier rear left), as he makes a campaign stop at Flapjacks Family Restaurant in Tilbury, Ont., on Thanksgiving Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"It's not always easy," said Jill Scheer, wife of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. "But I enjoy the role of support person and I try to help as much as I can and be there for him."

For both women, "being there" often means helping their partners weather the worst. Grégoire Trudeau said that when the Liberal campaign was knocked for a loop by the emergence of old photos of Justin Trudeau in blackface, she sat down with her husband and children to talk through it.

"I know my husband and I know who we are," she said. "And I think Canadians know as well."

When online vitriol and negative headlines cast an occasional pall over the Conservative campaign, Jill Scheer gets the kids on FaceTime to remind her husband that there's still a world outside politics.

"We ... just bring it back to our normal lives and talk about things that are topical and things to do with the kids. It just sort of changes the channel and just kind of lightens the mood," she said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his wife, Jill, arrive for the French-language Federal leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que. last week. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It isn't all high drama and low blows. Leading a modern political party is almost a 24/7 job, but during an election campaign a leader's spouse becomes an important party surrogate — introducing the leader at campaign events, speaking to small groups of voters, connecting with volunteers.

It's a job Grégoire Trudeau seems to enjoy — and one that she does not view as a mere extension of her husband's work.

"I don't ever feel like I'm playing a role or that I'm fulfilling a role as the 'wife of,' and my husband knows that I'm not," Gregoire Trudeau. She said she uses her high profile to promote the causes she is passionate about: mental health and self-esteem, nutrition and physical activity.

"Before we went into politics, I was working. I had a career and I had causes that were close to my heart," she said. "And I've been fortunate enough to be able to expand what I was doing because of a broader audience listening."

Gurkiran Kaur, wife of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, has been playing a forward role in the party's campaign in Singh's own riding of Burnaby South — recruiting volunteers and canvassing door-to-door. So far, she said, it's been a blast.

"I think campaigns are so much fun. I love the energy. I love the family that you create in a campaign mode," Kaur said. "So that to me is always the most rewarding part. It's been a good ride."

The Scheers have been married almost 20 years. Jill Scheer said the 2019 campaign has allowed her to see more of her husband than she has in years.

"He has a wife behind him and we just have a super strong marriage," she said. "Like, we adore each other and I just want people to see that we're a team and that we're an awesome couple."

She said she didn't have much of a grounding in politics when she first met her future partner. They do discuss politics at home but she'd rather talk football; her brother, Jon Ryan, plays for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

She said she also likes to keep things light between campaign events.

"One of Andrew's assistants has one of those speakers and we hook it up on the bus and we have dance parties," she said, adding the Conservative leader is enthusiastic but "not much of a dancer."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May arrives with her husband, John Kidder, before announcing the official launch of the Green Party of Canada election campaign in Victoria, B.C. on Sept. 11. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Politics forms part of the bedrock of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May's marriage. She married John Kidder — one of the founders of the B.C. Green Party — last April on Earth Day. He's the Green candidate in Ashcroft, B.C., nearly 400 kilometres away from May's Victoria riding.

"Our pillow talk is politics," he said.

"When I got together with Elizabeth, I said, 'You know, it's going to be interesting for an old, straight, white guy to learn how to play second fiddle.' I think more men need to learn, and they are learning as more women take leadership roles and all sorts of things.

"I think there's a different role for an emotional and loving partner and we're deeply in love."

Kidder said he and May are working to keep the relationship strong during the campaign. "We made a pact at the beginning of this that we would not have more than two weeks separation between us at any point."


Hannah Thibedeau

Parliament Hill

Hannah Thibedeau is a veteran political reporter having covered the Hill for more than 15 years, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. She covers politics for CBC TV, CBC Radio and CBC Politics online.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now