Long-serving Canadian MP finds Ireland ‘changed enormously’

Dr Hedy Fry graduated from RCSI in 1968 and revisited Dublin for its charter day

Dr Hedy Fry: Politicians must “leave a mark behind to say, because I passed through this place the world is just one millimetre better”.

Dr Hedy Fry: Politicians must “leave a mark behind to say, because I passed through this place the world is just one millimetre better”.

 

When Canadian MP Dr Hedy Fry first came to Dublin in the 1960s, there was “one Chinese restaurant, one Indian restaurant. It was very insular.”

Fifty years after her graduation from the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, the longest-serving woman in the history of Canada’s House of Commons says the country has “changed enormously”.

“When women won the right to choose, when that referendum [on the Eighth Amendment] passed, when gay marriage passed, I kept saying to people, ‘this is not the Ireland I knew’.”

Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1941, Fry turned down a place at Oxford University, England to study medicine in RCSI, graduating in 1968 before emigrating to Canada in 1970.

Speaking to The Irish Times during a visit to Dublin for the annual RCSI charter day recently, Fry said the fact that Ireland has a “brown-skinned, gay prime minister” shows how much the country has changed since then.

Like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Fry practised medicine before entering what she calls the “scuzzy business” of politics, working as a doctor at St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver for two decades.

There, she earned a reputation as a tough negotiator on medical matters at local, provincial and national levels, serving as president of the British Colombia Medical Association in 1990-1991.

“I was one of these people who poked my nose into doors, opened them, walked into the room, looked at everybody and went ‘Yo! I’m here!’”

Fry says her “big mouth” gained the attention of the then Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien, who encouraged her to stand in the 1993 federal elections in the constituency of Vancouver Centre.

Healthcare and rights

To her surprise she won, unseating the prime minister of the day, Kim Campbell, in the process.

“I thought I was sure to lose. I thought I’d write about it one day when I got back to being an ‘author’ and I thought I’d write about what it was like to run against a sitting prime minister. But I won and I was shocked when I beat her.”

At 77, Fry is also Canada’s oldest MP, winning elections on eight consecutive occasions focusing on healthcare, human rights and LGBTQ2+ issues.

In cabinet she has held the post of secretary of state for multiculturalism and status of women and has been the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s special representative on gender issues since 2010.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau faces his first electoral test since his Liberal Party swept to victory in 2015 when Canadians vote in federal elections later this year.

Asked whether populism could have an impact at the polls, Fry says Canada is a liberal nation that embraces multiculturalism and she believes that voters learned the value of that history after the Conservative party’s victory in the 2006 elections.

“I think the country woke up like the United States did with [President Donald] Trump and went, ‘OMG, what did we do?’ and yet they thought, ‘They can’t be so bad. This is Canada’.”

Global politics

The conservatives under prime minister Stephen Harper held on to power for nine years, during which time the party veered further to the right and, like Trump, Harper began to move away from participation in global politics.

Fry says this opened the door for the Liberal party and Trudeau.

“People were feeling uneasy with the government of the day, thinking this is not Canada, and suddenly ‘Captain Canada’ decides to run and people just felt like they could trust him.”

The Liberals are expected to retain their majority in October’s elections, but Trudeau’s popularity rating is at its lowest ever, amid ethics inquiries and criticism over his handling of the economy.

As the son of the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, “people always thought of him as a kid”, says Fry. She believes he is still popular with voters, but “now he can be judged on his own record”.

Fry herself will run in October’s elections, aiming for a ninth straight victory in the Vancouver Centre constituency.

What advice does she have for those coming up behind her?

“You’ve got to leave a mark behind to say, because I passed through this place the world is just one millimetre better. Because I did something, the world is a better place. I think that gives us purpose.”

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