Karina Gould – Leader of the Government in the House of Commons of Canada
At the time of recording, Karina Gould was the Minister of International Development, and later became Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. In July 2023, she took on the role of Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.
Not only is Minister Karina Gould the youngest female cabinet minister in the history of Canadian politics, but she is also the first to have a baby while holding office. Before entering politics, Minister Gould was a trade and investment specialist for the Mexican Trade Commission, a consultant for the Migration and Development Program at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., and spent a year volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico. She is also a passionate advocate for women’s rights.
Karina’s experience with the Forum for Young Canadians
Jennifer Stewart: You were raised in Burlington, Ontario, and grew up with three brothers; how did that shape you?
Karina Gould: Growing up with three brothers prepares you for anything, especially three younger brothers. It gave me a big sense of responsibility from an early age. But growing up in Burlington was wonderful; I love my community.
Catherine Clark: You participated in the Forum for Young Canadians and spent a week in Ottawa. Can you take us back to that experience? What was it about that experience that really charged you?
Karina Gould: I got interested in politics during the 1995 Quebec referendum. I was only about eight years old. But I was really worried about Canada breaking up. I was in French immersion, so I felt a strong push for bilingualism and ensuring that French and English Canada could be together. I started reaching out to my member of parliament, who was Paddy Torsney at the time, and she put me on to Forum for Young Canadians; she said, “It’s a great program; you should go.”
And so I went, and I have to say that I just fell in love with the notion of democracy and building a better country, and the freedom you could have to just walk up to Parliament Hill, that the government was so accessible in Canada. I just knew, this is where I wanted to work. I didn’t think of myself as being elected as a member of parliament, but I wanted to be part of government and fighting for a better future for everyone.
The future of women in politics
Jennifer Stewart: How do we integrate more of these experiences, for young women in particular, so they can get a real-life perspective on what working in politics can be like?
Karina Gould: I participated in another university program called Women in House at McGill, which brings young women to Parliament for a couple of days, and you shadow a female member of parliament. I chatted with Bonnie Crombie. It was an opportunity to see a role model that I could aspire to. Since being elected, I have tried to participate in every Women in House event that there is and take on as many shadows as I can, to pay it forward and also to tell those young women I did this program and this is a path you can take. Those kinds of programs where you are bringing young people in, particularly young women, to Parliament, to the House of Commons, so that they can get a taste and a flavour of what life on the Hill is like are so important.
Catherine Clark: You’re a role model who breaks down barriers so that other women know that it’s okay for them to choose a career in politics and have a family at the same time.
Karina Gould: The fact that I’m doing it shows others that they can. It’s so important to see yourself reflected. And to know that as a woman in politics, you don’t have to choose between having a family and having a successful career in politics. Until after I gave birth, there was no maternity leave for politicians. We have to normalize it, and we have to say this is okay.
Jennifer Stewart: What else can tangibly change so that if a woman wants to run for office, she also knows she can be there for her family? What else can be put in place to make this more family-friendly?
Karina Gould: The most significant thing we can do is enable people in office on parental or sick leave to vote remotely, as long as they have the mental capacity to say this is how I will vote. We want to attract people from different backgrounds, we want to get to gender parity, and attract people who have different lived experiences.
Gaining an international perspective
Catherine Clark: Can we take you back to before you entered politics? You did quite a bit of international work, but you did spend a year volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico; it would be great to hear how that impacted you or what the experience of doing that kind of work taught you.
Karina Gould: That was probably the most formative year of my life, not only because I met the man that I would eventually marry, but because it opened my eyes to the realities of people outside of Canada, but also more marginalized and vulnerable individuals.
I got such a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for the social services and social safety net that we have in Canada, for the way our government works, and the opportunities that we have access to. It pushed me to want to protect that.
The thing that struck me the most about that experience is how unbelievably important sexual education, family planning, access to contraceptives, and a woman’s right to choose are because a lot of those children in the orphanage, who were precious, unique little beings, were the result of either unwanted pregnancies or social situations that made it very difficult for their parents. It reinforced how important social policy is.
Jennifer Stewart: How has that perspective played into your Minister of International Development role?
Karina Gould: It’s been essential because I have that lived experience. And it also played into the academic path that I pursued and the work that I did. Having an international perspective and having an understanding that everything is contextual. A solution here in Canada will not necessarily be the solution that works in Mexico. We can share our experiences, we can share what we know, and our learnings, but we have to do that in a culturally respectful way, and that understands the unique history and context in which countries and communities find themselves. I think it’s really enriched who I’ve become and the lessons I’ve learned. It’s also essential because Mexico has a very sophisticated family services system, and so it also really put into perspective that we don’t always have all the answers here in Canada. It’s important to listen and understand the issues locally. The most important thing is to build local capacity because ultimately, international development is trying to lift everybody up.
Catherine Clark: Your paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Did that impact how you look at the world?
Karina Gould: It led me to want to understand their experience. The evil and hatred that had to happen to make the Holocaust a reality perplexes me to no end, but it also has reinforced the need to not let something like that ever happen again, to push for human rights and humanity and compassion and understanding. And to continue to work to break down barriers and see people as humans no matter how different they are.
Believing in yourself
Jennifer Stewart: As an elected official, has the reality lived up to the vision you had when you were a teenager?
Karina Gould: It has far exceeded it. As a teenager, I don’t think I could have seen myself as a member of parliament, let alone a cabinet minister. When I decided to run for office, I had to be asked. A mentor said I should think about running, and I responded to her, “That’s very rude. I do plenty of exercise, mind your own business,” and she was like, “No, for office, not for exercise.” That was not my headspace – I thought I’d volunteer, and maybe I’d get lucky and get to be staff. That was my objective. If you were to tell my 16-year-old self that at 33, I would have won two elections, represented Burlington in the House of Commons, and be on my second cabinet portfolio and have a baby while doing it, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Catherine Clark: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Karina Gould: Sometimes your life balances more toward work and sometimes it balances more toward life. Right now, I am more on the work side of the scale. I have an amazing husband who does yeoman’s work making sure that our family can be together and stay together.
So, I married the right person. But more than anything, having a baby has forced me to carve out time and be more judicious in what I say yes to. And to make sure that I place emphasis and importance on family time. I integrate work and family as much as possible, whenever appropriate. But then also making sure that my family gets dedicated family time.
Jennifer Stewart: If you could give our listeners one piece of advice, what would that be?
Karina Gould: Don’t take yourself out of the picture. This may be more specific for women and young women. But, often, we talk ourselves out of doing something. Women are notorious for explaining why they can’t do something. Put your hand up and be part of it. There’s always going to be a gazillion reasons why you can’t do something, but there might be one important reason why you can. Focus on that. We need to believe in ourselves and just try.