In this Hub Dialogue, part of our new policy in action series, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Mike Lake, the member of parliament for the riding of Edmonton — Wetaskiwin.
This new series of dialogues aims to be removed from day-to-day partisanship or the “who’s up and who’s down” focus of the mainstream media, instead seeking out candid conversations with parliamentarians who are leading different issues that are important to Canada’s future.
This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.
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I’m pleased to be joined for our latest Hub Dialogue by MP Mike Lake, Conservative MP for the riding of Edmonton — Wetaskiwin.
MP Lake was first elected in 2006 and has since distinguished himself on a range of issues, including autism-related programs and supports, international development, and communicating with young Canadians on matters of public policy and governance.
I’m grateful to discuss how he’s been able to advance policy issues of interest to him and his constituents, while at the same time being a constructive member of the governing caucus from 2006 to 2015, and now as a member of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
MP Lake, thanks so much for joining me today.
MP Mike Lake
It’s great to be here.
A lot of our readers will be familiar with your advocacy work on the autism file. It’s fair to say that you’ve been among the leading elected officials in the country on bringing attention to the issues and challenges for Canadians with autism and their families.
Before we get into some of the significant policy work that you’ve done on their behalf, why don’t you reflect a bit on when and how you committed yourself to being such a champion for families that have children with autism?
MP Mike Lake
Well, I have a son, Jaden, who is now 25 years old. He was 10 years old when I was first elected. During that first election campaign, Jaden was very busy. He loved to work on the campaign, loved to come out and do anything that involved sorting, putting together literature, or helping to assemble lawn signs. He would run from door to door to drop brochures off. Every once in a while, he would even photobomb me in the background as I was taking a picture with constituents. He was just a big part of the campaign and would later make the journey to Ottawa a few times a year and just was able to connect with people.
I didn’t get involved in politics because of autism. Jaden was working in a program in Alberta and the services he got in the province were top notch at the time. He was included in a regular classroom and had a program on the side that ran at home to deal with some of his unique challenges. But I soon realized probably within a year or two of being in Ottawa that not everybody in the country had access to the same resources and support. There was a great unevenness when it came to autism programming across the country.
A few journalists started to report on this issue. Rosemary Thompson did a story on CTV and John Ivison approached me to do a piece in the National Post. It was a real eye opener for me to talk to stakeholders and realize how different things were across the country. But it was also an eye opener in another way: it allowed me to understand how big the platform is that we have as members of Parliament and the opportunity that it creates to bring people together and draw attention to issues that may otherwise go unnoticed.
I’m not sure that every member of Parliament fully understands what that offers them. No matter whether you’re on the backbench or just brand new, you’re one of now 338 people elected from across the country, with that rare privilege of leading and serving our constituents. But we also have a platform to tell stories that draw on personal experiences. I learned that those are really powerful: personal stories are really powerful.
So, it started with these two news stories and then soon we started to work with stakeholders to push on some of these issues — to try to address the unevenness across the country. There was, for instance, a growing debate about a National Autism Strategy, what that might look like, and what else the federal government could do generally.
I remember working particularly close with Andy Scott, a Liberal member of Parliament, who has since passed away. He put together a really thoughtful, four-clause, private member’s motion that all parties were able to support and come together on. That was really the first policy-oriented thing that I worked on, and it went on from there.
Jaden and I have since had the chance to speak to the spouses of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, CNN came and did a story about us at one point, and I’ve spoken at the World Health Organization. Every time I speak, I get a chance to share Jaden, whether he’s there with me in person or not, with the audience. And it really does have an impact. People connect with these personal stories and then it become a catalyst for policy reform.
To that point, it ultimately led to where we passed some pretty significant legislation on disability when we were in government, due in no small part because we had such an ally in Jim Flaherty, who was the finance minister, at the time.
There’s a presumption in a lot of popular discourse that members of Parliament, including members of the governing caucus, have limited ability or capacity to influence public policy. There’s a sense that cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office dictate the policy agenda, and there’s little room for parliamentarians to shape its direction.
I think your personal experience is a powerful counterbalance to that prevailing narrative. Do you want to just talk a bit about how you worked within the system, along with the stakeholder community, to make progress on some of these issues, including ultimately shaping the Canadian Autism Partnership?
MP Mike Lake
Even prior to the Canadian Autism Partnership, which was the working group funded in the 2015 budget, our government supported other initiatives for people with developmental disabilities. One example is Ready, Willing & Able, which continues to this day, working with organizations across the country, to help people with developmental disabilities to get jobs and use their unique skills and abilities.
But I think the key to making progress on the Canadian Autism Partnership was, first of all, persistence. It obviously takes some persistence over time to move things along, and for stakeholders, public servants, and political staff to get to know who you are and understand the issue. You build that trust level not just with ministers, but with the staff at the political level. I think a lot of people underestimate the impact that staff have in ministers’ offices, particularly policy staff. They gather information and give a lot of advice to their ministers.
The other thing that we did I think really effectively, and this is advice I give to stakeholders that are advocating for almost anything, is to get them to find their common ground. If it’s an issue where there might be dozens or hundreds of organizations working on it, rallying stakeholders together to find that common ground is enormously impactful. It can make a massive difference to approach the government with one voice and one set of priorities.
This can be hard work. Each organization ostensibly exists because it has a little bit of a different vision than other organizations. I remember one situation in particular: it was a three-hour dinner meeting with about 15 autism stakeholders, where we threw a whole bunch of things on the table. In the end, we came up with six areas of focus for a National Autism Strategy. That was December 2013; it sticks out so strongly in my mind, because it was such an important meeting that happened in the background.
We were then able to go to the Prime Minister’s Office, the finance minister’s office, the health minister’s office and other offices to find our allies based on this unity, common voice, and common vision. It was much easier for the ministerial policy advisors to make sense of what the so-called “ask” was, including laying out what the lifespan issues were with autism: diagnosis, early intervention, education, housing, employment, and then the question regarding what happens when family members are no longer about to care for and support children with autism. These are this big group of issues that are all somehow connected. But you threw that framework out in a meeting and people were able to understand something that maybe they didn’t understand before. It was so important for stakeholders to come together.
Then we had fantastic allies within the government including in the Prime Minister’s Office and the finance minister’s office in 2015. This was at a time when the government was trying to finally balance the budget after the global financial crisis and so there was a lot of careful consideration given to anything that would carry costs.
In the end, we came up with a $2 million investment in a Canadian Autism Partnership working group that was really important to the stakeholders. I remember that budget announcement and spending time with the stakeholders that evening, and just that celebratory feeling as we were really moving towards something that we thought was going to come to fruition after the working group eventually completed its work. The subsequent government chose not to move forward with the partnership but even today I remain confident that we’re only months or a year away from the national strategy being implemented.
I’m proud to say that our government, and so many stakeholders and policy experts within the government, had just an enormous role to play on moving the ball forward. Even though the Canadian Autism Partnership did not proceed in 2017, there has been a ton of progress made in just a whole variety of areas with autism across the country and I like to think that these efforts contributed.
You just outlined a blueprint for members of Parliament to influence the policy agenda: persistence, stakeholder engagement, and finding allies within the system. I think the one aspect that you’re probably being too modest to put on the table though is a deep understanding and expertise.
You really invested yourself in understanding the policy issues, including the asymmetry of autism-related services and opportunities across the country. In this sense, what made it so easy for the government to say “yes” to the proposal was that it was really well conceived and had broad-based stakeholder support. Those conditions, it seems to me, were fundamental. They could be conditions that other parliamentarians could help to cultivate on any number of files.
Before we move into some of your other interests, in your first answer you raised a really fascinating point. You said that it’s your sense that even parliamentarians underestimate the “power of the pulpit” and their ability to shape public discourse on any number of issues. Do you want to just unpack that a bit? What do you think is contributing to the fact that not many elected officials take advantage of their platform in the same way that you have? Are there internal incentives that are stopping them?
MP Mike Lake
I think a big part of it is the way we view what’s important to us and how to get there. Within elected life, it’s human nature to want to take that next step. Almost everybody in Parliament is an “A type” of a sort. And 337 of the 338 of us are not prime minister. So, there’s always a next step that someone can take, and I think there can be a feeling that somehow, if I’m not taking that next step, if I’m not at the table, then I need to be there to make that difference that I want to make.
I think what might be seen as some failures on my part, not moving forward in terms of my title or position in the caucus, might have actually created some of the biggest opportunities for me. During my time in government, it was hard for a member of Parliament from Alberta to get into cabinet. But in 2012, I did have the opportunity to be sworn into the Privy Council, to sit on a cabinet committee, charged with working with departments to get the budget back to balance. I may not have been in the cabinet per se but my progression was pretty solid up to that point.
In opposition, it’s been a little bit different. I’ve had to find a way to use the 960 waking minutes that I have every day — to invest them very deliberately, in ways that are going to really be powerful and have impact. We just had to start thinking a little bit differently. I didn’t always have the title — I don’t have a title right now — but I do have 15 years’ worth of fantastic relationships with people who are experts in the things I care about.
Here’s a really important fact: the things I care about, almost none of them am I an actual expert on. I have lots of experience, and I have life stories. I’ve visited some places on the international development file that have given me a perspective. But I’m not an expert per se.
What I do have though is I know a lot of people who are really smart, who know a lot of things about things I care about. And as a member of Parliament, I have this convening power to bring people together. I’m not out of place: no Canadian member of Parliament is out of place, phoning anybody in the world and asking for a meeting. And we’ve been very successful. This year more than ever, without a title since September, we’ve just met with fantastic people and sought their advice on things — including asking them who we should be talking to in order to impact global education in the developing world in the direction of inclusive education. So, take someone like Tim Shriver, JFK’s nephew, who is a friend now because we’ve worked together on inclusive education. He and I have really struck a note based on a shared commitment to improving educational outcomes in the developing world.
All that to say, for the things we care about, we have this power to bring people together and move agendas forward. And I really do think that it’s something that most parliamentarians don’t fully grasp the extent to which that exists.
That’s a powerful insight and a great piece of advice for incoming parliamentarians to recognize their convening power: their ability to engage people, both in Canada and abroad.
In that vein, you mentioned a couple of times your passion for international development issues. Do you mind just elaborating a bit on these issues and how you’ve become interested in them and how you balance your work on them with being a member of a constituency that has various local concerns and issues? How are you able to thread the needle between advancing big picture international development goals, while at the same time, ultimately being responsive and representative of a local constituency?
MP Mike Lake
First off, I really believe that strong Conservative governments recognize that there is a role for Canada to play on the global stage and in a very strong principled role. I got involved because in 2010, as you know, we hosted the then G8, and the signature initiative coming out of the G8 was called the Muskoka initiative. It was an international development initiative put forward by stakeholders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the time. The aim of the initiative was to make progress on two Millennium Development Goals (which stretched until 2015 and became the precursor of the now Sustainable Development Goals.) There were two particular goals: one was about saving kids under five and the other was about saving mothers in and around childbirth.
Canada’s leadership on these issues, under Stephen Harper, is now globally recognized when you talk to people. Everybody in the international development community remembers the Muskoka initiative. It brought together countries from around the world rallying around these clear and measurable targets.
The end result was that, during the Millennium Development Goal period from 2000 to 2015, we went from nine million kids dying every year under age five for things that they should never be dying of, like diarrhea and basic malnutrition, to under six million. So, that’s three million kids that survive every year that didn’t before 2000. And with the second, it fell from 500,000 moms down to 300,000 in terms of mortality. So, 200,000 mothers survive every year because of basic birthing kits and community health workers that were funded.
The reason why that initiative even came to be was because of stakeholders in Canada, led by Plan Canada, World Vision, UNICEF, Save the Children and others. They came together with a coherent ask, brought something up that was critically important, that was measurable, and that a Conservative government could support. We became world leaders in it.
How I got involved, I got asked to communicate the initiative. We had a few communications challenges right in the early days of it. I got asked to do a bunch of television panels — about 15 panels in a week or two. As I was doing them, I just realized how significant the Muskoka Initiative was, and started to have some conversations with the stakeholders and it became just a massive passion for me, because I saw so many different directions we could go. I was hooked.
Let me just end with an open-ended question to enable you to reflect on your role and experiences, and hopefully provide some insights and advice to people who are thinking about elected life.
Our readers have heard that you’ve managed to get involved and shape the policy debate and policy development process on a range of issues important to you and your constituents, while still being a constructive and valued member of a caucus, which is not necessarily an easy thing to do. What can someone who want to pursue a similar path do in order to strike that balance and ultimately make a difference?
MP Mike Lake
I would say part of it is finding a need that aligns with your own experiences and interests. That’s what I’ve sought to do.
Obviously, there has to be an alignment with where people are at. If you’re in a constituency that’s tighter in terms of the electoral margins, it’s about finding a need that needs to be fulfilled in your constituency, where people are vulnerable, and you’re able to help them out. And maybe that extends then across the country, because it usually does. That’s going to help you electorally, and for all the right reasons. It’s not political gamesmanship. Politicians should be rewarded for making really good decisions that help people. And so, I think doing that assessment is really important.
I also think that how we talk to each other is important, and we haven’t really touched on this a lot. But the outcome, the extension of all of this work that we’ve been trying to do on these issues, has led us to have this really great group of people 200 to 300 people that are in, as we refer it, our Zoom Happy Hour orbit.
We’ve been able to bring people together, not just to talk about the issues specifically, but to bring people together more generally. One might be with the CEO of Right to Play, and the other one might be with Sarah Letersky, who was chief of staff for Todd Smith, Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community and Social Services. But then we might have a left-leaning columnist join us too. The purpose isn’t to get into a political partisan debate, but rather to have a conversation amongst human beings, setting aside labels and talking about the issues facing the country.
People are longing for that right now. So, if I was to give any piece of advice to someone coming in, read the room, and the whole room. Not just the Liberal, Conservative or NDP room, but read the room that is Canada. And in that room, people are looking for a different way of doing things, and as a politician, as someone newly elected or someone who has been around for awhile, you’re in a perfect place to facilitate those conversations people are longing for.
That’s great, MP Lake. Thank you for your important work as a member of Parliament and for your insights today. I have no doubt that our readers will find them as interesting and as valuable as I have.
MP Mike Lake
Thank you, Sean. It’s a great opportunity. And I have to say, I love what you guys are doing. It is so needed right now.
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