Michael de Jong, MLA for Abbotsford West was re-elected in 2017 an area he has represented since first being elected to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia in a 1994 by-election. The six-term MLA has served as Minister of Finance, Minister of Health, Attorney General, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Minister of Labour and Citizens' Services, and Minister of Forests. In addition, he also served as Government House Leader.
Before his election as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in 1994, de Jong served two terms as an elected school trustee for Abbotsford School District 34 and was a practising lawyer with his own Abbotsford firm. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University in Ottawa and a law degree from the University of Alberta.
Cascadia Report were keen to get to know the man behind the politics, and to find out what drives him to serve his community after nearly 27 years.
“I love the people. I mean it's the people that attracted me to the idea of development in the first place and that really hasn't changed at all, and for me it's the single most attractive part of the work. I went to elementary school and middle school, went away to university for law school but came back again later.”
The path from lawyer to politician is oft taken, and there are a wide range of skills that practicing lawyers must perfect that lend themselves to becoming an elected official. While de Jong says he is “very lucky” to have enjoyed the career he has had in politics, he looks back on his brief time practicing law as a valuable steppingstone.
“I think you do acquire, with legal training, particular skills around the analysis of issues, legal instruments like legislation or how it can address those issues or not in some cases. Over the years in many cases, to colleagues in cabinet or MLAs, the problem you've identified is not one that I think in my view is suited to a solution legislatively. There are different approaches. So, to go there, those are human aids in a very, very dealing with, with, with people. Sometimes there are a lot of similarities there in terms of the constituency level where people arrive at your office and are in distress and need help navigating through difficult administrative or regulatory procedures. It is by no means of course a prerequisite. There are countless MLAs who are excellent at the work they do but are not legally trained, but I find it helpful in my case.”
As the MLA for Abbotsford West but also a previous Finance Minister both the province and the City will be keen to hear de Jong’s thoughts on the outlook for post-pandemic economic recovery in the region.
“I continue to take a measure of pride in the fact that as finance minister I was part of a government that introduced and delivered on five successful balanced budgets. A term we used to describe it is a government that lived within its means. It didn't bend more operationally from taxpayers and that's a value, a principle that I think is important and let's hope we try to continue to hold onto. It's important to do mostly because if governments on a regular basis don't do that, all they're really doing is shifting responsibility for the services they are consuming to future generations. Having said all that, I understand and accept that there are times, extraordinary times when it may not be possible for government to do that or the role of government is such that it may not be possible for them to do that and I think we are living proof of one those times that it is an exceptional and extraordinary moment that justifies government undertaking expenditures that it is not able to cover in the fiscal year. I would qualify that though by saying, by reminding people that these are debts that cannot simply be ignored, they will have to be repaid one day.
People sometimes forget that after the 2008 economic meltdown during that the government of that day borrowed $5 billion - paltry by today's standards - but it was considered a great deal of additional borrowing. When I became finance minister, we paid all that money back. Some people were critical later of the surpluses. The surpluses were used to pay back the money that was borrowed when we didn't have the money. Sometimes I wonder if these are old fashioned concepts that the majority of people no longer attach much importance to but for me living within your means and then when circumstances arise, like COVID where that's not possible, recognising the need to pay back that debt,”
A detailed timeline for economic recovery is proving tough to predict, with de Jong at pains to point out that until a vaccine is developed and social behaviour gets back to some semblance of normality it is very difficult to predict a future for many businesses. Back in 2017 while on the campaign trail de Jong said, ‘it's important to be sitting in coffee shops and community halls right across BC and talking to people.’ We asked how he was adjusting to not being able to connect with the community in person.
“We've seen sort of more imaginative ways of people coming together, I mean we all sat together and watched young people gathering at the park - people are social creatures and they will continue to find ways to come together. But what I have found is - and this is not particularly Covid related - I have found that not just politicians, I think this is true of politicians in general and businesses and other agencies who make use of these tools, internet tools, social media tools. You tend to be far better at disseminating information that is sending it out, than in receiving it.”
“It's become pretty easy now to create a message, push a button and then that message goes to 100/1000/10,000 people. It's more meaningful when people know that they can respond to that and have a dialogue and I think we're still struggling with how to do that more actively.”
As almost a fixture of the City of Abbotsford, de Jong has presided over a great deal of change since he first became an MLA. Community building initiatives are a key part of his role as MLA, and a vital way of translating his vision for the community of Abbotsford and having a tangible impact on citizens’ lives.
“When I first became an MLA back in the 90s, we'd been waiting decades for a new hospital and that became the focus. Today it is connectiveness within the city. I think one of the best internal networks in the province is something that I continue to work on as I see new ongoing potential for the development of the aerospace sector in Abbotsford. This year there won't be an air show but that is a vital sector and the reputation worldwide reputation that emanates from companies like Cascade and Conair, of a world leading aerospace company in all of air travel today won't change and I think is great opportunity for Abbotsford for British Columbia and for Canada in the worldwide spaces.”
Looking further ahead, proposals are being sought now for redevelopment of land around Abbotsford airport for industrial use. The project has huge potential for the City and surrounding areas.
“The airport is a catalyst and I have been involved in various aspects of the dilemma. When the airport was transferred from the federal government to the city of Abbotsford which a visionary purchase for $1 by the then mayor and council. Some of those lands, airport lands are in the ALR. they have been taken out of the ALR. Now of course that has become more difficult. The irony is all of those airport lands were originally agricultural land, but in 1938, the decision was made to build an airport and I believe the airport land should be for aerospace development, not quite frankly, not for growing raspberries. I know that upsets some people when I say that, but the airport lands, in my view, are for aerospace development. The aerospace business and we should be pursuing the job growth and investment that is taking place and there is some potential for large scale investment in the years ahead.”
As someone who has had a life serving people in his community, we asked de Jong what advice he would give to any reading who is considering a career in politics.
“Get involved. Become engaged within your community, in an area that interests you. And whether it's in a New York organisation or the sport organizations. Cultural activities. Become engaged and become known as a person who works actively to find solutions as opposed to a person who becomes known simply for articulating defense or frustration. Be the architect of change and solutions and become known for that and people will gravitate towards you naturally. It is an honorable calling, and maybe it sounds self-serving for me to say that but I do believe it in this honorable calling and we need more people to take up that challenge, more younger people.”
Turning the light onto de Jong’s own career, we asked what three pieces of advice he would give a young Michael do Jong if he could go back in time knowing what he knows now.
“Here's a bit of advice that I got from back when I was still in my undergraduate in University. I was at a bus stop in Ottawa on my way to Carleton University and a lady who subsequently was a federal MP, had been a minister in the government, and became the lieutenant governor of BC when I was in government. She invited me to lunch as a 17 year old kid and I explained to her my interests and she said; ‘make sure you acquire a profession or a vocation, separate and apart from politics because it is a fleeting vocation, a fleeting business and there is no guarantee of success and do not become dependent upon a profession or a vocation or a trade to fall back on.’ I think that was sage advice and I think that remains that remain very sage advice. Find balance in your life as you embark upon this very exciting, very fulfilling work. But it is not a substitute for family and for the importance of spending time with family.”
You can find out more about Michael de Jong, MLA here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-de-jong-93a62464/