By Katherine Johnson Martinko
“I’ve often said that my wisest advisors are my youngest ones.” The Hon. Marci Ien, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, looks to her two children for guidance and support while juggling the incredibly busy schedule that goes along with being an elected official and a parent. “This is a team sport. So [my kids] are involved.”
Ien, an author and former broadcast journalist from Toronto, spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about how she juggles her two roles as parent and politician—and whether there is such thing as balance. Her answer? No.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a politician, a former journalist and an author. Marci Ien is Canada’s Minister for Women, and gender equality and youth. She’s also a mother of two, minister and joins us today from Ottawa. Thank you so much for being here.
It’s so good to be with you. Lianne. Good to see you.
Same here. Now, you know, it’s been a couple of years or a little bit more than that now that you have made that move from journalism to politics. And I wonder, what has that transition been like for you through the perspective of being a parent?
You know, it is the basis of everything. And it’s where I started, when I decided to make the leap, I had to go to my kids. And I had to ask them, whether this is something that they could do, because this is a team sport. It isn’t just about me. And at that time, Blaze was 15 years old, and Dash was eight years old. And we decided, as a family, we believe is actually leading the way that we would do this. So has it been easy every step of the way? No. Do I sometimes feel immense guilt? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I know that I’m in a place where I can impact and affect change in this country, along with my colleagues. And that is going to be better not just for my kids, but kids right across this country. My kids understand how important it is to have diversity of voice at a table in places where those voices aren’t always welcomed, in places where those voices aren’t always heard. And so they appreciate exactly where I am, and why I’m doing this. And I try to I just try to do it all. That’s what I don’t know that I do it all well all the time. But I try to I try to do it all.
It’s such an interesting approach that your starting point was going and having that conversation with your children, even though they were on the younger side. I’m curious what kind of changes have you and they had to institute in order to make all of this work?
It means it means calls, Zoom calls, instead of you know, being in person, it means, you know, sometimes putting dash to bed and talking to them on the phone or doing a FaceTime call and reading the story. Because we’re in two different places. It means sometimes going over homework assignments, with glaze or having her email me things to get my opinion on something that she’s written. It means less time together. But it also means getting creative. So last summer, for instance, I had to travel a bit for work. And I bought please, a couple of tickets. And she came with me. And she got to see what we do as a team. And that was a real eye opener for her because she understood where I was what I was always there and understood the job to the fullest and appreciated that there are times where, you know, I have events in my writing of Toronto center, be it you know, in Regent Park or Cabbage Town or the village St. James Town, whether it’s picnics, I’ve got a festival coming up, you know, in a few days, and he’ll come with me. And the good people, my writing know him well. A lot of them ask whether he’ll be attending different events. And so he becomes part of things. And I think the end that’s a huge part of this, that my kids have become part of this because as I said it’s a team sport. So they’re involved. I’ve often said that my wisest advisors are my youngest ones. And I asked my kids for advice on that. So they are involved from top to bottom scenarios.
What would you do in this case? Or how would you deal with this?
And it’s surprising how good advices well in the way you describe it. It’s such a rich learning experience for them right at at such a young age and seeing things and being exposed to things in real time and watching their mom at work. You are certainly no stranger Are to managing career and family life. You did it for many years while having to get up in the middle of the night and work in the early morning hours. So how would you characterize your overall approach to trying to manage those two important jobs?
I threw balance out the window, completely threw it out the window, because I had to the whole idea of being 50% here and 50% there and balancing work and balancing personal life, it just wasn’t working. And I found, frankly, the guilt overwhelming that I wasn’t being the mom, that I should be, I wasn’t home every night, and I couldn’t make every field trip. And I couldn’t bake cookies. And I couldn’t do all those things. And it became a situation I thought, okay, so when I’m with you, I’m with you. And that became my mantra, that if I’m with you, I am completely with you. And, you know, sometimes it’s an 8020 situation, sometimes, you know, work takes over because it has to, and then sometimes that is reversed. But just getting rid of that. Because the negative self talk is a thing, that whole idea of you’re not doing what you need to do as a parent, because you’re not there as much as every other parents. And, you know, what kinds of choices are you making? I realized that I’m modeling something for my kids. And I want them to see, a mom who is confident in what she’s doing, is strong, with regards has a strong work ethic, but loves them more than anything, and that the two can coexist. It’s just not 5050 All the time.
So along those lines ministry, and what would you suggest to women, other parents watching this interview? Who might be contemplating a major career move or a move into politics with such an intense spotlight on not just the individual, but on every aspect of their life? What kind of tips could you possibly provide them? Having gone through it yourself? And going through it yourself?
I am so happy to ask this question. Because I think it also speaks to timing. I was 50 plus years old when I decided to make this change. So at a time when many would be contemplating retirement in 510 years, or looking at some sort of long term plan. Most certainly not contemplating throwing life up into the air. And and running in a by election. A lot of people thought I had lost my mind. A lot of them said What do you mean, you are 50 years old, 51 years old, and you’re about to do what? But I offer that lesson, particularly to women of a certain age, who think they’re done, or who think that, you know, they might want to do something but they’re scared. And understandably so. Because it’s nice to be comfortable. And change sometimes hurts changes is decidedly not comfortable. But I do believe that that’s where the learning happens. But it takes a lot of courage. And I was scared to death. I knew after having conversations with my family, and in particular my kids, that we were going to do this that I was going to do this, but I was scared because of course scared of the unknown. I interviewed politicians. I was never going to be one except now I am. But a huge leap. Yes, absolutely worth it. Am I learning and leading and part of change and getting to have conversations with young people and women and gender diverse people and across this country and develop policy? Absolutely. When I want it any anywhere else right now? Absolutely not. So I would encourage it. It’s just that you, you need a big dose of of courage. And it also takes somebody or people seeing in you what you don’t particularly see it takes that to this I didn’t see this for me. And so maybe there’s a person or people in the lives of maybe people listening or watching this that have encouraged them to kind of go after that change and and do what they really want to do what makes their heart sing And those are the people that we have to listen to more we do we have to we have to listen to those those people more.
You talk about learning. And as a journalist, certainly in your former life that was a constant in terms of what you did for a living, learning about people telling their stories. What would you say that you have learned about yourself? And as well, what have you learned about your children along this particular leg of your journey?
that we are highly adaptable land highly, more so than than I ever thought possible? I never saw this for us. But we’re doing it. And we’re doing it well. And we’re doing it together. So I’ve learned just how adaptable I can be. And most certainly, how adapted how adaptable my children are.
Is there anything that you wish that you knew at the start of your entry to politics, about how it would affect parenting that you now know?
the time I knew that time, you know, the investment of it would be huge. But it’s even more than I thought, it’s absolutely more than I thought. Because I serve a lot of people. And if my job in Ottawa is done, you know, on on a Friday night at 9pm, there is work to be done, in my constituency, with those that elected me on weekends, and I try to make it a lot more than the weekends. Because, you know, it’s, it’s the people that elected me that I am beholden to the country, yes, but in particular them. And so it becomes seven days a week. And and is there isn’t a ton of time to turn off. I’ve tried to do a lot better with that. But and I listen, I don’t take my own advice. And I realized this, because this is what I tell all my friends picture, you know, make time for you and take time and do all the things then you know, I don’t a lot of the time. But it is it is and that’s why my kids end up coming. They come with me. And they experience all of this with me, because that’s how we fit our time in.
You talk about the constituents in your writing, if Toronto center, many of them from St. James Town in Regent Park, many of them parents, many of the mothers in particular struggling during these turbulent Financial Times, certainly, what are you hearing from these parents and about how difficult it is raising kids today against that kind of backdrop.
You know, when my parents emigrated from Trinidad, St. James Town, is where they came, they came here came to Canada to go to school. And they couldn’t afford for both to go at the same time. So my dad went first. And we started in an apartment in St. Jamestown. And it’s much like it’s still like that it is my writing is chock full of newcomers. And a lot of people who believe that it takes a village to raise their kids. And it’s a beautiful thing to see. So works that way. And that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. And that doesn’t mean money is is isn’t tight. But I’ll tell you, you know, things like our childcare program are even more so. A grocery rebate. So let me give you an example. So that this grocery rebate and somebody look at it and say it’s a couple 100 bucks, what’s that going to do? And I always think to myself, you don’t know the lease and St. James down, because they can take $40 and they can stretch it. And they can do so much with it. So when we poo poo and say, Well, it’s a couple $100 Here, what is GST? Tax Credit, who cares? It’s not much. These amounts mean a lot. And and they provide change for a lot of people in my writing. And I’ve seen it we know that during the pandemic. You know, there there were some that were disproportionately impacted. And that’s basically my writing it. A lot of people were on the frontlines, they were working and you continue to work a lot of them Mothers. And that meant leaving kids at home, who were learning at home. It meant a lot of things. It meant mental health challenges. There are investments that we’ve made, and I was so happy to be this one in particular, but there’s a there’s a place in in Regent Park called Vanessa. And it was started by a young woman named numeric. And I first met her Leanne, in Regent Park, like the actual Park. And she was conducting a therapy session with another young person, because that is her background. And I introduced myself and I said hi, and literally on a park bench, they were having a therapy session. And she was explaining to me that she didn’t have a place to practice, she didn’t have a place. She’s a Muslim woman. And she wanted to serve racialized kids in a culturally appropriate way. And bring, you know, much needed therapy, mental health, awareness to them. So fast forward. And a couple months ago, I was in Regent Park with Minister Bennett, who is this country’s first minister for mental health and addictions. And we were in America’s new place. Because Minister Bennett’s team had facilitated that. And she was given monies routine was to not only get a place, but to facilitate a staff and their kids now walking through those doors and getting culturally appropriate, which is so important help. And it’s, it’s amazing. So these are the places where, you know, you see some of what we’re doing working.
We certainly live in uniquely challenging times, if you’re a parent, regardless of your economic background, but I’m curious as to what do you say? Or what would you like to say to the constituents of Toronto center, who are struggling about giving them hope, as they are in the trenches, like the rest of us trying to raise children, and trying to raise tomorrow’s leaders.
So a lot of that has to do with education. I’ve got a couple of universities in my writing. And we talk about these things. I have talked to parents all the time. And they think about things like, oh, what should my kids be taken? Because everybody endless and loved doctors, love lawyers. But immigrant families, when I sit at round tables, I want my child to be a doctor, I want my child to be there. And and I say, Look at the green economy. Look at the green economy. Look at things like journalism and broadcast. Look at what we’re doing right now. This is a podcast, look at the opportunities that present themselves now. And the way certain industries look in the future, because that’s where jobs are. That’s where they are. So it’s about focusing on what’s available to them. I met with a group of young people that another MP had brought to Parliament Hill today. And I was answering this very question. You know, it’s dire, it seems dire. And I said, I see a lot of hope. And I see hope in things like, as I said, the green economy. AI tech, especially for women, young women and girls. Out there is this huge array of opportunities. And we as parents can make sure that our kids know about that. Another part of this is housing, transitional housing, housing, not just shelter spaces. But where do women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, though? We have we’ve provided a lot with regards to that. And there’s been some for some things in my writing. We have housing specifically for the tourists, LGBTQ community. I think thinking of friends of Ruby, I’m thinking of a lot of different places, supporting places like Covenant House, supporting, you know, the Young Street Mission and what it does for communities there. They’re supporting the five nine team and the excellent work it does for the tourist LGBTQ community. So really, as parents, it’s making sure that our kids or young people know what’s available. For them, know what their future could look like, know, the trends, because that’s important too, because there’s a lot of hope. I know that we look at numbers sometimes and they look dire. And I’m not saying that people are suffering, because most definitely people are. But I would say, you know, it’s about listening, and it’s about responding. And that’s happening. And I see it on many fronts, and then it’s about continuing to listen and understand how we can continue to do that work.
You talk about Parliament Hill, many of your colleagues are mothers themselves. I wonder what have you learned from your colleagues about this particular leg that you’re on being a parent and being a politician?
When you walk into this place, and look at the walls and who’s on them, women don’t see a lot of themselves. I walk past a beautiful portrait of John Sullivan. And, and I think, because they’re just, they’re just done a lot of us. Or I think about people, you know, like Jean Augustine. And, and it’s hard not to see yourself. But at the same time, it’s a quick reminder as to why we need to be here. There are 103 Women on Parliament Hill, I was the 101 to be sworn in, there are now 103 of us. There are 338. Total here. So clearly, that number has to go up. The hope is when young people see us here, they understand this is possible. They understand that there is a seat at the table for them, if they so wanted one day. And they understand that it’s the only way because we’re talking about systems here, systems, ingrained systems, that we’re going to continue to see change. So things like hybrid provisions have helped a lot. The the ability to vote via an app to participate in question period, to participate in cabinet to take meetings, and do so using hybrid provisions have helped greatly. I have only been here a couple of years. And so when I started, everything was ritual. But we continue to have those provisions. And I see the difference that it makes. And I have listened I have the great privilege of representing Toronto center. So a flight for me or a train ride for me isn’t as bad as somebody that’s coming from CBC or an equivalent. These are things to be considered. Because for someone that’s coming from BC or Nunavut, and working all week, traveling back home becomes a pretty onerous thing. And so the question is, how much time is someone having with their family? And those that support them? How much time are they with their constituents? And I think these are healthy conversations, and good conversations to have, because it’s the number one thing that I’m asked them, you know, how do you do this? How like, can you do this? And young women in particular? Is it possible? Like how would we juggle family and all of these things? I wish that was a question that young men asked for, which is interesting, but it is the number one question that I get and hybrid visions help with that.
I’m curious Minister Ian as to how would you go about describing your parenting style?
I’m honest. But I’m also in a position as a parent, where I’m open to listening and learning. And I say that because that differs greatly from the way I grew up. And the way I grew up with all due respect to my parents was we’re telling you something and you need to do it. it, there wasn’t a lot of participation from me as a kid it was, here’s what’s happening. And here’s the road you’re going down. But now, it’s about active participation. My kids know that they can speak to me. I definitely listen, Bill, let me know if I’m going the way they need me to be going. And I’ll let them know as well. I’ll give them my guidance as well. It isn’t about friendship. I’m not the kind of Mom where I’m friends with my kids. But they know that I’m there for them. They know they mean everything. And they reciprocate that it’s very much an open door. They know that they can come to me with anything. And that’s really important, especially these days.
Absolutely, certainly a challenge for all of us, but probably more so parents than any other group is social media. How do you go about again, in your position, especially managing that with an 18 year old and an 11 year old?
it is the one thing if my kids were afraid of anything? It was the social media aspect of this. Because before I was in this place, I got so many threats as a journalist, so many. And my kids were really worried because they said, Listen, if this happened to you, and you are a reporter, what the heck is going to happen, you know, if you’re an elected official, and the way I saw it was, well, it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Because it had been so bad as a journalist. It’s hard because my my kids family has sometimes been ensnared in all of this, that when people have something to say, and I am all for fulsome conversation, but when they are disrespectful, and horrid, that my kids have been caught up in it, as well. And it’s an unfortunate situation. But I guess that’s what happens when you know, you’re, you’re a broadcast journalist for 30 years. You know, my kids, I talked about them every day. A lot of their experiences I shared on national television, my kids sometimes walk down the street, and people know their names, and I don’t necessarily have to be there. So when it comes to things, on social media, the thing that scares me the most is that my family is sometimes ensnared in this. The other part in navigating all of this is the whole time stamp idea, because social media shows you were you’re not. And Blaze would not mind me saying this, but she had a difficult time, you know, in middle school, and then into high school, where she could see where she wasn’t invited. Because somebody posted something on Instagram or Snapchat, it’s something and navigating that road and trying to explain to your kid, why they aren’t good enough. And why being at that party doesn’t matter. Although it’s means the world to the kid is hard. Really, really hard. Dash, My son isn’t on Twitter and on Instagram, but he does have Snapchat. He says I’m not cool enough to be on it. But I you know, I’m always trying to monitor making sure that you know, he’s got a friend who kids in his class and, and that kind of thing, but, but it’s difficult. It’s a brand new world, but yet it’s a world full of possibility. huge possibility in you know, prospective jobs and careers. And that kind of thing is just that when things go wrong. They go really wrong.
Absolutely. Minister in any advice that you got from your parents, any strategies that they use with you and your siblings that have and continue to be pillars for you in your life as a mom?
Oh my gosh, the work ethic, work ethic for my sister and I. So my sister Lorraine is seven years older and it’s just the two of us. But our parents worked so hard. No, they, they came here. As I said, my dad went to school first and he became an educator. And my mom, you know, didn’t become an accountant until she was 14, because she waited, and was working as a clerk for the provincial government, and took courses, and then became an accountant and a tax auditor at the age of 40, and then did that for 25 years. That idea of perseverance, where you’ll work all day, and then come home, and study all night, and somehow pass these courses, and raise kids and do all of these things is unbelievable. But my dad, because he was an educator could take care of my sister and I his hours were more conducive. And my mum could study when it was her return. That is, that is what we saw. That kind of perseverance, and that kind of that kind of teamwork. And that is amazing. Also, you know, I was, I was really artsy. I was the one that decided he was not going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any of these things. And as immigrant parents, they let me do what I needed to do. They understood, and I’m not sure why my sister says it’s because I was the baby. I was the second board, and she didn’t get those chances. But they did. And I don’t know why they did. But they let me go down a path that they didn’t know anything about. They didn’t know anything about journalism, and television, and writing, and news and all of these things. But they let me do it. They let me do it.
We’re almost out of time. But I did want to ask you, what does Mother’s Day mean to you?
You know, when people say, Mother’s Day is every day? No. It’s decidedly not. It’s decidedly not. And I remind my kids that all the time that we actually have to do it big on Mother’s Day. It is a time of reflection, but mostly family. I check in with myself. I do How am I doing? How am I doing as a mom? How am I How do my kids think I’m doing? honestly think that I’m doing but also a time to say hey, you know, go easy on yourself too. Don’t be so hard. It is also checking in with my friends or moms. And celebrating my mom, of course and my sister who also helped to raise me being seven years my senior and it’s a time of appreciation to my favorite thing to do is to be with all the people I just mentioned, all of them. So you know to have my kids have my mom, have my sister have my nieces and just to be together and to understand and feel what love looks like.
Marci Ien Minister for Women and Gender Equality and youth. Thank you so much for your time and your perspective today.
I loved being with you. Thanks so much.
“I threw balance out the window,” Ien says in the video and podcast interview. The whole idea of balancing work and personal life “just wasn’t working. And I found, frankly, the guilt overwhelming that I wasn’t being the mom that I should be, [that] I wasn’t home every night, and I couldn’t make every field trip. And I couldn’t bake cookies. And I couldn’t do all those things.” So, Ien adopted a new mantra: “When I’m with you, I’m with you.” She explains that sometimes it’s an 80-20 situation, when work takes over, but at other times it’s reversed.
The child of two Trinidadian immigrants to Toronto, Ien credits her work ethic to the impressive example her parents set for her. “That idea of perseverance, where you’ll work all day, and then come home, and study all night, and somehow pass these courses, and raise kids and do all of these things, is unbelievable.”
But Ien tells Castelino that she takes a different approach from her parents when it comes to parenting. “I’m open to listening and learning… That differs greatly from the way I grew up… With all due respect to my parents, [their approach] was, ‘We’re telling you something and you need to do it.’ There wasn’t a lot of participation from me as a kid.” With her own children, Ien prefers a reciprocal, open-door policy when anything can be discussed—but she still draws the line at friendship. She says, “I’m not the kind of mom where I’m friends with my kids. But they know that I’m there for them.”
If there is anything Ien has learned from this tricky juggling act, it is that she and her children are both highly adaptable, more than she ever thought possible. “I never saw this for us. But we’re doing it. And we’re doing it well. And we’re doing it together.”
During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Ien also discusses:
- Suggestions for mothers contemplating a career move
- What she has learned from colleagues on Parliament Hill
- What she’s hearing from constituents about their parenting challenges
- Things she wishes she’d known about politics and parenting