Four decades ago, Iris Evans was juggling work as a registered nurse with teaching piano and raising three young sons. On the side, she put in 20 to 30 hours a week entering sweepstakes contests, as many as 35 at a time. Today, Evans, who was named Alberta’s finance minister last year, will unveil her first budget. It’s safe to say that in both temperament and background there is no politician in Canada today quite like her, and few facing the economic challenge of the size she now confronts: Alberta is to slip into deficit for the first time in 15 years—$1.4 billion deep, a horrendous swing from the $8.5-billion surplus Evans projected last summer as oil prices soared.
A long-time cabinet minister whose portfolios have hitherto been on the soft side of government—municipal affairs, children’s services, health—she has little financial experience. “At first it was quite daunting to think, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to be in finance,’ ” says Evans. “Then you realize, ‘This is just like managing your chequebook.’ ” So in a time of crippling recession, Alberta has a former nurse, piano teacher and “contestor” (as avid sweepstakes contestants are known) steering its financial affairs. Those who know her say that’s a good thing.
Evans, who is 67 and has been involved in politics at one level or another since 1977, is known for her gusto—she is on the treadmill sending emails at 4:30 a.m., a work ethic that burns through assistants 40 years her junior. “If your phone is ringing at 5 a.m., either one of your kids is in serious trouble with the Queen’s representatives, or it’s Iris,” says Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove. In the 1970s, Evans pursued her side career entering contests—mail-ins, draw boxes, phone-ins—with no less zeal at a time when she and her then-husband, a warehouse manager, struggled to make ends meet. “I remember one week just eating baked potatoes,” says Evans, now divorced. “Entering contests, for at least two years, was a very profitable venture for me.”
In an effort to attract the attention of contest organizers, she used commemorative stamps, fancy stationery and had her boys, who preferred street hockey, decorate with collages, sparkles and crayon the envelopes dispatched to draw-box contests. “I wasn’t immune to the use of perfume,” she admits. It was an all-consuming passion. “You wondered when she slept,” says her youngest, Darren, 40. “When I was seven we would go around and collect chocolate bar wrappers, whether it be on the road or in a garbage can near a convenience store, to cut out the UPC codes,” he says.
Evans won a year’s supply of Wonderbras (12 brassieres), a lifetime’s supply of diapers, and trips to Hawaii, Europe and the Caribbean. In 1972 she was awarded a Volkswagen Super Beetle and $2,500—cash she used as the downpayment for the Sherwood Park home where she still lives—after winning an elaborate competition to name a new engine diagnostic system. “I read the Oxford Dictionary to find what would fit,” she says. Evans coined slogans—“McColl’s Peanut Butter, What More Can I Say, It’s All That I Eat, When My Wife’s Away”—and on other occasions won new flooring for her kitchen, a sailboat, bicycles, and countless radios. “I still see the word ‘win’ and want to enter, but I don’t have time for it anymore,” she says.
Her flare for the dramatic has made her widely popular. “She’s a larger-than-life personality,” says Justice Minister Alison Redford. In conversation she is rapid-fire and expansive, with a penchant for cocking her eyebrow in the manner of Norma Desmond. Her escapades on the fringes of weird—sending her sons to root through garbage cans—speak to Evans as a political survivor. She is driven to win, whatever the contest. Last year, she took the riding of Sherwood Park, which she has held since 1997, with over 9,000 votes, 5,500 more than her closest rival. “I have,” she allows, “a political instinct.”
On the question of Alberta’s financial prospects she is optimistic. “We’re in a bit of a bad tidal wave, but we’re in the best boat possible,” she says. “I don’t believe commodity prices can stay down forever.” How has her history prepared her to steer this ship? “You see fat more simply if you’ve been living on lean,” she says. “Politics is very tough when you’re rich.” It’s easier, she says, “when you have to say ‘no’ to everybody.”