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Maclean’s Live: Katie Telford in conversation with Paul Wells

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff spoke candidly on gender equality, the India trip and the voters disappointed on electoral reforms
Katie Telford

Katie Telford flew from Washington, where she was part of Canada’s effort to save NAFTA, to Ottawa for a one-on-one interview with Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells. After the interview, she planned to fly back to Washington for more trade talks. Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff doesn’t have a high public profile but she’s almost always close to the biggest files the government handles.

She spoke to Wells about the government’s successes and disappointments, her boss’s work style and the coming election. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WATCH: The full unedited conversation from Maclean’s Live

Q: I feel like I should put this on the record right off the bat because people around Ottawa have been asking: Why on Earth did the Prime Minister’s Office offer up the PM’s chief of staff? This never happens.

A: I was going to say “offer up” is an interesting choice of words.

Q: Yes. Like, sacrificially. You were reluctant to come and join us, and after a while, you decided to come. How come?

A: I’m a believer in the “see her to be her” mantra. Diversity is a fact in this country; it is not a fact within politics, along with many other realms. And one of the ways that we can draw more people in is to connect what it is that we do to more people, so that it’s not calling up our like-minded friends when governments are formed to create what the backrooms look like. I’m trying to bring the backrooms a little more into the front rooms because I do genuinely believe that’s how we’re going to draw more people in.

And secondly, I would like to earn from Canadians, to the degree that we can, greater respect for the political system. And part of the political system is our jobs.

READ MORE: Katie Telford – 7 key takeaways from Trudeau’s chief of staff

Q: Your life in politics started really early. It started when you were babysitting for your neighbour.

A: I had the fortune of Bob Rae living around the corner from me growing up and he gave me advice very early on: first of all, to look into the page program. So I was a page when he was premier at the Ontario legislature. And secondly, to get involved in politics, no matter what the political party. I’m not sure at the time he thought I was going to go Liberal, but in the end, we were all together.

Q: Was there ever another career option for you? 

A: Really, I kind of fell into political stafferdom after university. I called a friend who was working at Queen’s Park and said I’d be interested in seeing what it is you do in politics. How do I get involved? And I was lucky to be in a situation where I could call a friend to do that, and that he could say oh, my friend is running a by-election campaign, and by-election campaigns are an amazing way to get involved in politics because everybody turns out for a by-election. And so I started volunteering on a by-election, and one thing led to another.

Q: Then skip a bit, you worked with Gerard Kennedy, and with Justin Trudeau in Opposition again, and you helped to run that campaign in 2015. Was chief of staff something that was obviously going to be the culmination of that if he won the election? At some point did you have to say to yourself, am I ready for this?

A: At the time I didn’t know the term “imposter syndrome”—it’s something I’ve learned as I’ve been delving more and more into the place of women in business. The Prime Minister reached out to me to say would I consider doing this, but I didn’t know that’s why he was reaching out to me; my husband did. So that is arguably what imposter syndrome is all about, but it’s a lesson learned that we too often do kind of think, “Oh, maybe we’re not the person who’s the person.” And yet, each time I’ve taken on these roles, I haven’t regretted it for a second.

Q: Can you give us a little bit of a sense of the rhythm of the workweek in the Prime Minister’s Office? 

A: There’s a certain rhythm in the sense that there are certain blocks of time that are almost always there, particularly when the House is sitting. There’s cabinet on Tuesday mornings; there’s caucus on Wednesday mornings; there are certain cabinet committees that the Prime Minister chairs; there are stock-take meetings that he holds. So once you put all of those pieces into the calendar, the calendar is really a jigsaw, and you kind of figure out how to fit everything else around those pieces. Figuring out how to adapt what we’re learning day to day into that jigsaw is actually probably one of the more critical elements of my job.

Q: At the beginning of this government’s term in office, you as a team, and you personally, were preoccupied with the fact that you had a rookie caucus and substantially a rookie cabinet.

A: They’re rookie politicians. They’re not rookies. They are an incredible, diverse group of professionals from all walks of life. And that’s diversity in every sense of the word, from age and culture to professional backgrounds. Having that diversity of people I think is a huge benefit, but it does mean there are a lot of people who haven’t dealt with the likes of you before. So you know…

Q: I’m given to understand it’s often terrifying. At some point in your political career, you started to take note of the number of women who were at each meeting. Why did you do that?

A: For me, it was just a personal reflection to write down. I wasn’t announcing it at the beginning or the end of the meeting, saying, “Hey, I just wrote down two and 10.” But I also found that even when I wrote down the numbers, until I calculated it into percentages, I wouldn’t fully appreciate the number. So I found it was really a way of me reminding myself about what should not be normal, not allowing it to become normal for me.

Q: The role of women in politics and in governance has become a real preoccupation of this government, and I get the impression that you’ve been a real instigator of that. 

A: So the whole team—and I say this very sincerely—is very seized with this. The Prime Minister is, you know, the chief champion on this. He will encourage me to do things like this. He will walk into rooms and say, “We have a little bit of work to do here in terms of gender parity in this room.”

Q: I want to change the subject a little bit to the way you get to work in Ottawa, which is by winning elections. On YouTube the other day I noticed an old video from December 2013, in which Katie Telford, co-chair of the Liberal election campaign, talks about a path to victory. I was struck by how the next election is closer to today than the 2015 election was when you made that video.

A: Huh. I hadn’t done that math yet.

Q: So is the next campaign already on?

A: Well, there are parts of it that we were starting up then that we haven’t stopped. So at that time, I think in that video, I was encouraging people to knock on doors, to recruit volunteers, to fundraise, to do all the things that a party and a movement need to have to grow. Well, that hasn’t stopped. Some of our ministers are some of our strongest door-knockers and it’s amazing because those stories come back to Ottawa and keep it real. When you hear—whether it’s around a cabinet table or in a caucus meeting, or just in conversations around the Hill—[people] saying well, this issue really was coming up at the doors on the weekend or this issue wasn’t really coming up, it really does give some perspective.

Q: Do you ever hear at the door that you’ve really screwed up some file? And if so, which ones? 

A: So, despite everything I’ve been saying about the importance of knocking on doors, that’s a better question for the politicians. But they definitely get people who give you their honest opinions at doors, both good and bad.

Q: In 2019, voters aren’t going to be guessing about a Trudeau government, they will know about a Trudeau government. And some of them will have had a chance to be disappointed. What would you say to voters who really thought they were going to get electoral reform?

A: I would talk to them about all the other things that we have accomplished. Often those are young voters, often those are progressive voters. To be honest, I have talked to more people in the past year who have shifted their view as to the importance of that particular commitment, after having criticized us greatly for what we did on that. But I would really focus on the other things that we have done because they are very, very important things that I wouldn’t want to see reversed in this country.

Q: A lot of voters thought that Justin Trudeau would protect British Columbia from oil pipelines. But you still have, in B.C., a lot more Liberal seats that you could potentially lose over the pipeline dispute than you have in Alberta that you could gain by backing the Notley government. How preoccupying is the pipeline dispute right now? And when you say you’re going to get that—this is another multipart question.

A: Clearly.

Q: When you say you’re going to get that pipeline built, are you just saying it? 

A: Well, that’s easy: no. I know it’s tempting to want to do the seat math, but to your very first point of hearkening back to the last election and the commitments made, one of the commitments we made was how we walk that line and find that balance in terms of the economy and the environment. We don’t just say things.

Q: Okay. When are you going to get the pipeline built? 

A: I’m going to leave that to the ministers to—

Q: It’s just you’re heading into a year where it seems to me that the climate piece and the resource piece are going to become even more preoccupying. Minister [Catherine] McKenna’s trying to implement a carbon price—Andrew Scheer says I have to call it a carbon tax—by the end of the year.

A: You don’t have to do what Andrew Scheer says, you know!

Q: That’s not what he says. The government of Saskatchewan announced a reference to a Saskatchewan court about the constitutionality of the federal carbon price scheme. Is there any interest in kicking that reference up to the Supreme Court to get more certainty quicker? 

A: It’s going to surprise you to hear me say I am definitely going to leave that to the appropriate ministers to get into answering.

Q: On my list of potentially disappointed voters, I do want to talk about voters who thought in 2015 that they had had enough of a Conservative government telling them how to think, and are starting to worry that they’ve got a Liberal government that’s telling them how to think. One of the files that comes up is the question of groups having to sign attestations saying they support things like abortion and same-sex marriage before qualifying for the summer jobs program. Are you concerned about the message that sends to people who take their faith seriously?

A: I just want to start by saying one of the things I am incredibly, incredibly proud of the Liberal party for, dating back to when the leader became leader, is of the very strong stance we have taken to be a pro-choice government, and a pro-choice party before that. I think that is hugely important to both men and women across this country. And so I start there. Two, on the disappointed voters, as you called them, those are the voters that we need to keep knocking on the doors of. And that’s also why knocking on doors is so important, because when you’re knocking on doors, it’s almost an opportunity to test messages, really. I think there are lessons to be learned, and we are constantly having to take stock. But overall, I think the fact that we took that firm, principled position in the first place is a really important thing that Canadians asked us to do.

Q: Here in Ontario, the provincial government is heading into an election cycle in which the Liberal party is facing substantial challenges. I’m wondering whether that’s preoccupying because you’ve got a pretty steady provincial ally who is endangered. And secondly, are there political lessons to be learned from the current discomfiture of the Ontario Liberal Party?

A: I think there are always lessons to be learned from every campaign and from every government.

Q: Are you tired of the double-barrelled questions yet?

A: Are they only double-barrelled!?

READ MORE: In Trudeau and Trump Jr.’s visits to India, a tale of two trips

Q: How about this one: How did the trip to India go? 

A: In every country we go to—almost, I think—the Prime Minister meets with women CEOs. And we had one of those in India, and it was literally one of the best I’ve been to in the world. But I’m guessing that’s not what you were asking about.

Q: Well, I figure you’re going to have to knock on a lot of doors to get that message out.

A: So really what you were asking about was the amazing investment and the jobs that were announced there. But that’s not it either, right?

Q: This is why I frame my questions. No, it was about all the costumes and about the long period of time before you had any sense of whether you were going to meet the leader of the country, and about the—well, we could even leave the Jaspal Atwal thing aside because you’re hearing about it every day in the House of Commons. Does the India file need a do-over? 

A: I don’t know that we get do-overs, but we do get opportunities to try to either get our messages out again or try to do things differently. The Prime Minister is in public and talking to reporters more than—certainly more than his most recent predecessor did, and that means there are going to be days where we go to bed at night thinking, “You know, maybe tomorrow will be better.” And we learn lessons from that and work to improve for that.

Q: What is the Prime Minister like to work with? 

A: He is, as I said earlier, a champion. He encourages us all to also have as balanced lifestyles as we can and should have. He’s the one who came into Gerry [Butts] and my offices many months after we got into government and said, I expect paintings or pictures up on your walls when I come back—from wherever it was he was going to—because I feel like you’re going to leave me. He takes note of those things. But also he pushes us to push harder on things, to give more options, and to really think problems through in a way that I think you’d enjoy watching.

Q: You’ve got about a year and a half until Canadians vote. What are the big items on the agenda that you think you really have to focus on now in the home stretch of this mandate?

A: I actually think it’s not different than the stretch up until now. It’s really going to be ensuring that the economic agenda, that middle-class agenda that we ran on, that we are delivering on that for Canadians. Because, despite all of the other news, that is what Canadians continue to be understandably and rightly focused on—how to look after their families and how to have greater things for their kids than they had.