VICTORIA — Carole James says she was still deciding whether to run in British Columbia’s provincial election earlier this year when a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease gave her the answer.
It was last March, just days before B.C. imposed strict health conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, when the finance minister and former NDP leader announced she was retiring from politics after almost three decades in public life to face her health challenges.
“No question, the Parkinson’s diagnosis made it clear,” James said in a recent interview.
Friends and her political opponents say James, 62, leaves a legacy of perseverance and achievement from her time in politics, as well as being known for a style of leadership that was calm and determined during the good and the bad times.
“I was always raised to give back, that you had an obligation, a responsibility in this world,” said James.
She said her proudest moment in government came in 2017 when the New Democrats waived tuition fees for children in care who decided to pursue post-secondary education.
“To know that you can make a difference for those people, to know that you could help break that cycle of poverty that is often so difficult to get out of, particularly for former kids in care, those pieces will always stay with me,” James said.
James, whose family moved to Victoria from North Battleford, Sask., when she was five years old, said she cherishes the ties she forged with people in politics and those she still meets on strolls in her James Bay neighbourhood.
“I was always very proud when I was leader or finance minister that people would yell across the street, ‘Hey Carole, great to see you,’ ” she said. “That’s to me a badge of honour because I hope I’ve made politics accessible to people.”
James served as NDP leader from November 2003 to December 2010, losing two provincial elections to the B.C. Liberals led by former premier Gordon Campbell.
James, who held the Victoria-Beacon Hill riding from 2005 to 2015, resigned as NDP leader in 2010 amid a caucus uprising by some members who opposed her leadership. James remained a member of the legislature.
She decided to quit as leader because the NDP would be better off fighting the Liberal government than its own members, said Maurine Karagianis, a retired NDP legislature member and a close friend of James.
“She put the future of the party ahead of her own self,” said Karagianis. “It was a very selfless act. I was just broken-hearted for my friend.”
Karagianis was the only New Democrat who accompanied James when she announced her resignation as leader, which James called a “win for the bullies.”
“She called me and said, ‘Would you come and be with me? I’m going to do this thing and I’d like you by my side.’ “
Karagianis said their friendship continues and despite COVID-19 the two women are in touch regularly for physically distanced walks.
“We talk about things friends talk about,” she said. “We laugh. We cry together sometimes. We talk about her health.”
Karagianis said James tells her there are many unknowns about Parkinson’s but she is determined to make the best of things as her life progresses.
“She’s already looking at all kinds of options for therapies and exercise and all the ways you can live as healthy a life as possible,” said Karagianis. “It’s an unknown and I think it worries her.”
B.C. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said he’s known James since the early 1990s when he was a student politician at the University of Victoria and James was a school trustee on the city’s school board.
Fleming, whose Victoria-Swan Lake riding shares a boundary with James’s former riding, said James has been a political role model.
“She just has an incredible touchstone that keeps her grounded and has helped her never forget what’s important to her and that is giving people a shot in life,” he said.
Fleming said he would characterize James as Canada’s most progressive finance minister, introducing measures to tackle B.C.’s distorted real estate market, eliminating medical services premiums and introducing poverty reduction and childcare initiatives.
“Carole is somebody with an incredible moral and ethical compass and combines that with very good political instincts that are grounded in fairness and also pragmatism,” said Fleming. “That’s a rare combination. She just knows how to get things done the right way.”
Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said she sensed James’s ability to make connections during talks between the Greens and the NDP following the 2017 election that eventually saw the New Democrats form a minority government.
“There were a few moments when we would look at each other across the table and be able to acknowledge — we would often be the only two women at the table — silently that we were as women in it together,” Furstenau said.
James said she has agreed to serve as an adviser to Premier John Horgan, meeting twice a week for about an hour to “talk things through.”
But James said she’s getting used to having spare time to meet with friends and she’s learning about ways to fight Parkinson’s, which includes taking up boxing lessons.
“I actually had my first boxing class on Zoom to be safe,” she said. “Boxing is an exercise that has actually been researched as good for Parkinson’s. It’s brain-eye co-ordination.”
”You will not see me fighting someone in the ring,” said James.