OTTAWA – After almost 19 years on Parliament Hill representing a riding encompassing seven municipal districts, three First Nations communities, four full provincial ridings and parts of three others, MP for Cape Breton-Canso Rodger Cuzner announced last Friday that he would not be reoffering in the upcoming fall election. Cuzner spoke to The Journal on Monday morning about his decision and years in office.
There are currently 338 members of Parliament, 17 of whom have as many or more years in the job as Cuzner. “Six of those 17 have identified that they won't be reoffering,” he said. “Anybody involved in elected politics, there comes a time where you have to decide whether or not you're able to continue to contribute,” and the idea of committing another possible three to four years in the job following the October election was not appealing.
Part of the job description that has always been a challenge is the size of the riding and the travel required to meet constituents, he said. “I have always tried to be a member of Parliament that tries my best to get around the riding but it is always a challenge...It's landing at the airport and knowing that you have to get into the car either that evening or the next morning and be on the road; that's the part that I don't know if I could put another four years in on. You have to be fair to the people in the riding. They've placed their trust in me over the past six elections and shown their confidence in me and I wouldn't want to betray that and be anything less than 100 per cent, had I decided to reoffer again, hence my decision.”
While Cuzner has always been a relatively high profile MP — people of all political stripes are fans of his Dr. Seuss inspired rhymes — he may be best known in recent years as the former opposition critic for Veterans Affairs during the Harper government when he fought the closure of Veterans Affairs' offices across Canada. It was therefore surprising that once a Liberal government was in power, the portfolio of Veterans Affairs was never handed to Cuzner, especially in light of the fact that the cabinet post has cycled through five ministers since Trudeau's election.
When asked about his thoughts on being overlooked for a cabinet post, Cuzner said, “I'd be less than honest to say that I wasn't disappointed. Anybody that is in federal politics or provincial politics for any length of time, you feel that after a certain point that you have the ability to contribute. So I was disappointed when the opportunity arose in January. But I understand completely and fully that it is the Prime Minister's prerogative and he chose a great member of Parliament in Bernadette Jordan; she's a workhorse and she'll do a lot of great things in the rural portfolio.
“And I continue to support the Prime Minister. I think the next election will be one where we'll have an opportunity to reflect with Canadians on all that we've accomplished...And as well, put in the window a platform that they can see themselves in, and see some benefit for themselves in.”
In a career that spans 19 years, it's difficult to chose one issue or event that stands out as the greatest achievement, he said. It would be easy to point to some brick and mortar projects as accomplishments but “they're just the result of having worked with community groups and other levels of government...It's like which one of your kids do you love the most.”
That being said, Cuzner said one of the highlights of his career was when he served as Parliamentary Secretary for Prime Minister Chrétien when Canada refused to be part of the Coalition of the Willing with U.S. President George Bush for the invasion of Iraq. “That was an important moment in my time here and in Canadian history...Stephen Harper was the Leader of the Opposition and he pounded every day, the Prime Minister, about supporting the Americans in the intervention. But Mr. Chrétien stood his ground. I think if you were to ask Canadians now, a vast majority would say we did the right thing.”
In addition to the geographical challenge of being an MP in such a large riding, Cuzner said that another issue that continues to perplex him is child poverty in Nova Scotia. “I am proud that our government went forward with the Canada Child Benefit and I know people in the catchment area for the Guysborough Journal, young families, can see the benefit on a month to month basis on what is coming into the household. It's had a positive impact on 9 out of 10 Canadian families...But yet when you look at the stats from across the country the number of children living in poverty in Nova Scotia has actually gone up a bit. In Alberta it has been reduced by 15 per cent. There have been gains in other provinces but ours are stubborn...I can't imagine where we'd be had we not made those changes.” Cuzner said he's asked the relevant departments to take a closer look at the numbers to understand and untangle the problem in this province.
Looking back over his time in office as an elected official, Cuzner said he has lived and worked by advice given him by the former warden of Inverness County A.J. MacDougal. “He said to Rodney MacDonald and I—Rodney was a Conservative cabinet minister in John Hamm's government — he said to both of us, 'You're different political stripes but the people in Inverness County will expect you to work together for their benefit.'...You have to be able to work across party lines and I think for the most part I have been able to do that.”
As to the future, Cuzner said he hasn't got it mapped out yet. “I really don't have any plans. I was taken by the fact that Warden Vernon Pitts (MODG) came down to the announcement (on Friday). It has been really enjoyable working with all the communities but certainly the CLC project is one that had a special meaning to it, the community put so much effort into it and it is such a beautiful facility, one that the entire community is proud of.”