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PEOPLE
Meet Senator Paula Simons
February 25, 2020

Before she joined the Red Chamber, Senator Paula Simons put politicians in the hot seat as a long-time newspaper columnist and investigative journalist with the Edmonton Journal. Over the course of her 30-year journalism career, she won two National Newspaper Awards in recognition of her investigations into Alberta’s child welfare system. She also won awards from the UNESCO Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom and Journalists for Human Rights for her investigative work on Indigenous child welfare and government cover-ups of the deaths of children in foster care.  

Senator Simons was appointed to the Senate on October 3, 2018. 

Senator Paula Simons reads a book to Grade 3 and 4 students at Archbishop Joseph MacNeil Catholic School in Edmonton on February 12, 2020.

Who inspired you to get involved in public life?

The person who most inspired my interest in politics was my father. I have very fond memories of being allowed to sneak out of bed and sit snuggled next to him as he watched the Watergate hearings in 1973. From a very early age politics was a subject in our home. And it was really a great joy for me to be able to tell him the day that the announcement came out that I was a senator.

Who inspired me to make the leap to apply to the Senate? My sisters-in-law. They said it would be wonderful if I could stand up for children’s rights and LGBTQ2 rights and for social issues. Then I had a conversation with my brother, who is more conservative in his political views. He, too, said that was a great idea. If my conservative brother and my very progressive sisters-in-law both thought I should do this, I thought I should, too.

Having spent a 30-year career in journalism covering politicians, I was very hesitant. I always used to say to people that I go to the zoo to look at the tigers — I don’t get in the cage with the tigers! How I somehow ended up in the tiger pit I am not entirely certain.

What do you think are the biggest public policy issues facing Canada today?

One that concerns me the most has been our colonial legacy and the process of reconciliation — what it really means to have a society that truly includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples that gives dignity to Indigenous Canadians and builds on the recognition that we are treaty people. I represent not just Alberta and Edmonton, but also Treaty 6.

The other public policy issue is not just the issue of climate change, but the socio-economic crisis that will be engendered by moving away from a carbon-based economy. I frankly don’t believe any political party has talked very honestly about the costs and consequences of what that looks like. It is not just a question of adding a couple of pennies to the price of a tank of gas. I come from Alberta, whose economy depends in huge measure on a carbon-based model.

I think we need to have a very frank and honest conversation about what it is going to mean to have an economy and a country that is not reliant on fossil fuels. The degree of economic and social dislocation that we are facing is huge.

What is something that most Canadians might not know about you?  

I’ve been a theatre geek my whole life. I got my start in journalism as a theatre critic and a couple of years ago I was commissioned by Concrete Theatre — which is this great theatre company in Edmonton that specializes in theatre for young audiences — to write a play. It was a musical called Onions and Garlic, based on a Jewish folk tale, with music by the great Edmonton music and theatre maven, Dave Clarke. He wrote the original music and my daughter and I collaborated on the lyrics and book. The play was remounted at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 2017, for a sold-out run.

Senator Paula Simons received many awards during her 30-year journalism career. Before becoming a senator, she worked as a columnist at the Edmonton Journal.

What legislative or committee work are you most proud of?

I thought last year some of the most important work I did was on Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act, which was very flawed when it came to us from the House of Commons. It was certainly legislation that made many people in Alberta very angry. I was the senator who moved in committee that we hold hearings on the bill outside of Ottawa. I fought for it in the Senate Chamber. So we held hearings in Vancouver, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, St. John’s, Halifax and Québec City. It was really important because we not only heard from witnesses and subject matter experts who would have never been able to come to Ottawa; we also showed people the work of the Senate in action. So many Canadians are so cynical about the work of the Senate; people saw us taking this matter seriously and listening to them with attention.

In the end, the government accepted 99 amendments to the bill — that’s a lot. It speaks to some of the flaws that the bill had, and it also speaks to the way we worked together to make the bill significantly better. I think we significantly improved an important bill with serious shortcomings through our collective work as senators. It’s the proudest thing I’ve been involved with to date.

 

What is a hidden gem in your region that more Canadians need to know about?

The real hidden gem is the park system of the North Saskatchewan River Valley because it is the largest urban park in North America. It has been largely unspoiled by development and it is stunning. There are hiking trails, biking trails, you can swim in the river, you can take your dog there, there’s canoeing — it’s absolutely glorious. It’s got cliffs and hoodoos. You can slip away from downtown and be right there in a minute because it cuts right through the centre of the city.

Edmonton has amazing festivals, an amazing arts scene and one of the best restaurant scenes in Canada right now, yet people do not go there on holiday. They’re making a mistake. People are always going to come to Alberta to see Jasper and Banff but there are other places to see, too.

Can you name a guilty pleasure album that always makes you smile and why?

I wouldn’t call them guilty pleasures but k.d. lang’s album Angel with a Lariat takes me back to my university days when k.d. lang was a breakout star in Edmonton, before she came internationally famous. That album is full of old-fashioned country and western bangers and it’s a great joy to listen to.

And I would say Spirit of the West’s Save this House album, which was big in the ’80s. Those are two albums I love to put on to dance around the house.

What is the last book you read or movie you saw which you recommended to someone else and why?

The book I’m telling people they have to read these days is Katherena Vermette’s The Break. She is a Métis writer from Winnipeg and she wrote a great novel. It’s a crime procedural but it’s not really. It’s about Métis identity and crime in Winnipeg, as well as social justice and representation and the importance of family. It’s a really gripping, beautifully written book. 

Senator Paula Simons attends Lunar New Year celebrations in Edmonton with the city’s mayor, Don Iveson, and others on January 26, 2020.

What sports team do you support?

You cannot be an Edmontonian without being caught up in the drama of the Edmonton Oilers. The team became synonymous with the identity of the city. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri — those are the years that defined Edmonton in the 1980s. So for me as a high school and then university student, coming of age at that time, you were so proud of your city and what it was becoming and Gretzky was the ambassador. I’m not going to pretend to be the most rabid hockey fan in the world, but the legend of the Edmonton Oilers is part of the legend of Edmonton. Now you have Connor McDavid, who for many people is the second coming, the return of the king. He is the hero who’s going to pull the sword from the stone and bring back the grail. Edmonton is a very excited hockey town right now.

Why are you proud to be Canadian?

Because there is a lot of talk of separatism in Alberta right now, it’s really important for me to say I’m proud to be a Canadian. I’m proud of the values of this country — the values of multiculturalism, tolerance and freedom. It was that freedom and acceptance that brought my family to Canada in the first place and those are the values that I think Canada has to offer the world at a time of rising ethnonationalism around the globe.

The coat of arms of Canada says, in Latin, “They desire a better country.” I think that’s so profound because I think that’s what makes you Canadian — that sense that you live in a great country and that you desire to build a better country. It is that aspiration that makes me most proud to be Canadian, that constant striving to make this a better, fairer, more just, more inclusive and freer place.