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Public life hasn't always been easy for James

There was a time when Carole James questioned whether a public life was for her. In fact, there were lots of times during her nine-year stint on the Victoria School Board (seven as chair) when she'd drive home after a particularly rancorous meeting wondering whether the gratification she derived from serving her community was worth the abuse that often came with it.

"We had to make some tough, tough decisions during that time," the 47-year-old NDP Leader says now.

"And there were occasions when it got pretty ugly."

Like the time the board came up with a plan to slash nearly $13-million in programs and services from its $127-million budget. The year was 1994 and there wasn't an aspect of school life in B.C.'s provincial capital that wasn't going to be affected by the measures, from music programs to janitorial services. Ms. James called a series of public meetings to give parents a chance to voice their concerns.

Some janitors came too.

"We had one guy come to the front of the meeting with a bucket filled with stuff he'd picked up in the playground that morning," Ms. James recalled. "And he just poured the stuff out on our desks . . . there were syringes, used condoms, other bits of trash. That was his job, he picked up stuff like that each day. His point was the cutbacks would affect kids in ways maybe we hadn't considered."

Ms. James was booed and screamed at many nights. Often there were angry, threatening messages waiting for her on her answering machine when she got home.

It got so bad that she instructed her children not to listen to the recordings.

And then one day a letter arrived.

"It was in Chinese," Ms. James said. "So I had someone translate it. It turned out it was a death threat. I had to notify the police.

"It shows you the kind of emotion people were feeling around the issues at the time. They were not easy decisions but sometimes, actually often, public service means having to carry out decisions that aren't popular. I mean, there were a few nights, especially during the early years on the board, I'd be driving home and you couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed by it all."

And Ms. James would sometimes end up in tears. But it was in the solitude of her car she often summoned strength from two remarkable women in her life, who continue to influence her decisions today.

There is a reason people say Ms. James is both tough and compassionate. It's in her blood.

Edith and Richard Jones emigrated from England to Canada in the 1950s in search of the wondrous opportunities the country was said to offer. They settled in North Battleford, Sask., where Ms. Jones would become fond of saying, "We were poor in Manchester but at least our toilet was inside the house."

Ms. Jones quickly found work as a nurse. One night while walking home from work she got caught in a Prairie snowstorm. She got frostbite so bad in one leg it had to be amputated.

After being fitted with a wooden replacement, she was back at work, as resilient and pleasant as ever.

The couple's daughter, Mavis, graduated from high school at 15 and was pregnant a year later. Not wanting her parents to know, she feigned homesickness and returned to England to live with an uncle until her baby was born, a daughter she named Carole. Mavis would return to North Battleford soon after, have another girl at 17 and marry the children's father. But when he took off soon after they said their vows, she enrolled in a teachers college in Saskatoon and left her parents to look after her children.

"My mother would hitchhike back and forth on weekends," Ms. James said. "That was quite a trek [130 kilometres] and she'd do it regardless of the weather. . . . There was no money so she did what she had to do."

Ms. Jones finally had enough of Prairie winters and convinced Mr. Jones it was time to head to a warmer climate. Victoria fit the bill perfectly. They settled into a big nine-bedroom house in a neighbourhood behind the legislature. They began taking in foster children -- lots of them.

In the time Ms. James lived with her grandparents she estimates there were about 40 foster children that took up residence in the house on Lewis Street. The Joneses often ended up with the hard-to-house kids -- usually groups of children apprehended from one home that had to be split up. Many had special needs and some had fetal alcohol syndrome.

Growing up in such an extended family taught Ms. James many things, she recognizes now.

"I guess one of the things my grandparents and in particular my grandmother instilled in all of us was that everyone had something to contribute to this world even if you didn't look the same as everyone else," Ms. James said.

"I don't ever remember having a conversation around our dinner table about having a responsibility to contribute to your community. It was just done in my world. Family was never just immediate family, it was whoever was in the house at the time.

"I remember going to school with some of the foster kids who would be teased mercilessly by some of the other kids. Sometimes we'd get chased home by kids. But I also remember going to the school principal to complain and I remember standing up to some of these kids when they did come after us."

If Ms. Jones helped provide her first granddaughter with some of the backbone she would need later in life, it's no surprise she gave that same granddaughter's mother, Mavis, much of her character and sense of purpose as well.

"My mother," Ms. James said, "was more of a radical than my grandmother. She was always fighting for causes. She was involved in the peace movement. . . . There's no doubt that mother's involvement in politics had a big impact on me, even early on in my life."

As a Grade 7 student at South Park Elementary, Ms. James led a student protest when the school insisted girls wear skirts even in cold weather. When she led the student body out on strike, the administration backed down, giving the student her first taste of political victory.

After high school, Ms. James and her boyfriend, Chris James, moved to Red Deer, Alta., where she landed a job helping children with disabilities. Eventually, they married and bought her grandparents' home on Lewis Street, taking over the group home.

She also had children of her own, a daughter, Alison, born in 1979, and a son, Evan, born two years later.

One of the foster children Ms. James took over responsibility for was a boy named Tim, who arrived years earlier when she lived in the house with her grandparents. When he turned 19, he decided to move out despite Ms. James's urgings to stay.

"Because of his fetal alcohol problems he was taken advantage of when he left the house," she said. "He ended up on the streets and they had to fish him out of the Inner Harbor a couple of times. He was stabbed in a park. Yet we continued to stay in touch. We were the ones the police would call any time Tim got into trouble. "He's now living in a hard-to-house home for street people. His disability cheque goes to pay the rent. I take him a bag of food every month because I won't give him money because I know he'll spend it on booze.

"I'm just not able to turn my back on people like Tim. . . . It's just the way my mother and grandmother raised me,"

No one was surprised when Ms. James became the president of her children's pre-school and later, president of the parents association at their elementary school and eventually a Victoria school board trustee, board chairman and ultimately president of the B.C. School Trustees' Association.

Her time on the school board was not an easy one. The board spent more time hacking and whacking budgets than building new gymnasiums. Ms. James, however, became known as a consensus builder, a style that sometimes frustrated board colleagues who wanted less consultation and more decisions.

When the 2001 provincial election rolled around she was invited by the NDP, the Liberals and the Progressive Democratic Alliance to run.

She chose the NDP.

Ms. James would narrowly lose that year in a Liberal landslide. In fact, it was later shown that the Green Party cost her the seat. The next couple of years would be tumultuous ones as she went through a divorce, buried her grandparents, quit her job in the civil service and moved to Prince George to become director of child and family services for the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.

While there, Ms. James started a relationship with Albert Gerow, a local politician and a member of the Burns Lake band. They married a couple of years later.

When Joy MacPhail announced her resignation as leader of the NDP, Ms. James was initially intrigued by the opening but decided against it.

However, after dozens of encouraging phone calls, she decided to seek the position. In November of 2003, she won the leadership on the second ballot, prompting the New Democrats and Liberals to ask: Carole Who?

Ms. James has spent the last year travelling the province, introducing herself and what she says is her new brand of politics. While her media profile was virtually nil, it didn't prevent the NDP from climbing in the polls to a position that put the party neck and neck with the Liberals. Just recently, the Liberals have opened up a lead heading into the election.

Ms. James understands the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead. She understands she will be answering questions aimed at the sins of past NDP leaders for a long time. But she also believes she offers a clear alternative to the Liberals' Gordon Campbell. She believes you can show compassion for people and still balance the budget.

Time will tell how many people are willing to buy that.

But whenever she's feeling alone or vulnerable she'll close her eyes and think of two women she knows are rooting her on. And that, she's betting, will make her feel just fine.

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