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."