On September 11th, 2014, I interviewed Newfoundland and Labrador politician Gerry Rogers. See the transcript below:

Matt Barter: Hello, this is Matt Barter here with the MHA for St. John’s Centre Gerry Rogers.

Gerry Rogers: Hi, Matt.

MB: How are you doing?

GR: Great.

MB: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

GR: When I was young, I wanted to be either a psychiatrist or a judge or a priest. You know they’re all kind of interrelated, aren’t they?

MB: What did you do before your life in politics?

GR: I was a documentary filmmaker for 30 years. Before that, I did a degree in social work, and I worked in the area of mostly issues about violence against women. I worked at a women’s center, and I helped establish a transition house, the first shelter for battered women here in Newfoundland and Labrador but for 30 years before becoming a politician, I was a documentary filmmaker.

MB: How do you think documentary filmmaking helps you now in your political career?

GR: Well, I loved making documentary films, and most of my films were about human rights issues, women’s issues, issues of equality and fairness. I did a film on the Montreal Massacre. I did a film on my own breast cancer, but all the films I did, I never ever used narration. They were films where I listened to people, you know, gathered information, listened to people, and then tried to find a way of getting their voices heard because I felt that film was such a powerful medium. So, becoming a politician was almost a logical next step. I remember when I started going door to door, it’s not unlike making a documentary film because you go out there, you knock on doors, you never know what’s going to happen when that door opens, and I felt my role was to listen to people, to hear their stories, to really listen with the intent of hearing and then to gather those stories and then to try and clear a space so those stories could be heard. My role as a politician, as an opposition member, is to say, “Hang on a sec, what about these people? Hang on a sec; what about this that’s happening?” And that’s what my films were about. They were about saying, “Hang on, take a look at this; something has to change here. Something has to get better,” and that’s what I did as a documentary filmmaker. That’s what I do as a politician. So, it was like a real natural progression.

MB: So being a politician now is something that evolves over time and not something that you set out to be.

GR: I never ever in a thousand years dreamed that I would be elected, to be an elected representative of the people. I still find I’m not comfortable saying I’m a politician; that doesn’t kind of roll off my tongue very easily, and when people say, “What do you do?” and I say, “I work for the people.” It just so happens that getting this job, there was a really complicated and long job interview involved. The election was the job interview, and so basically, you know, this is for four years that my term is, and for four years, my responsibility is to work for the people.

MB: It’s all about the people.

GR: Yeah.

MB: Last election, you ran against a former cabinet minister and won. How did you do that?

GR: Well, you know, a lot of people thought, even my own party were not really happy with the district that I chose to run. There was a very strong and well liked cabinet minister, Shawn Skinner, he was the Minister of Natural Resources in a time when that whole area was so important in the province in terms of the province’s economy but it was a district that I felt very connected to, it was my neighborhood and it’s a district with a real varied population, it has the highest number of social housing units, there’s such a variety of people in that district but again my father grew up in that area and I just felt that’s where my heart was and I never felt that I was out to beat a cabinet minister, now wouldn’t that be great, I felt really what I was doing was that I was going out to meet the people of St. John’s Centre, knocked on the door, listen to them and if they felt that I could serve them that was great and I was also running for a particular party I was running for the New Democratic Party which I felt really was where my heart is where I am politically and philosophically so I had no idea if I would win, again a lot of people said “Why are you there? Why don’t you run in an easier district?” And we won.

MB: When did your interest in politics begin?

GR: My interest in politics? Well, I was a breach birth, you know, like I came out kind of different, I knew that there was more than one way of doing things. I think I’ve been an activist basically all my life. Even in school, I was an activist, and I think you know politics is really how about how we live our lives together, how we share our resources, how we plan our futures as a community and community’s always been very important to me so I think that I’ve always had that interest in looking at the collective and how we live and I came from a family where both mom and dad came from very very economically challenged families, they were very very working class. They were poor, actually, and my mother was sent into service when she was 14 years old and worked as a maid and never finished her schooling. My father, in 1949, when Canada joined Newfoundland, said he was 17 although he was 16, and he was the first group of Newfoundland men to actually join the Canadian Army, you know, as Canadians, as Newfoundlanders becoming Canadians. Although I was born in Newfoundland because my dad was in the Army, we moved around a lot, and so I always knew how important the community was.

MB: How did that help you, like moving around different places?

GR: I think living around in different places helped me see that there are different ways of doing things, that there are different possibilities and having that varied experience again at times being an outsider, you know, moving into a new community being an outsider again it makes you, it gives you the opportunity to see things differently and coming back home I am so happy I’m so happy to be a Newfoundlander and Labradorian, I am so happy to be living in Newfoundland and Labrador, but I’m also so happy to have had that opportunity to have those different experiences which I can bring to the table but also the byproduct of that is hopefully, it makes you a person that is more open to diversity to again seeing things differently and seeing different possibilities.

MB: When did you join the NDP party?

GR: When did I join the NDP? Oh God, I can remember the first time knocking on doors, and it was with Jack Harris when Nancy Riche was running, and man, that was over 30 years ago, and I have sort of floated in and out of the party. At different points in my life, I’ve been much more active. At other times in my life, I’ve pulled back not for any other reason except I was so absorbed, and then I would be working on a film or something, so you know my energies would be directed somewhere else, but again the NDP has been a home for me politically and philosophically, and I also think as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians where we have grown up taking care of each other, building each other’s houses, helping each other you know hunt a Moose or fish and that, in fact, the NDP in so many ways is a natural fit for us in terms of how we live our lives culturally.

MB: What’s the part you like most about being a politician?

GR: What’s the part I like most? The permission and the access it gives me to speak to people and to listen to people to meet people, you know, I’ve always been fascinated by people and their stories, and I love that, but also the possibility of working with people saying, “Hey we can do this differently. There’s something we can do about that.” I think it’s such a privilege to be able to do that and to be paid to do activism is such an honor and a privilege. I just feel so incredibly lucky.

MB: What’s the most challenging part about being a politician?

GR: The most challenging part is sometimes the House of Assembly, and sometimes I think that we suffer from a real democratic deficit here in the province. For instance, we don’t have all-party standing committees where they are everywhere else in the country. I know that we have different parties with different political, philosophical approaches on how we share and handle our resources, but still, we are all elected by the people, and I have found it so difficult, the lack of working together. At times, the hyper-partisanship, I just find that such a waste when we all have a right to be at the table to talk about and to find solutions of ways of making our province work for everybody. Makes no sense to me at times; the inability to do that.

MB: What would be your opinion of a coalition government then where everybody would like have to work together?

GR: Well, I think that’s what we should all be doing anyways, you know that we all should be kind of pulling for the ultimate same goal, and I think we need to look, we really need to look at democratic reform that we need to look at a different way of how we do our elections because so many people aren’t involved, and so somebody can be a majority government even though they haven’t got the majority of the popular vote so I would like to look at, I think we need to look at electoral reform and look at proportional representation, which is so important where people feel that their vote really does count, and we need to do that. Now it’s a hard one to amount because, you know, people think, “Oh yeah, well, that’s kind of boring,” but also, governments who are in power they’re not interested in proportional representation because the system as it is now works for them if they’re in a majority situation, but you know Canada and the U.S. are among the very few Western nations that don’t use a form of proportional representation so you know why is that?

MB: What are some of your hobbies outside of politics?

GR: I love having people over to my house. I love that. I love gathering people at the table. You know, one of the things I always wanted to be, I always wanted to be Governor General. Now I would love to be Lieutenant Governor because you gather people at the table and people from different backgrounds with diverse opinions, and they have to listen to each other, and I think you know that’s what I’d always hope that politics would be. So, I love entertaining at home. I absolutely love that. I have a house outside the city. I love doing that. I love hiking, berry picking, swimming, I love to swim, and I mean reading’s not a hobby. Reading is, I think, part of what you do in life.

MB: What are some of your favourite books?

GR: You know what, when I look back at books that really made an impact in my life, I can remember as a teenager, for about a period of a year, I read only Jewish writers. I read Isaac Bashevis Singer, and there was a book I read called My Name is Asher Lev which was about a young guy who’s a cynic Jew and his struggle to become an artist and how there was nothing within his family or religion that supported that decision and the struggle that he had to come to the point of being able to be who he truly was and wanted to be, what you know what was true to the core of who he was and that book affected me it gave me the courage to be able to step out and to be truly myself. As well, I love Lisa Moore’s books. I love Michael Crummey’s books. There’s been some fabulous women writers, feminist writers and poets. Oh, just they kind of give you a kick in the heart or a kick in the ass, you know, get your heart going, get our mind going or get you into gear, and it’s such a privilege to have access to again diverse voices that just open up the world, open your eyes but also kickstart your heart or your mind. And I love community activism, I don’t know if you call that a hobby or not, but that gives me energy, it gives me life, it gives me hope to be able to work with other people who dared to dream that they can make it better that’s like such a privilege.

MB: So, you said you wanted to become a priest. That’s very interesting. When did your interest in that begin, and how involved were you in church and whatnot?

GR: Oh, I grew up in a very Catholic household, and we used to play church, communion. It was quite funny, but I’ve always considered myself a deeply spiritual person, but I was very involved as a young kid. I used to go to mass, I’d go to early morning masses, and I’d walk a few hours, you know. I remember in grade 2 when Daddy was posted to Winnipeg; we lived in Winnipeg, and I would walk a few miles to mass at seven o’clock in the morning all by myself and would be dark, and it would be 40 below in the winter, and it would be the altar boys and the priests and the nuns and a few older women and me. I loved it. I loved the stillness. I loved the ritual. I think I was really influenced by the nuns around the 1970s who were doing social active action work, who were doing community activism, who were into liberation theology and that really formed my sense of social justice and how important that was. I feel really thankful for that. Although I’m not involved in the Catholic church at all now, but those formative years, I’m very grateful for those.

MB: In the future, do you see yourself getting involved in church, not necessarily Roman Catholic like any religion?

GR: Yeah, I don’t see myself getting involved in any kind of organized religion again. I still feel that I’m a spiritual person, and I respect people’s right to practice their faith, and I think that’s really important, a fundamental right, but at this point, it doesn’t fit for me, organized religion.

MB: Where do you see yourself in the future?

GR: Oh gee, I think I will always be an activist because that gives me hope, and it gives me energy, and it gives me life and my activism, you know, at different times of my life, it takes a different expression in a different shape and form. I still have a few films in me that I want to make. I think I’ve been really lucky. I made a number of films that have been quite celebrated internationally, won over 40 international awards, and they have travelled the world and travelled the world with my films at film festivals and that, and I’ve been really lucky to be able to do that so there’s still a few films in me.

MB: Where are some of the places that you’ve travelled to?

GR: Oh gosh, let me see, all over Europe, Central America, South America, Africa, Kenya, I was invited to Taiwan to Israel and to South Africa, but I ended up not going. This was after I did the film My Left Breast, and it was just I was still recovering from radiation and chemo and that, so those trips would have been too difficult to make at the time, so yeah, I’ve just been really lucky.

MB: So right now, as an MHA, how much do you get to travel now?

GR: Oh, my travelling, for the most part, is contained in St. John’s Center, which someone has told me is actually the most geographically compact district in the province. So I can actually walk my district. I don’t travel a whole lot; I have travelled around the province, and I love getting to different parts of the province and meeting folks all over.

MB: Some day, do you see yourself wanting to be in federal politics?

GR: Oh, you know I have no desire to go into federal politics. It’s funny because a number of films I made before moving on to being elected were films that were rooted right in my community, and I tell you, I have no desire to work on the federal level. I am much more interested in being really rooted in my community, and you know the House of Assembly is five minutes from where I live. I love that time. I love the compact nature of that. I love the immediacy of being able to be connected with my community, yeah, so federal politics is not something I’m interested in at all. I’m interested in what’s happening but not for myself as a politician.

MB: After your career in politics is over and you retire someday, what do you see yourself doing then?

GR: Who knows?

MB: How about law? You mentioned that.

GR: Oh yeah, no. I’m 58 right now, so I cannot see myself, you know, down the road going to law school, but law always been something that I’m quite interested in, but yeah, I don’t think so.

MB: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, Ms. Rogers.

GR: Thank you very much, Matt, thank you.

Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.


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