Julie Dzerowicz: “We’re going to be the model community for diversity in the world”

Julie Dzerowicz is the Member of Parliament representing the Davenport ride in Toronto. Since she was very young, has traveled the world of politics and has managed to reach the highest levels of government.

Vídeo: Julio César Rivas / Lattin Magazine

Prior to her election, Dzerowicz worked as the Director of Strategic Planning and Communication at the Bank of Montreal, as a senior political staffer to former provincial cabinet minister Gerry Phillips, and as the Vice-Chair of the Platform Committee for the Ontario Liberal Party. Behind her, there is a story with black and white photos, the departure of her father from Ukraine due to the war, and his romantic encounter with her mother in Mexico for the pleasure of speaking Spanish and getting to know the Latin American culture. In the living room of her house, sitting on a comfortable couch beside a picture of Frida Kahlo, that she has yet to hang one day, Julie tells us her story and the process to get where she is today.

Foto: Julio C. Rivas / Lattin Magazine

We know you have a Mexican mother and a Ukrainian father. This could be the representation of many immigrants that live and dream in Canada. Tell us about your upbringing.

Well, my father and his family came on a boat called “Beaver” after World War Two. They came to Canada and settled in Toronto. As my father got older, all of a sudden he started listening to Spanish language tapes in his room. And people kept on saying ‘what are you doing’. He says ‘I don’t know, I have this fascination with the Spanish language and I’ve become fascinated with Mexico.’

So my father decided he wanted to go and visit Mexico and it was during his visit, and it was over five to six weeks that he was visiting Mexico, that he met my mother in Mazatlan and he ended up proposing to her. They got married and she came back with him to Canada. And so there begins the story of how it is I came to be.

How was the life of a Mexican-Ukrainian couple living here, having 3 kids and trying to raise them?

You know, it’s funny,  I asked my mom a lot about that question. I said to her: ‘The early years must have been very difficult’ and she said to me, ‘well I didn’t understand when your grandparents spoke’. So, my mom didn’t understand the language but she didn’t think fast by it. Shortly after she came to Canada, she gave birth to my older sister, so she was preoccupied with that. She loved to be a mom. She loved Canada. She loved my dad and there are no stories of anything dark. It would all seem to her like an interesting adventure. She was in a whole new culture. She was in touch with her family by telephone. And so I think she was just occupied with becoming settled in her new family and in her new country.

What did you get from Mexico, what did you get from Ukraine?

My mother never let anything stop her. So when in the 70s she first started trying to find a job, everybody told her because her English wasn’t very good she would never find one. But my mother went out. She said ‘I will find a job’ and she went and found a job. Actually, she ended up working in a fish processing plant at Bathurst and Dupont. They hired her and she loved the job. Then she moved to become a sous chef at one of our famous hotels in the city. But every time someone told my mother that she couldn’t do something she would say ‘oh okay thanks for letting me know’ and then she would go out and just do it! That always stuck with me.

She never let anybody else tell her ‘no’. If it was something that she felt she wanted to do. So she gave me that hard work. She had a very hard work ethic. She wanted to make sure she had enough money to support her kids, that we can go on and be educated. And my father’s family, they’ve really put a big emphasis on education and just because there were some healthcare issues in their family, never not appreciating that we have health and that we live in a country that’s free. And I think that is what I got from my father.

Photo by Julio C. Rivas. XQuadra Media

How was the process on becoming an MP and being involved in politics?

When I was 10, there was a bit of a calling. I actually was watching TV and my father would force me to watch the news, which I found at first very boring. But then I became excited, I became interested in watching it. So there was something in me at that age when I was watching politics, I’d see a politician and I would say to myself ‘that is what I want to do’. The thing is we were a working-class family, and I didn’t have educated parents, so my mom wasn’t educated and neither was my father. I’m not sure if my father finished high school here. I remember thinking ‘but I don’t know how I’m going to get there’. So I remember thinking that but you know life finds its way and you don’t forget your dreams. I never forgot that that was something that struck me from a very young age and that stays with you.

There are a lot of immigrants like you, coming from working families; they also want to achieve success. What would be your advice for them?

It is a good question. Me? First, we’re all blessed to live in this country because it’s one of the few countries of the world, and I say this very genuinely, where it doesn’t matter what your background is, what is the colour of your skin, what is your race, or orientation, or religion. You really can achieve your potential if you work hard and you take advantage of the opportunities before you. You have to take ownership of your life. It is very difficult to start a new life in this country. I grew up with my parents, very difficult. My father’s family did not want to come to Canada. They had to come because they had lost everything in the war, everything. They were humiliated. They had lost all their money. They lost their self-respect they had lost everything. Family members. It was awful for them. So to come broke into this country, it was hard for them to get started.

“Canada will reward you if you work hard. There are lots of opportunities but you have to work hard”

And then my mother lost her support as well. She worked in a wonderful department store and when she was ready to find a job here and she found a job. But it’s hard in a language that’s not your own. It’s hard to make friends and build your own network. It’s hard to do that. And so from everybody, we were all immigrants to this country other than our Indigenous people. But I say to people ‘take advantage of the opportunity before you and you have to work hard. This country will reward you if you work hard and you take advantage.’ There are lots of opportunities whether it is school, whether it is people that you meet, whether it’s someone you know offers you an opportunity that you’re not quite sure whether you’d be interested in that field but you decide you want to try, but it helps you build a network. But you have to do that.

Did you have mentors in your process of becoming an MP?

I had mentors later on in my whole process. When I was in grade school I was a tomboy so I liked playing a lot of sports and my parents were Catholic, so I decided I was going to go to the Catholic high school two blocks away from my house. But when the principal of my grade school saw my application, he threw it in the garbage because he thought the school was not good enough for me. He said: ‘You are so smart you should be going to a much better school than what you have applied for.’ Someone like him actually interacted in my destiny. So someone was looking out for me. Was he a mentor? No. But was he looking out for me? Yes.

Because he made sure I went to St. Joel’s that was known as I think 85 percent of my graduating high school class ended up going on to university, which is a very high average even today. So that set me on a path. And it was an all girls’ school, which helped me to realize that I could do anything I wanted to because we did everything at school. We were captains of our baseball and soccer teams, we were the people that ran the environment club. We ran everything. We were the top of the top runners in our school, the top basketball players, like, we did everything at school. So being at an all-girls school actually helped me as a woman to believe that I could do anything.

How did you start in politics?

I started running for office actually when I was in high school. So I started running for the girls Athletic Association that is our sports club and the student council and then, there was an Ontario Catholic Student Council.  I ran to be the Toronto representative for that. I always had it in me that I wanted to take on leadership roles on things I was interested in. I just started doing the things that I loved doing. And then it became natural and so as soon as the teachers and principals saw that I was engaged then they asked me to do some more things. And so I developed my leadership skills.

Do you feel as a representative of this community?

Of course, I’m a very proud Hispanic Canadian. I say that all the time in the House of Commons. And I am the one that started a Hispanic Day on the Hill. Why? Because I felt that no one was appreciating the contributions of the Hispanic and Latin American community at the national level. And so I invited Pablo Rodriguez, who was our chief government whip,  to join me to do that. I wanted to make sure that there were members of parliament as well as cabinet ministers who had a chance to meet with leaders of the Hispanic community and to show that there were already leaders who are inspiring not only the Hispanic community but we are inspiring all Canadians.

But of course, I feel very proud. And here’s what I would say, look, you know I meet with the Hispanic community all the time. And I find that there are literally hundreds of inspiring stories every day and I know you come across them.

“It takes time to actually establish, create a base and then a foundation from which to sort of inspire future generations to be able to run companies and to become sort of leaders in all the different fields”

What do we need to have a stronger and more influential representation in Ottawa?

Well, you know what, first of all I think that you have to understand that everybody has a cycle of how long it takes a particular culture to engage in a larger society. So I’ll give you an example. The Ukrainians actually started coming in the early 1900s. They actually started out settling in the west part of Canada.

The Latin Americans came later. My mom was one of the very early people, she wasn’t the only ones. Most Latin Americans and Hispanics didn’t come until the 70s and 80s. It takes time to actually establish, create a base and then a foundation from which to sort of inspire future generations to be able to run companies and to become sort of leaders in all the different fields.

How could we empower young people, and especially women, to be more influential in society and politics?

Well, I think that as a national government right now, as you know we have a prime minister who’s a very proud feminist, he makes it a point of making sure that women are seen as leaders in our country, so he’s made 50 percent of his cabinet as women.

The other thing we’re doing he is also providing instruction, we have something called “deployments”. So on the national level, there are people who run our Royal Canadian Mint and there are people running our National Capital Commission. These people run our national federal bodies. And they’ve been also tasked with trying to be as diverse as possible. So people like me, I’m constantly looking for Hispanic leaders who want to step up and apply for some of these positions at the national level because through that they gain experience, they gain wisdom, and then they can not only mentor younger women, younger Hispanics, but I’d also say to you that they can sponsor them because a lot of what’s needed is more than just mentorship, you need to sponsor, you to need to bring people along with you and be able to put your name beside them.

How parents could inspire the new generations in a positive way?

My mother, I think she’s still in shock that I’m a politician. And when I say that it’s a positive shock I think because there is no one in our family that’s actually a politician.

But I think the best thing we can do for our kids is to do everything we can to help them to do what it is that they want to do with their lives. Whether it is that they want to be a professional chef. Whether they want to be a senior executive. Or whether they want to be a politician or an artist. The best things we can do, as a community, as a society, as parents, is actually helping our kids to achieve their potential. That literally is the best thing we can do.

Photo by Julio C. Rivas. XQuadra Media

The Liberal government in the federal spheres strives to achieve gender equality. In what way could do the same in the Parliament?

It took me 25 years to get to the position I’m in. I built up networks, you know. I engaged in the policy-making process at the political level. I helped on a number of campaigns. I built up my leadership skills. There is a lot that goes into building up your leadership skills and then your life has to meet up with the moment that you’re ready to enter politics. Because I’ll tell you, politics is hard. It’s hard whether you’re a man or a woman, and there’s a lot of stuff that they don’t tell you. It’s very expensive. You want to make sure that you actually have means of actually being able to afford your life while you’re running for politics. It took me three years to run for politics and much of that time I couldn’t work because a lot of my time had to be actually focused on this campaign. But people don’t tell that to women. For men, it’s a lot more… I can explain it to you but it’s like inside baseball. They kind of already know this and there’s already a ready support. But for women, we have to say it to ourselves and then we have to actually ask for money and ask for support.

And this is not an easy process to actually do. And it’s hard because I said one of the things that I learned from my mother is even when people told her no she still persevered. The moment I said I want to run for politics, I can’t tell you how many people called me to tell me that I shouldn’t run, that I would lose, that I would embarrass my family, that I would lose a lot of money. It would be a financial disaster for me. That’s really hard because already you’re taking a big financial risk on yourself. You’re already taking a lot of time off work and then you have not a few people but lots of people coming to you and trying to tell you that you will never ever succeed. And you have to be able to stand that. It’s a big psychological pressure so you build up your family, your team, your network, the people who believe in you and that’s a hard thing to do. And again, nobody talks about that.

What happens if you lose? Are you going to keep running?

First of all, I’ll knock on wood. I am running for re-election next year. I’d like to have at least two more terms. I’m in this because I really want to serve and I think I do a very good job of serving the community. And so four years is too short to be able to make a significant impact. I hope to get the confidence of people once again at least once if not twice. Well, you know I come from the business world. I came from a working-class family, I really did not want to be poor my whole life, so I wanted to make sure that I had business skills. And I will tell you even for me now I’m thinking about taking a coding course, I’m improving my languages, not only Spanish but also French and Portuguese. But I’m constantly trying to improve because in the world we’re moving into you constantly have to upgrade your skills. It doesn’t matter what your age is, the only way you will ever be able to access the best jobs is to constantly improve your skills.

“It took me 25 years to get to the position I’m in. I built up networks. I engaged in the policy-making process at the political level. I helped on a number of campaigns. I built up my leadership skills”

You’re working in environmental issues…

Yes. When we were elected in October 2015, our prime minister went to Paris and he signed the Paris Accord. This is basically 180 countries around the world that got together and they said we’re going to try to keep climate change from increasing more than 1.5-2 degrees. And the reason for that is that we are changing the climate so much that is going to be a mass detriment for our biodiversity, for humanity. We have to keep our targets low. A lot of the work that I did before I entered politics was on a volunteer level because I was passionate about moving Canada towards a low carbon economy which is what we’re trying to do now. And it’s exactly what we did. We’re trying to get Canadians to live differently.

Do you think that the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline by the federal government is a good idea? 

So that’s an excellent question. First, as I mentioned, we are moving to a low carbon economy. That means we want to get off of fossil fuels like oil probably within about 30 years. We just know it’s not going to happen overnight. You can’t flip a switch. All of us drive cars, we need oil and gas for our energy usage, for our smartphones, for the TV, for everything. So largely our society really still needs that. But we’re moving to a low carbon economy. The federal government has put a lot of money into clean energy, into clean tech, into us transitioning into that. But while we’re transitioning from whatever oil we produce, we want to get the best market value. So right now, the oil that Alberta is producing is being sent down mostly to the United States. Because we’re only sending it down to them, what they’re doing is they’re giving us less money than what the global market price is. So we get 15 billion dollars less sending it to the United States than if we actually built a pipe and sent it to other markets like Asian markets.

“In downtown Toronto I can say I don’t like that we’re building another pipeline. But in the national interest, we’re trying to balance the interests of our overall economy making sure that we achieve our Paris accord targets”

In downtown Toronto I can say I don’t like that we’re building another pipeline. But in the national interest, we’re trying to balance the interests of our overall economy in Canada, making sure that we achieve our Paris Accord targets. In the national interest I’m okay to support the purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline as long as it meets all the criteria. That means Indigenous people continue to be engaged, involved. 43 Indigenous bands actually have approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline just you know. The premier of British Columbia he’s not saying that carbon emissions will go up. That’s not what he’s saying. What he’s worried about is an oil spill off the coast of British Columbia.

The federal government has implemented the most advanced and sophisticated and well resourced [strategy], over a billion dollars have been put into a fund, for any remote oil spill that might actually happen. And so we’re doing everything we can. So best-in-class pipeline so that there’s no breaks or leaks. We’ve put a best in class oil spill strategy just in case there might be a spill but we’re hoping that there never will be one.

I understand why activists are against that because everybody wants us to just shut down and not produce any more fossil fuels. The reality is that does everybody want to stop driving their cars? Not using smartphones? Not use their TVs? Not heat their homes? And right now most people are saying no I really still want to do that. Until we start transitioning into a completely different way of living, we still have to produce some of our resources. So we’re not producing any more. That 15 billion extra that we’re losing going to the U.S., we’re not producing any more oil. All we’re doing is we’re redirecting it from the U.S. and over to Asian markets. That’s all we are doing.

How do you imagine Canada in 10 years?

I want to believe that we’re going to be the model community for diversity in the world. It’s not easy to be a country where we have so much diversity. But I think that we can be a model in the world where so many different cultures, and religions, and races can live together in relative peace and harmony and craft a future together. So to me, that is what I see. And because of environmentalists I want to believe that we’ve achieved that low carbon economy that I dream of, about where we’re not really driving cars.  But we have public transit that’s easy for us to get around and bikes that are safe for us to sort of go on routes. So that’s what I imagine for our country.

Martha Pinzón

Martha Pinzón is a Social Communicator and Journalist of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana de Colombia. She has worked in television for many years in research programs. She has been a presenter and reporter in several news media and currently lives in Canada producing and presenting Now What at OMNI TV network and another Radio program.