Saturday, June 11, 2005

June 11, 2005: Globe and Mail: Nina Grewal's degree in political silence

Nina Grewal's degree in political silence: With her husband firmly at centre stage in Ottawa, the MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells in Surrey, B.C., has a reputation as a quiet supplicant rather than an active participant in public life.

SURREY, B.C.; OTTAWA -- She learned everything she needed to know about politics from watching the parliamentary channel CPAC, her husband Gurmant Grewal says, but Nina Grewal's continued silence has a growing number of critics wondering if she was watching on mute.

She won her first election in a seat Mr. Grewal didn't want.

Both put their names forward in two adjacent ridings and he, as the senior politician in the household, decided which constituency he wanted, leaving her with his second choice.

When she gave a CBC radio interview after they both won for the Tories in the 2004 election, making history as the first husband-and-wife team elected at the same time, he whispered the answers to her.

As her husband stumbled from taped conversations to negotiated stress leave, Ms. Grewal, the Conservative MP for the Surrey riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells, has remained resolutely silent.

Both in Ottawa and in her own political backyard, she has a reputation as more a quiet supplicant than an active participant in public life.

In the hours of conversation Mr. Grewal had with the Liberals, she is referred to simply as his "wife" as the talk centres on a possible Senate seat for her -- part of a deal that would have seen the couple leave the Conservative party or sit out the budget vote.

Mr. Grewal boasts in the recordings that he will win easily in the next election while she may not.

His own personal story is "very brilliant," he says. Hers is virtually unknown.

There is growing uneasiness about her silence, her inexperience and the mounting damage that has been done to the Conservatives.

Manjit Dhillon, a Conservative organizer with the Fraser Valley's Indo-Canadian community and an executive in Conservative MP Randy White's Abbotsford riding, said her silence, combined with her husband's actions, has hurt the credibility of politicians in general and the politically active ethnic community in particular.

"It will take 10 years for the Indo-Canadian community to regain any trust, whether what happened on the tape is true or false and keeping quiet on her part doesn't help," he said. "We see that Stephen Harper is standing behind Gurmant Grewal, but his wife is not saying anything. Even Hillary stood behind Bill Clinton when things turned."

Ms. Grewal has no intention of talking now. She turned down interviews, and in a brief talk outside the family's home in upscale Panorama Ridge, Jay Grewal said his mother is supporting her husband. "She won't talk to you. No one in her office will talk about this now. We're just supporting each other through this," he said. "She wants to continue her work."

Her life before she got started in politics remains something of a mystery.

Born in Osaka, Japan, where her father had business interests, Ms. Grewal, 46, and her family moved to Liberia in West Africa when she was 41/2 years old. From there, she was sent to Shimla, India, to study in a convent, finishing her college degree in history and English literature before getting married in 1982.

"My father placed a matrimonial advertisement in The Tribune newspaper and Gurmant's parents responded," she said in a rare interview in November, 2004, for an Indian website.

After their marriage, the young couple moved to Liberia where their sons Japjot (Jay) and Livjot, now 19 and 21, were born.

Mr. Grewal, 47, once told a Vancouver reporter he was an adviser to Liberian dictator Sam Doe, although he has since denied it. He says he worked as a professor of agriculture, and started a number of ventures, including a cellphone company and pest control business. Ms. Grewal's website says only that she worked in the family business while in Liberia.

Civil war led the family to leave, and they made their way to Canada after stays in Britain and the United States. Despite the fact that, on tape, Mr. Grewal says he came here with little money, he was able to acquire a carpet business shortly after arriving.

Mr. Grewal first ran for political office as a B.C. Liberal in 1995, but was unsuccessful. He won federally two years later as a Reformer. Ms. Grewal would often attend functions and give speeches on his behalf when his schedule got too busy. "This was good political training," she told

While Ms. Grewal's first brush with political life had been as a stand-in, her husband's controversies often propelled him to the front lines. He once claimed he taped an offer of a deputy cabinet position from the B.C. Liberals, and later hired Rachel Marsden in his riding office, a right-wing pundit who had pleaded guilty to stalking a radio personality.

In 2004, Mr. and Ms. Grewal announced their intentions to run in two different ridings and signed up substantial number of new Conservative members within the Indo-Canadian community. In the riding Ms. Grewal subsequently ran in, she fended off a high-profile contender, Mary Polak, the former Surrey school board chair, who withdrew her bid for the nomination, arguing her opponent had an unfair advantage because of her husband's access to membership lists.

Community activist Manpreet Grewal, no relation to the family, said she has often asked people if they had heard of Ms. Grewal before she entered the race.

"Not one person that I know has ever remembered her doing anything in the community. It's a big mystery about where she came from, what she did," she said. "People here resent the fact that someone who was only known as the wife of a politician suddenly becomes a politician herself with nothing to show with any community involvement."

But Chris Mathisen, an organizer for the Conservatives in Surrey and White Rock, said he has sat with Ms. Grewal at policy conventions and in election preparation meetings.

"I've chatted with her and we've discussed issues. She has her opinions," he said. "She's also a nice lady."

The new riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells, created in a 2004 redistribution, is 20-per-cent Indo-Canadian, with a growing affluent population. It was considered a safe Tory seat when the election was called.

When questions arose during the campaign about her qualifications, her husband said she watched CPAC, the parliamentary TV channel "all the time for the last seven years. We don't watch movies at home. We only watch CPAC."

In their household, Ms. Grewal has said they "eat, breathe and talk all the time [about] politics."

She won her seat with 36 per cent of the vote, compared with 30 per cent for her Liberal opponent, former B.C. cabinet minister Gulzar Cheema.

Dr. Cheema had three campaign managers, including Ron Churchill, a former organizer with the Reform and then the Alliance party.

"It really hurt losing to someone like her. We tried everything we knew, the three of us, with all of our experiences, to convey the message voters should elect a person, not the party," Mr. Churchill said. "She was the invisible candidate. She wasn't even the peekaboo candidate. She was fully hidden. I didn't see the boo."

Mr. Churchill said that at an all-candidates meeting at Kwantlen College during campaign, Ms. Grewal's staff directly intervened with signs to help her answer questions.

The rumour around Parliament Hill, and in Surrey, is that Mr. Grewal controls everything in his wife's office from hiring or vetting staff, to checking her correspondences and dealing with constituent matters in Fleetwood-Port Kells.

B.C. communications consultant Colin Metcalfe, who worked on the Tory campaign in the last election, and knows Ms. Grewal professionally, says she is simply a "very private woman."

Mr. Metcalfe said Ms. Grewal is not "a shrinking violet," but does have trouble with English, which is not her first language.

Mr. Grewal has returned to the family's home in Surrey, one of four properties the couple own either together or separately in the Lower Mainland. Though Mr. Grewal returned home earlier this week accompanied by RCMP, Ms. Grewal was expected back only this weekend.

For now, the family lives in a 7,600-square-foot home in Panorama Ridge, with six-bedrooms, four bathrooms and a Canadian flag flying. Although no sign is up, real estate listings show the house is currently for sale and listed for $978,888.

Neighbours in their enclave say they do not know the couple well.

"These homes are half-acre lots. We have a long and heavy retaining wall between each other and the person who is your next door neighbour is actually a half a block away," said one neighbour, who said she rarely sees the family, and declined to be named.

In Ottawa, the couple rarely socialize with other caucus members. By most accounts, Ms. Grewal stays close to her husband during and after office hours, and has no close friends in caucus.

But she does appear to be well-liked and does not shy away from the microphone during closed-door caucus sessions.

Her seatmate in the House of Commons Alberta Tory Lee Richardson says Ms. Grewal is capable of joining in the rowdiness and has shown her agitation with some of the catcalls from the other side. Mr. Richardson dismisses the notion that Ms. Grewal's ethnic heritage has kept her in the shadows.

"Women in that community are pretty strong, just in a very subtle way. And obviously it works because people have a different impression than how it really is, I think. I think she stands up pretty well."

Carol Skelton, another fellow MP, said Ms. Grewal just quietly goes about doing her job and shines when she's in front of the cameras.

"That's the whole Ottawa mentality. You look at someone that's quiet, that's not in the media a lot and you say, 'Oh you know, they're under somebody's shadow,' and that's not true," she said. "As women parliamentarians, we go around doing our jobs and try to stay out of the media."

Ms. Grewal is interested in immigration and women's issues, with a focus on raising the age of consent.

But some Tory MPs are not exactly clear on what drives her.

"Honestly, there is nothing that jumps into my mind what Nina's passion is," says a Tory colleague who asked not to be named.

She is the vice-chair of the status of women committee. The chairwoman, Manitoba Liberal MP Anita Neville, says that some of the issues the committee is dealing with, such as gender-based analysis and pay equity, are quite "new" to Ms. Grewal.

"I'm sort of reluctant to talk about her," said Ms. Neville. "I don't really know her. She attends most meetings.. . . She's quiet but diligent."

One Tory MP notes that in the last election, the party had to send in MPs to replace her in several all-candidates debates because it felt she couldn't handle the issues.

Rob Terris, the head of the Tynehead Community Association and the Ratepayers Association in her riding, said yesterday that whenever he approached Ms. Grewal for assistance in projects such as building a pool in the riding or erecting a monument, she referred him to Mr. Grewal.

"On every issue I have raised with her, she told me to go to her husband instead," said Mr. Terris. "She has never responded with her own thoughts or her own ideas, just deflected it to him or she would ask me what she should do."

Jaspreet Dhanju, a dentist who lives in the riding, said she questions whether Ms. Grewal should be representing the community.

"She shouldn't be pushed down because of her husband. But as a regular person just listening and trying to understand what's going on, I wonder if she will ever stand up at all," Dr. Dhanju said.