Every MHA in the province stood in a rare show of non-partisan unity and applauded Yvonne Jones late Wednesday afternoon as she said goodbye after 17 years in the House of Assembly.
Jones hasn’t formally resigned her job as MHA, but after securing the Liberal nomination for the imminent federal byelection in Labrador, a seat made vacant by Peter Penashue’s recent resignation, it’s only a matter of time before she has to step down.
On Wednesday afternoon, Jones sat down with The Telegram to reminisce about her time in the legislature.
She said she’s come a long way since winning a seat in the 1996 general election as an independent.
“I grew up on the coast of Labrador. You know, I was as far removed from Confederation Building as anyone in this province could ever be. We never got to come here on school trips,” she said.
“It was a huge difference for me, walking into the legislature of the province having only been here maybe once or twice in my life.”
Starting out as an independent was hard, Jones said, and the added pressure of being a woman in the legislature made it more difficult.
“You’ve got to realize that I was the first woman in Labrador to actually be elected to the legislature of the province, so I felt a tremendous responsibility on my shoulders to ensure that I did well,” she said.
“I felt that I had to do well, because if I did not do well, other women would not have the opportunity.”
Jones said she definitely felt an “intimidation factor” coming from the men on the government side of the legislature.
“Were there times that I was made to feel inferior because I was a woman? Absolutely,” she said. “There was a level of intimidation — there’s absolutely no doubt — and some of it was intentional intimidation. You know, I’d just beaten them at their own game. I’d just taken one of their boys out, and that wasn’t being looked upon too kindly.”
Looking back, Jones said she felt privileged to participate in so many historic debates over 17 years in the legislature, from Voisey’s Bay to Muskrat Falls. She said she was proud of being part of the opposition team that pushed the government to call the Cameron Inquiry into breast cancer testing errors.
But Jones faced one of her hardest fights in 2010 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer while serving as opposition leader.
“It was a rough time — a very rough time,” she said. “There were many days when I felt like, you know, this is it. I’m done. I’m finished.”
In the spring of 2011, Jones astounded some political observers coming off surgery and chemotherapy by returning to the House of Assembly while she was still getting radiation therapy. Jones would go for radiation in the morning, and then head up to the legislature for question period in the afternoon.
A few years later, Jones laughs about the ordeal.
“I always wanted to have long, blonde hair, right? So I get this wig with the long, blonde hair, and it wouldn’t stay on my head. It kept slipping,” she said. “Here I had the wig just shifting all over my head, and rising up by the back of my collars, and I was saying, any day this is going to pop off on my desk during question period. But it didn’t stop me from doing what I had to do.”
Over her years in office, Jones said, she’s consistently been most focused on delivering for her constituents, and her district in Labrador.
She said a lot of that comes back to the fact that she was originally elected as an independent MHA, and was all on her own.
“The fact that I came in as an independent member really got me grounded with the people of my district — probably in a stronger way than most politicians would be,” she said. “They became my caucus and my cabinet; they were my support group.”
She said her proudest accomplishment as an MHA was providing roads in her community.
“I think thing I’m most proud of is ensuring that there was a highway network through my district. When I ran in ’96, I campaigned by snowmobile. It was in the month of February, and it was very cold,” she said. “In ’99 I was actually driving into some of the communities on the coast. By the following election in 2003, I was driving right throughout my district, and now today the focus is on paving those roads.”
It’s possible that Jones may return to the House of Assembly yet. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t call the Labrador byelection before April 15, Jones will be back at her desk in the House. If not, who knows?
Jones said she’s held nearly every position in the House — backbencher, government minister, house leader, opposition leader, independent MHA.
“When I look back, I’ve held every role except the Speaker and the premier,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s not too late; I could come back at some point in the future I suppose.”