Former N.B. politician honoured for work on democracy around the world

Elizabeth Weir's job after politics has brought her around the world, but now it's her hometown of Saint John that will honour Weir for her work increasing the effectiveness of democratic institutions abroad.

Weir will be the first recipient of the Spirit of Ella Hatheway Award, to celebrate a Saint John-area woman who has demonstrated leadership in working toward positive social change.

Weir stepped away from provincial politics at home after spending years in the political spotlight, and after winning four elections in the 1990s. Weir was leader of New Brunswick's New Democratic Party for 16 years, stepping down from leadership in 2005.

She said she made that decision so she could reclaim her private life and give space for other voices. 

"I firmly believe that it [was] time for other people to have, you know, public space to talk about their views for the future," Weir said in an interview with Information Morning Saint John on Thursday.

Training MPs in 28 countries

For the last several years, Weir has spent her time travelling around the world — to some 28 countries — training others in democratic governance and oversight with parliamentarians, political party activists and social leaders.

Weir has been working with the United Nations and with the National Democratic Institute, an international non-governmental organization based out of Washington that works in 55 countries globally. 

She has just returned from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she was leading strategic planning sessions for political parties in advance of the country's upcoming election in August

Weir said, when she first began work in other countries, she was wracked with guilt. 

"I thought, 'Here I am a parliamentarian from a small province in Canada and they're just emerging from 30 years of civil war. What can I offer them that's of value?'"

Weir said she quickly learned that the job of member of parliament is essentially the same, regardless of the country she travelled to. 

But when training politicians elsewhere in the world, she emphasizes that working in parliament is a job they'll pick up on over time. 

"If you want to be a member of parliament there's no university, there's no degree. This is a job that you have to learn by doing so."

Submitted by Elizabeth Weir

Politicians in other countries are often elected with little or no staff, no offices and no support in the community, Weir said. 

"They're working with very limited resources,"she said, adding that her experience as a New Brunswick politician has been valuable in helping her train others who also don't have the vast financial resources and support that a politician would get in the British House of Commons. 

Weir said she's had the chance to work with female MPs in other countries who face immense challenges and violence because they're women.

"I've worked with a member of parliament who was assassinated as she was gassing up her car," Weir said. "There's such a hunger for them to be able to do their work well."

Submitted by Elizabeth Weir

Political concerns at home

At home in New Brunswick, Weir said she has noticed a depth of partisanship in the relationship between MLAs, and she said committees are becoming less bipartisan.

"I'm somewhat concerned because I think we're losing some of that and that's really not to the benefit of having healthy public debate."

South of the border, Weir is concerned about the state of the U.S. democratic system. 

Submitted by Elizabeth Weir

"It's just shown to be absolutely hollow," she said.

"Many of my good American friends are heartbroken about what's going on in their country and they recognize it's going to take years for them to try and recover."

The award Weir is receiving is named for Ella Hatheway, who campaigned for women to have the right to vote in New Brunswick in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

The award presentation will take place at Lily Lake Pavilion in Saint John from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 20.