This week, with another federal election in the books, Jim Abbott won’t be making plans to head to Ottawa. Instead, he’ll be off to Edmonton to spend time with his grandchildren.
“For 17.5 years I had to ask my family to build their lives around mine so now I’m going to be in a position to fit into where they’re coming from,” said the long-time Member of Parliament for Kootenay-Columbia. “I’m really looking forward to that. It was mixed feelings. Walking away from a job, from a life that I absolutely loved was hard but on the other hand, the anticipation of getting into something where I have more personal time and more flexibility is really appealing.”
Abbott, 68, announced in February, 2010, he would not run in the next federal election. For the first time since 1993, a campaign took place without his name on the ballot.
Abbott was first elected MP of the Kootenay East riding in 1993 as a member of the Reform Party. He was re-elected five more times – in 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008 – always receiving at least 50 per cent of the vote and as much as 67.8 per cent in the 2000 election. He represented the Reform, Canadian Alliance and, finally, the Conservative Party over his 17.5 years in office.
Over the years he developed the reputation as friendly, “Big Jim,” though he was more than capable of taking part in political games and taking on government and, later, opposition MPs.
In January of 1994, he made his first speech to the House of Commons, speaking on the gross over-taxation industry was experiencing at the time. Abbott said that following his election win he made two activities his priority: to open lines of communication and accessibility to his constituents and grapple with the issues surrounding mining in his riding.
“When I was first elected to the House of Commons, the Canadian public was demanding a lot. The government was taking so much in taxation: it was really stifling,” said Abbott. Now, he continued, we have so much more economic activity, freedom and flexibility for industry to decide how they want to manage their money.
As an opposition MP for almost 13 years, he served as critic for a variety of portfolios, including energy, agriculture, environment, Canadian heritage, sport and more. He said as an opposition MP, he didn’t always have to take complete responsibility for what he said.
“For your own personal self-worth, you have to know what you’re saying isn’t so far over-the-top as to be untrue,” he said. “On the other side of the coin, you can also wink and choose to ignore the fact the only reason you know about Joe Volpe’s pizza bill is because of the new transparency rules.”
In 2006, the Conservative Party won the election with a minority parliament, bringing with it more responsibility and greater access to the halls of power. He credits this access with being able to secure significant funding for the Trans-Canada Highway through Kicking Horse Pass, as well as projects such as Grizzly Plaza improvements and the Clearview Heights sewer line in Revelstoke.
Highlights of his political career included visiting Afghanistan last May and seeing the work of Canadians there and the reconciliation with the Aboriginals in 2008. The lowlight, for him, was watching the 1995 Quebec Referendum that the no side won by only 50,000 votes.
When asked about Revelstoke, Abbott said his fondest memory was seeing thousands of people come out for the Olympic Torch relay in February last year.
“The feeling of the people of Revelstoke of being so proud to be Revelstokians,” he said. “We’re proud of it – to me that’s Revelstoke. Revelstoke is a bunch of characters who make up the character of the city.”
Abbott’s last day in the House of Commons was March 25, when the Conservative government fell in a non-confidence motion after being found in contempt of Parliament. He said he was misty-eyed that day, knowing it was his last as an MP.
“Being a member of parliament is not a job, being a member of parliament is a life. It’s a 24/7 life. I’m not complaining. I’m very satisfied and very pleased to have had the opportunity and I loved it being 24/7.”
He spent the election campaign mentoring his Conservative replacement David Wilks, providing him advice and avoiding the stress of being the candidate.
Now he’s looking forward to retirement and spending more time with his family and at his house on Wasa Lake. He has a few volunteer projects he’s working on, without the stress of being a politician.
“I love the people, the culture, the climate and the environment of the Kootenays. It really is God’s country as far as I’m concerned.”
With files from Nadine Sander-Green/Black Press