OTTAWA – For years Filomena Tassi, a chaplain before entering politics, made time to listen to older members of the community. Now, as the new federal minister for seniors, she will not only be hearing what they have to say but serving as their voice on the national stage.
The Hamilton MP said she decided to leave her six-year career as a corporate lawyer after having children, and upon completing a master’s degree in religious education she became a chaplain at a Catholic high school. She said all of her work experiences, while vastly different, have given her the opportunity to serve.
“Faith” is about helping your neighbour, it’s about “service,” she said in an interview.
The 56-year-old with a proud Italian heritage heads up a new ministry that has been revived in the final stretch of Justin Trudeau’s mandate after existing under the previous Conservative government.
But Tassi said she’s ready to quash any criticism that the portfolio is simply a pre-election initiative, arguing the Trudeau government has long been toiling away on seniors issues.
“We have worked hard and from the time of election, so I don’t think anyone can take that away from us, that’s a reality. Now moving forward, we want to build on that and that’s what I’m going to be doing.”
The grey wave that’s washing over Canada came into clearer focus in the most recent census figures, which showed for the first time there were more Canadians over 65 than 14 and under. Some 17 per cent of Canadians were seniors in 2016, a number that is expected to climb to 23 per cent by 2031.
The changing demographics mean increases in spending on elderly benefits that will outpace forecasted economic expansion. This year’s federal budget predicted an annual increase of 5.6 per cent in spending on seniors benefits, rising to $67 billion by 2022 from $53.6 billion this fiscal year.
Tassi rhymed off several Liberal government moves, such as rolling back Guaranteed Income Supplement and Old Age Security eligibility to 65 from 67, increasing GIS payments, and investing billions of dollars in homecare and the national housing strategy.
Tassi also pointed to the new horizons for seniors program— which helps older Canadians deal with isolation and elder abuse.
With so much underway, where are the gaps?
There is more work to do on ensuring seniors have financial security, affordable housing, homecare and accessible services, Tassi said.
“Those are all areas where I think collaboration is really, really important because some of these involve provincial overlap and we want to ensure we collaborate with all levels of government and organizations who are working with seniors to make sure we get it right.”
In short, Tassi hopes to be the “voice for seniors.”
“Their contributions to our communities economically as well as socially and spiritually in all aspects has been absolutely fantastic, and our seniors have worked hard all their lives,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we ensure that, as they age, that they feel secure and they feel that the gifts that they have are appreciated and we encourage them to share those gifts.”
Maureen Ellis, president of St. Joseph’s Villa Foundation, said Tassi often drops into the Hamilton long-term care facility and asks tough questions about seniors’ needs. Tassi’s interest grew when her own mother began receiving rehabilitation care at the facility.
“She was digging into seniors issues long before this (cabinet) appointment so I’m very, very excited by her appointment,” Ellis said, “I think if anybody can make a difference and make an impact and start to get the ball rolling it will be this lady.”
While Tassi flew under the radar before joining cabinet, her entry into politics did not come without criticism. During the 2015 election she drew some controversy for suggesting that she’s against abortion, but her opinion has changed.
“When I ran for this government I made it clear that I believe a woman has a right to decide what happens with her body. That’s my position,” she said.
And Tassi insists she didn’t change her mind because she wanted to run for Team Trudeau.
“We have experiences in life and we grow, and through those experiences we make decisions and take positions.”