November 29, 2023

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Claudette Bradshaw ‘sliding doors’ moments altered the course of my life

This is a First Person column by Jessica Forbes Ferguson, a volunteer, civil servant and mother in Moncton. She met Claudette Bradshaw at the age of 12, and says Bradshaw’s influence altered the course of her life. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Claudette Bradshaw died on March 26 at her home in New Brunswick, surrounded by her husband and two sons. The former MP and cabinet minister was well-known for her warmth, hugs, and social advocacy work.

Without question, my life would be incalculably different if it weren’t for Claudette.

In sixth grade, my dad and I delivered food boxes in late December for Moncton Headstart, which Claudette founded, and I distinctly remember the slap in the face of realizing that true poverty existed in my city.

It wasn’t where the “For the price of a cup of coffee a day” people lived, an ocean away, but right here, living next to the schools I went to every week to play basketball.

Suddenly, I understood it was possible that kids in my class did not have electricity on in their homes when they left our playground at night, that their Christmas trees were not flush with presents the way mine were.

Jessica Forbes Ferguson met Bradshaw at the age of 12 when she and her father delivered holiday food boxes for the charity Bradshaw founded. Forbes Ferguson says it had a profound impact, and she knew she wanted to do “what Claudette did.” (Submitted by Jessica Forbes Ferguson)

That realization was both jarring and physically painful, as it completely cut through every privilege I didn’t even know I’d had up to that point.

I told Claudette so many times — probably to her annoyance, as she once compared me to a hyperactive puppy and later to Anna from Frozen — that this moment set the course for what I set out to do every day in my adult life. It became my goal to give those children every skill I have and help balance systemic inequalities that can keep families in poverty for generations.

I would not be the teacher, civil servant, human I am if not for that moment.

Bradshaw opened Ottawa home to constituents

At 16, I spent a week with Claudette at her apartment in Ottawa, shadowing her as she worked as a member of Parliament. It was the beginning of a love affair with that city that will last the rest of my life.

I remember the feeling of standing in the National Gallery, next to a travelling Picasso exhibit, and thinking to myself, “This is a place where real, giant things happen. This is not pictures in a book, this is really real life.”

Claudette Bradshaw opened her apartment in Ottawa to her constituents and at the age of 16, Forbes Ferguson spent a week there shadowing her in Parliament. She says of Bradshaw “she was never lecturing, but always teaching,” and that she made everyone feel “so seen and so valued.” (Submitted by Jessica Forbes Ferguson)

The same feeling I had four years later, while a student at Ottawa U, standing in line at Centre Block to view Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s casket lying in state with my floor mates, and countless times since.

I left Claudette a letter at the end of that week that she often referred to in her speeches as having meant so much to her, encouraging her to keep going in politics even when it was hard, because I saw who she was and what she really wanted to accomplish.

‘Hugs and encouragement to everyone’

In Grade 12, I was in Ottawa for the Forum for Young Canadians. By then, Claudette had gone from being a no-name Liberal backbencher to a prominent federal cabinet minister, so her time was much harder to come by. 

We met for a photo op, as many MPs were doing. She turned to me in the two minutes we had together, and said:  “Jessica, you are special. I need you to know that. You are going to do so much. Never, never forget how special you are.” 

After visiting Ottawa as a teenager, Jessica Forbes Ferguson decided to attend University of Ottawa. She says Bradshaw’s open heart made her one-of-a-kind and she did “good at every level she could reach.” (Submitted by Jessica Forbes Ferguson)

I know now that’s how Claudette approached the world — hugs and encouragement for everyone, indiscriminately, but also for a teenager who was secretly in the grips of a very isolating depression. To feel seen and affirmed in that moment was a life preserver.

Claudette taught me to lead from a place of love, that it’s OK to get creative in building a better system, that good relationships are the most valuable commodity you can have when trying to make real change.– Jessica Forbes Ferguson

At 28, I was backpacking through Africa after a particularly difficult breakup and truly at a loss for what to do next.

Keep teaching in Alberta, spending all my disposable income and vacation time returning home to Riverview? Come home to Moncton at a time where teaching jobs were impossible to secure? 

My dad ran into Claudette at Vito’s Restaurant (of course) and asked if she’d be a reference if I did return home. She said she would not, which he found a little rude but didn’t question. After a characteristic pause, she said, “because I have a job I want her to do for me.”

She interviewed me by phone from Paris, and I started the next week on the At Home/Chez Soi federal research project on housing and homelessness, which spun the arrow of my life in a completely different direction.

Jessica Forbes Ferguson, with her husband Ian Ferguson and daughters Marlie and Livia, says Claudette Bradshaw guided her life in the best possible direction. (Submitted by Jessica Forbes Ferguson)

Without that chance encounter, I likely wouldn’t have come home, I wouldn’t have met my husband, I wouldn’t have my girls, I wouldn’t be in this job that I love so much, doing work Claudette set me on the path to do nearly 30 years ago.

These are all Sliding Doors moments that set me in this incredible version of my life, and Claudette is the catalyst in each.

It is not hyperbole to say I owe it all to her. I’m sure many others  say the same about their own paths.

Among so many other things, Claudette taught me to lead from a place of love, that it’s OK to get creative in building a better system, that good relationships are the most valuable commodity you can have when trying to make real change.

I will miss you tremendously Claudette, and this community thanks you for everything you taught us. 

14:50Remembering Claudette Bradshaw

​​​A New Brunswick woman says lessons she learned from Claudette Bradshaw have shaped her life.​ ​Jessica Forbes ​remember​s​ the former MP and advocate​. who passed away last weekend. 14:50