Who is Sophie, anyway?

An Interview with Sophie Kiwala

Sophie Kiwala has been our MPP for nearly four years. During that time, she has frequently been in the news, many of us have seen her at events, and others have had the opportunity to speak with her. In fact, people who are asked about Sophie commonly reply, “she’s everywhere.” But who is Sophie really and why does she do all that she does?

Q) You were born and raised in Kingston, lived abroad for a few years and then lived and worked in Toronto for 17 years. What brought you back to Kingston?

A) In 1998, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I was the sole supporter of my three and 18 month old girls. I knew if I sold my Toronto home it would be very difficult to get back into that market again. But there are very few times in life when you have the opportunity to truly ‘give back’ – and this was one those. We had the best and most beautiful year to say goodbye. She passed as well as could be expected, at home, which is where she wanted to be.

Q) What made you decide that you wanted to be our MPP?

A) I loved the work that I did for (Federal MPs) Peter Milliken and Ted Hsu, listening to and helping people in the riding every day for those seven years. I was profoundly affected by the stories of people’s lives, the circumstances they found themselves in, and I wanted to do more for them. I was equally impressed by how collaborative our community was and by the great service providers who always give so much of themselves in committed and creative ways.

I wanted to do more. Build more bridges (real and metaphorical); bring more services to our people; improvements to our hospital and health care; and improvements to the welfare of our children and youth. I wanted to build a more compassionate community by looking after the most vulnerable, those with mental health challenges including those addicted to drugs and alcohol.

I wanted to build frameworks for seniors – to help them to live fulfilling and happy lives. I also wanted to shout from the rooftops all about the state-of-the-art research and innovation that is being done here – to ensure that Kingstonians, and Ontarians, were aware of the jewels at work every day in our community. There is so much more work to be done and I wanted to be part of it.

Q) It sounds like an all-consuming job. What are its major facets and which do you enjoy the most?

A) I get a thrill from victories, big and small. Being the first level of government to move on our portion of the bridge funding was amazing. Getting approval for $500M for KGH is the most substantial achievement so far, not just because of the size of the investment but because of how badly it’s needed.

The smaller victories matter too. Last week a senior hugged me when I canvassed on her door and said thank you for OSAP on behalf of her grandchildren. This is what making a difference is all about. These are lasting frameworks. This is the most important legacy to leave behind: a compassionate community that provides constituents with the most fulfilling life possible.

Q) You appear to be unusually successful in bringing big, new projects to Kingston. How much of that was attributable to your being a member of the governing party and how much to the way you approached it?

A) It was both. I have been relentless on all of the projects that I have advocated for, and I will never stop doing that. Being a member of the governing party made a difference in those successes – but, on its own, that wouldn’t have been sufficient. There are many other worthy projects across the province.

Q) Please expand on what being “relentless” entails in this context. Perhaps you could relate the process for one of those projects to give us a better sense on what was involved in getting it funded.

A) The first part of the process is about bringing stakeholders together and doing your homework. It is about making sure that paperwork is submitted in a timely manner and in the right format and about making sure that all of the correct players are aware of the project.

This entails working with multiple ministers, ministry staff and all levels of government, getting everyone on the same page with the background work successfully completed. And then it involves relentless advocacy. In the case of both the KGH and the third crossing projects, there were numerous meetings, visits to various ministers desks during question period, notes passed, letters written, phone calls and emails.

These two projects alone involved literally hundreds of hours of networking, homework, meetings and advocacy.

Q) Are there other community initiatives you’ve undertaken in your role as MPP and could you give an example of how you went about these?

A) Shortly after I was elected I brought together some amazing speakers to discuss mental health with a focus on reducing stigma. I held a public town hall and it was very well received. We had a great turnout and I was so inspired by the energy in the room that I created an advocacy committee to follow up.

We’ve done some great work together but there is more to do. This work involves recognizing community needs and figuring out ways to meet those needs. Sometimes there are not always ready-made government solutions, so it is up to our representatives to find solutions to the best of their ability. Sometimes that will involve out-of-the-box thinking, something that I have learned to do well in my life.

Q) Your bio also mentions your constituency work for our past federal MPs. Could you explain that role and how you approach it now you’re our MPP?

A) Working for MPs Milliken and Hsu was a deep education in how the system works and how to guide inquiries to get answers to questions. I learned to recognize when queries need to be pushed to a higher level and how to get there. It’s all about relentless advocacy. If a response to an issue does not seem right, and more could be done, then it is incumbent on representatives to try all measures at their disposal. I don’t give up easily.

Q) Could you tell us a bit about your role as our elected representative at Queen’s Park, including how you balance speaking for our community with your wider responsibilities to Ontario?

A) We have numerous responsibilities at Queen’s Park. We engage by asking Ministers questions on policy – and I will always do my best to weave in supportive comments or concerns that I have heard from constituents in Kingston and the Islands. We also bring forward members’ statements in which we do the same thing.

I am involved in three committees of government: Estimates, General Government and Jobs and Economic Policy – a cabinet committee that I chair. In Estimates and in General Government, we engage with opposition party members and sometimes with stakeholders (like in General Government), or sometimes just with Ministers as in the case of Estimates.

I always see, judge and weigh the issues that come forward in these roles through the lens of my community, on the basis of stories I have heard, or problems that I have worked on. I am almost obsessively connected to my roots in this way.

Q) All of that, plus the number of community events in which you participate, must add up to an enormous amount of time. How do you manage?

A) Workaholism and insomnia? The combination is either deadly or completely perfect! I am choosing to see it as the latter. I go to bed at night excited about the work that I do and it is the first thing that I think about when my eyes open in the morning. It has been so rewarding, and even though the time spent on it is monumental, it is hard to think of it as anything other than an honour and a blessing.

Q) Looking back at all your efforts over the past four years, what makes you proudest or gives you the most satisfaction?

A) It’s impossible to choose one thing. For the more tangible items it would have to be: $500M for KGH, $60M for the third crossing, $60+M for the Wolfe and Amherst Island ferries, and the Catholic and Public School boards coming together as one with the Centre Culturel Frontenac in one school.

For the less tangible items, I would have to say I am most proud of helping to bring more collaboration across a number of sectors in our community. I want people to know their community, to have a face to a name when they are working with others in areas of common interest, to be able to understand from a person-centred perspective what people might go through in areas like mental health, for example, so that all service providers can work together.

I want newcomers and tourists to feel more at home here, and to talk about it with others outside our community. I want the researchers and innovators across the province, country and world to think about Kingston as the little town that punches above its weight, leading in numerous fields. I feel I have a chance to work on all these areas and to make a difference.

Q) Given how all consuming your job has turned out to be, why would you want to do it again for another four years?

A) Because there is no higher honour than having the opportunity to serve the public through holding public office and making a difference for our community. The work is not finished and I have so much more energy – perhaps even more than when I started. There is too much work to do to stop now.

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