Improving the Lives of the Most Vulnerable Through International Development: An Interview with Federal Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau

6 minute read

Author: Jaclyn Legge, Social Media Coordinator and Communications Student
Interviewer: The Hon. Marie-P. Charette-Poulin, Senior Project Manager

The following interview with Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau was conducted by the IOG’s Hon. Marie Poulin and took place during what turned out to be her final week as Minister of International Development. In this interview, Minister Bibeau highlights progress made since she was first sworn in and offers her thoughts on Canada’s role in the international development sector. She is now Canada’s first female Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Foods.

Marie-Claude Bibeau sits down with the IOG’s Hon. Marie Poulin at a homey wooden table in her office. When asked if she would like a photo taken at her desk, she chuckles warmly to herself. She doesn’t sit here very much, she admits; her work as Minister of International Development and La Francophonie often takes her not only out of office, but out of country.

The office of Minister Bibeau tells the story that its often-absent owner is busy living. The walls are dotted with photographs of Canadian landscapes and locales resemblant of her hometown of Sherbrooke, including what appears to be the University of Sherbrooke, where she obtained her BA in Economics and MA in Environmental Management. There’s a map of Compton-Stanstead district where she was elected to represent in the House of Commons in 2015; Compton is also where she ran a successful tourism business for 15 years. Most notably, the office walls feature a selection of art from abroad (no doubt from the many countries she’s visited throughout her career), and photos of the Minister surrounded by the smiling faces of those she has kept at the heart of her work: women and girls in developing countries.

Madame la ministre,” Marie Poulin begins. “How does your experience in international development contribute to your success as Minister now responsible for the good governance of Canada’s development agency?”

“Well when I was sworn in, I was back in CIDA more or less.” Minister Bibeau recalls how quickly and comfortably her experience at the Canadian International Development Agency returned to her as she took on the responsibilities of Minister. “I think I had a longueur d’avance. I felt very comfortable going ‘back’ to this department.”

Of course, the new position came with new tasks. For the first time in her career, she was working directly with crisis-affected countries facing significant issues of security and violence. In her mandate, she was tasked with recentering the focus of Canada’s efforts onto those who are the most vulnerable; on the job, she says it became clear to her that this meant women and girls.

So, when Marie asks about her mandate-given responsibility to champion the values of inclusive and accountable governance, the Minister is happy to share what it means to her: “We decided to put women and girls at the heart of the policy.”

She is referring to the complete review of the international assistance policy, which took into account a consultation of over 15 000 participants in 65 countries. By the consultation’s end, it led to the Feminist International Assistance Policy.

“We came to this conclusion: if we want to end poverty, we need 100% of the population to contribute to their community. We have to empower women so they can develop their full potential and contribute as the men do, to their communities and the economy of their country.”

For Minister Bibeau, whose work keeps her in dialogue with many women whose lives are impacted and limited by lack of opportunity, the need for special attention towards gender-based issues is impossible to deny.

“We have to empower girls socially, economically, politically, and we have to work on girls’ education as well. Not only schools and teachers, but the barriers.” And the barriers are extensive; between the obligation to care for the home, early child and forced marriages, early pregnancies, and gender-based violence, there are a myriad of reasons why girls in a crisis-affected country often stop attending school by the age of 12.

In practice, Minister Bibeau believes the key to inclusive governance is working from both ends. “We support the local government and build the capacities of grassroots organizations so they can communicate.” Providing technical assistance for governments – assisting countries in making better laws, programs, and policies – is only the half of it; initiatives like Women’s Voice and Leadership strengthen women’s grassroots organizations so that they can be effective drivers of change in issues ranging from access to politics to female genital mutilation.

According to Bibeau, it is this mindful, long-term approach to inclusive governance that has made Canada consistently effective in the international development sector. “I think we have l’art et la manière to transfer our knowledge. We are recognized for taking the time to understand the local situation and not trying to impose our way of doing things, but finding a way to adapt and to use our knowledge and capacities so it can benefit the host country.”

When asked to name her biggest source of influence as a public servant, the Minister fondly cites her husband, Bernard Sévigny, recognizing his strong and sincere commitment to the public service.

“Sometimes we talk about public service like it is only for the public servant, les fonctionnaires, but being a politician, we're there to serve the public. We are under pressure from various interests and stakeholders and at the end of the day, we have to make decisions for the greater good. Not for those who have the biggest or loudest voice.”

To wrap up, Minister Bibeau offers her thoughts on working in, and in cooperation with, the international development sector. She likes to believe that everyone in international development, like her, is driven by a strong passion and dedication toward improving the lives of others. After all, her own strength in this career came from letting the work move her.

“When we look at the world sometimes, it can be discouraging. But when we look at where we are doing work, we really are making big changes in the lives of these people. I did not know I was a feminist three years ago, and now I am one of the loudest voices of feminism for Canada in other countries and the UN. But it’s all these conversations I’ve had with women in the field that gives me the strength, the conviction, and the confidence to be bold and talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to work so passionately to break the barriers that girls face. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation.”

The Hon. Marie Poulin contacted Minister Bibeau following the cabinet shuffle on Friday. The new Minister of Agriculture responded with the following:

"I am particularly pleased to begin working in this new portfolio as Minister of Agriculture, and I am very proud to be Canada’s first woman Minister of Agriculture. We all know this sector plays a vital role in Canada, and we all understand the ‎importance of the safety of the food we eat. I have a great team in the department and I look forward to working with them on building a bright future for this great industry."

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Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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