11/16/2017 12:50 EST | Updated 11/16/2017 15:19 EST

In Grief, Jean Yip Flips Script For Political Spouses With Liberal Bid

"I'm excited to see her as a Chinese-Canadian running for office."


SCARBOROUGH, ONT. — While I'm preoccupied with balancing a cup of hot tea in one hand and a notebook in the other, Jean Yip helps carry my pecan tart to our table at the back of an Italian bakery.

It's early November and poppies are just beginning to bloom on people's coats. In a week and a half, Yip will clinch the Liberal byelection nomination for Scarborough-Agincourt — a federal seat formerly held by her late husband, Arnold Chan.

But now, she's asking if I'd like a fork or spoon for my dessert.

Jean Yip takes her son Theodore to Agincourt Bakery in Scarborough, Ont.

"I'm not a professional politician. I am who I am," Yip tells me. "And I think I bring some good, real-person qualities to the job that people can relate to." She made a point to emphasize the word "real."

Yip admits while her political experience is second-hand, her connection to the riding is genuine: she grew up in it.

She announced her candidacy for the Liberal nomination in late October, just over a month after Chan died from cancer on Sept. 14. The idea of her running for the seat had been bounced around between the couple since the summer.

A lawyer and former Ontario government staffer, Chan entered federal politics after winning a byelection triggered by veteran Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis' resignation in 2014. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma — a rare cancer of the head and neck. After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer went into remission.

Over the next three years, Yip helped the family adjust to the realities of Chan's new job. She held a part-time job as a school-lunch supervisor and Sunday school teacher, travelled to Ottawa to support her husband's career, and raised the couple's three boys who are now 14, 15, and 17.

Arnold Chan and Jean Yip pose with Parliamentarians for a group photo in June 2017.

Chan's health became an issue again in spring 2016 when the cancer returned. He refused to resign his seat and continued travelling to Ottawa. He showed up to community events whenever his diminishing energy would allow it.

"He made a commitment to represent the people and he wanted to do the very best that he could," Yip said. "And when he couldn't, I represented him."

Of course, she didn't have to do that. The public duties of a political spouse traditionally rise and fall around election campaigns. Yip attended environmental fairs and community charity events and dinners as her husband's proxy. Because the community rallied to support Chan in light of his prognosis, she said she felt obligated to "give back."

Right before Parliament rose in June for summer break, Chan delivered an emotional speech in the House of Commons. His energy by that point had been depleted by a cancer that had spread to his lymphatic system. His blazer now fit a bit too big.

Watch Chan's full speech:

He said he wasn't sure how long he'd be able to stand and speak for 20 minutes again. He urged MPs from all sides to ditch political talking points for the sake of not repelling Canadians from getting interested in politics.

"Use your head, but follow your heart," he said. "It is as simple as that."

His parents and Yip were seated in the gallery above. He died three months later at the age of 50.

Awkward phone calls

After her husband's death, Yip said she found some humour in how curious people asked about her possible political future.

"They'd say their condolences and then they'd wait and then they'd say, 'Are you running?'" she said. Chan had supported the idea of Yip campaigning for the Liberal nomination that would eventually open up. But she was still unsure.

After Chan's death, people continued to call his office with event invites. These callers' responses eventually helped her commit to the idea of running.

"I would have somebody in the office call them and say, 'Do you realize that he's passed?' and they'd say, 'It doesn't matter. We want her to come.' So I took that as a sign."

Theodore, the youngest of the couple's three teenage sons, was cold to the idea at first because he was used to seeing his mom at home. "And now he says, why aren't you in Ottawa? All three of them go, you should be in Ottawa now."

"I think they just want the house to themselves," she joked.

They'd say their condolences and then they'd wait and then they'd say, 'Are you running?'Jean Yip

Yip's younger brother John tells me there's been a plan in place for a while, specifically for situations when his nephews eat all the food in the house while mom is away.

"They're all teenage boys, so whenever they're in dire straits we'll order Uber Eats from our house and send it to them, to their house," he said.

Since Chan's death, a "very, very strong" network of support formed around Yip and her boys. It includes the neighbours, Chan's high school friends and university classmates, extended family and immediate family all doing their part to watch over them.

"Because we knew she wanted to run and if she is successful — and she's in Ottawa three to four days a week when the House is in session — that she didn't need to worry about her three boys. That there'd be multiple people watching," John said.

He said his nephews offered reassurance in telling him, ''We're used to it, we support mum. And this is what dad wanted."

Jean Yip poses with her sons Theodore, Ethan, and Nathaniel on Nov. 12, 2017.

Yip and Chan married 19 years ago after meeting at a political campaign event.

Stephanie Chong was introduced to Yip two decades ago when the couple was still dating. She describes her as a someone with "boundless energy" who is deeply committed to her family and community.

"She has raised three boys who are turning out to be incredible young men. And she has always supported Arnold," Chong said. "She's been stalwart. It was a true partnership between them."

And with all that's been thrown at Yip in recent months — being a primary caregiver to a spouse with a terminal illness; parenting three teenagers; canvassing for the Liberal nomination — Chong said she's admired how she's managed to do it all.

"She's very genuine and has a huge amount of integrity," she said. "I'm excited to see a strong woman running for office. And I'm excited to see her as a Chinese-Canadian running for office."

2 Liberals MPs in 29 years

Scarborough-Agincourt has been a Liberal riding since 1988 when it was carved from the former boundary of York—Scarborough.

The Yips say the area has undergone a significant demographic change since when they were growing up. They were one of the few Asian families in the neighbourhood at the time. Then a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong in the late '80s and early '90s changed that.

Jean Yip poses with nomination campaign volunteers in this October 2017 photo.

Now, the makeup of Scarborough-Agincourt is predominately East and South Asian; two-thirds of whom are immigrants. Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Tamil are its most-spoken languages, according to 2016 census data. And seniors 65+ represent over a fifth of the population.

Yip's focus is primarily centred on health care issues, from mental health initiatives to seniors' concerns. One particular project she and her late husband championed is the Bridletowne Community Hub, a mixed medical and social services, and fitness space proposed for the site of a former high school.

After Yip secured the Liberal nomination on Nov. 12, the Conservatives announced University of Toronto graduate and IT specialist Dasong Zou as their Scarborough-Agincourt candidate a day later. The New Democrats have yet to announce who their candidate for the Dec. 11 byelection will be.

Last week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — who was born in Scarborough — was hesitant to confirm if he's looking at running in Chan's former riding. He once again told reporters that he was exploring all options, and isn't in a rush to enter one of the four upcoming races because he's comfortable with not having a seat in the House of Commons for the time being.

It's unlikely that Singh, a political leader who ran a successful leadership campaign driven on a slogan touting "Love and courage," would choose to run against Yip.

One challenge, as her brother pointed out, will be in Yip's ability to evolve her profile as a community advocate into an informed debater on both local and national issues. But given the tumult of experiences she's been thrown into in recent months, he isn't concerned.

"She extremely tough. Resilient," he said. "The resiliency that she's developed will serve her well in political life."

Back in the family-run bakery nestled in a strip mall, Yip mentions how she's an avid gardener, but didn't have time to tend to her own this year. She said one part of why she loved door-knocking so much in the summer was that it allowed her to enjoy people's gardens.

She joked going house to house was also really good exercise. But it's the human connection that she appreciates the most.

"I think it's really important to be able to listen to people, to constituents, because you don't know what they want," she said. "Getting to know people. You have to earn their trust."

She asks if she can get my tea warmed up; she's concerned that it got cold.

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