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Sara McCleary: struggling millennial mom lays it on the line for the NDP

Local New Democrats pin election hopes on young woman balancing two kids, three jobs without benefits and $600 in monthly medical bills
Sara McCleary nomination meeting
Sara McCleary speaking at NDP nomination meeting at Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. This photograph shows about half the room, which contained just under 40 party members and guests. David Helwig/SooToday

Someone whom Sara McCleary considers a "wise man" advised her before Wednesday night's NDP nomination meeting to minimize references to her financial status and other personal issues.

She ignored that caution. Totally.

Instead, McCleary made her personal struggles the dominant theme of her acceptance speech as she was unanimously anointed to carry the party's banner into this fall's federal election.

"Leading up to this meeting, I was cautioned by a wise man not to share too much information about my financial situation and struggles," the millennial mother of two told almost 40 party faithful and guests gathered at Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre.

"It's important to me to be really upfront about it. I'm going to tell you why I want to lay it on the line."

McCleary talks about affordability the cost of living and the gap between rich and poor voters.

She intends to make that a major part of her electoral campaign against Liberal Terry Sheehan, Conservative Sonny Spina, and Amy Zuccato of the Peoples Party of Canada.

"I see the evidence of that gap every day in my life," McCleary said in her acceptance speech.

"I work one part-time job and two freelance jobs. It's because of the so-called 'gig' economy that we've developed and the lack of good-paying, unionized jobs that we really need here in Canada."

"Because of my working situation, I don't have that advantage. Few people in my situation have health benefits."

"A few months ago, my husband had a change in his work situation. For about eight years, we've had health benefits. Now we don't. We just recently lost them, a couple of months ago."

McCleary told how her husband is now in his third month of going without one of his diabetes medications.

"We can't just fit it into our budget right now. Not having the benefits any more, we together have something like $600 of medications per month, and he is not taking one of his diabetes medications because of it."

McCleary, who turned 32 earlier this month, has a master's degree in history from Queen's University, focusing on indigenous/settler relations.

She's best known in Sault Ste. Marie for her columns and news articles in Sault This Week, and works as a community outreach worker and fundraiser for St. Vincent Place.

She's also a prolific reader who reports reading 214 books on

McCleary is a huge fan of books by authors like J.K. Rowling, Scott Hawkins, Jonas Jonasson and Victor Hugo.

Other books she's read in recent months, but didn't appreciate so much, include Justin Trudeau's Common Ground and You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, by Jen Sincero.

"Places like the Soup Kitchen and St. Vincent, where I work, in my mind they represent both the best and the worst of Canada. The best, obviously, because there are people and groups who genuinely really care and want to help people. But also the worst, because we shouldn't need to give this help to people, just to afford to live."

"The gap between the richest and the poorest has been growing for years and something has to be done about that."

"I see the evidence of that gap every day in my life. I see my parents struggling to get by on their Canada Pension Plan. At work, I see families coming in. Both parents are working. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to afford to feed their families, but they're coming in and getting a food package every month."

"For eight years, we had benefits. I was happy. I was very grateful that we had those benefits, and I would hear about people who couldn't afford their medications and I would think, I can't imagine how stressful that must be."

"Now, I can imagine it, because I'm going through it. The level of understanding is different. I think that it's time that we have representatives who truly understand it. Not just hearing about it."

"I know that when I talk about the days when the power's gone out in my house and I wonder if I put off paying the bill a little too long this month, and when I talk about having to turn down going to coffee with a friend because I don't have two loonies to rub together, or when I talk about having to work overtime, or my husband having to work overtime (I don't have the luxury) to give our daughter a birthday party."

McCleary figures her Conservative and Liberal opponents will play on that.

"I know what people are going to say. Sonny and Terry are going to come at me with this. It's going to be: 'You just want the paycheck. That's why you're in there, because everybody knows you just want to make more money.' But anybody who knows me knows that my family is the most important thing in my life and no amount of money would convince me to spend weeks away from them every year."

Here, in her own words, are what she says is convincing her to run for a position involves spending most of her time in the nation's capital:

  • "watching Canada and the Sault, my home, become divided along such stark economic lines"
  • "watching my husband and countless others go without the medications they need, because they can't afford it"
  • "watching friend after friend bury themselves in student debt for a job that they might not even get when they're done"
  • "watching families with young children come to the soup kitchen at my work and try to explain away their embarrassment that they actually do have a job, it was just too much this month, they need a little help with the groceries"
  • "watching cities flood and people lose their homes because the government is too busy worrying about industry and lining the pockets of their friends than to actually take action on climate change now"
  • "watching communities like Attawapiskat declare states of emergency because their water isn't even safe to shower, let alone drink"
  • "watching party leaders refuse to call Canada's treatment of First Nations peoples a genocide"

Party stalwarts were quick to support McCleary's decision to divulge personal details in her nomination speech.

"Sara has, in her comments, talked about her own situation. That takes guts," said longtime Sault MPP Bud Wildman.

"Sara, don't ever be ashamed of where you came from," added Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes, who described growing up herself in a less-privileged family of seven girls and one boy.

"My dad was an alcoholic at one point, but he brought home the bacon, unlike his father who was a gambler and an alcoholic," Hughes said.

"We had to rely sometimes on the goodwill of the church, the food baskets and stuff. It doesn't stop you from being who you are. It actually makes you stronger. You will get that job done once you're there. There is much that we can accomplish, so don't ever be ashamed of where you come from or where you are. You will get through this and I have no doubt that you will make a great MP."

Jeff Arbus, northern regional representative on the Ontario NDP executive, described his first impressions of McCleary when she sought the party's nomination to run in last year's provincial election.

"I had not met Sara before then," Arbus said.

"Sara didn't win that nomination. I've been in many nominations myself in my political and union career, and I saw something that night and afterwards that I hadn't seen before.... where the candidate who did not win not only comes to congratulate the winner, but pledges her support and follows up on that by becoming the co-chair of the campaign that we came within 415 votes of winning."  

"That, to me, spoke to character, and a passion for the welfare of people," Arbus said.

Canada's 43rd general election is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Elections Canada has served notice that it will be paying careful attention to threats to democracy in this election, ranging from foreign interference and influence efforts to cyber-attacks and attempts at disinformation.


David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans six decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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