Cheryl Johnson - Madame Premier

Cheryl Johnson and I met in 2015 on a federal campaign for someone we both very much had won. Our candidate came so very close to winning but didn't. It would have been an upset and a lead story across Canada but it just wasn't meant to be in that moment. What we did come away with was a respect for each other and what I think is one of those relationships where we don't see each other that often or even talk all that much but when do see each other it's like no time has passed. 

A fellow lover of fashion, a former model, a policy wonk, the daughter of a former politician (they were models together in Madame Premier's very first shoot along with her husband!) and a lovely human being, Cheryl Johnson lights up a room with her intellect and kindness.

MP: Which female leaders are you inspired by and why?

Cheryl: I am most inspired by those who want to make their community better and take the action to do so. The first answer is easy because my mom is a fucking star. I’ve spent my personal and professional life watching Linda Johnson thoughtfully lead in her professional pursuits, community and family. One of her inspiring leadership traits is asking good questions. She’s naturally curious and socially astute, able to craft and sequence the right kinds of questions to uncover the crux of an issue.

I have spent most of my career working in climate change policy and corporate sustainability. In that world, I humbly walk in the footsteps of Evelyn Walker and Liz Siarkowski – two capable, adaptable and principled women who seamlessly and authentically speak in the manner meaningful to their audiences. I think of them and how they might approach challenges constantly.  

For people I don’t actually know… if I could steal Charlotte Clymer, Liz Plank or Jen Gerson’s wit and political savvy, I’d do it in a second. For politicians, I’ve impressed by the intelligence, clarity and deft use (or disuse!) of diplomacy from Chrystia Freeland, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

MP: Favourite campaign moment from any campaign you've volunteered/worked on and why?

Cheryl: Chris Turner’s 2012 federal by-election run. I volunteered as a way to meet people as I had recently moved back to Calgary from Ottawa. 

There’s no one specific moment, but I picture myself at the end of a campaign office folding table making a staggering number of cold calls in an uncomfortable chair late in the evening, my first feeling like I had earned a place in a ‘campaign family.’ And what a group it was – I am regularly impressed by some inspirational community-building initiative or the perfect sassy political bon mot from someone on that campaign, and it was the foundation for many enduring friendships. That campaign crystalized for me how fundamental people working to make their communities better are. I can’t imagine what my life back in Calgary would have been without that experience. 

Wade Belbin, Linda Johnson and Cheryl Johnson - Madame Premier

Wade Belbin, Linda Johnson and Cheryl Johnson

MP: Any nuggets of wisdom for children of politicians? 

Cheryl: I’ve been very lucky as the child of a politician. I was an adult when my mom ran in a contested nomination race, lived in a different province for most of her time in the Legislature, and – to be completely frank – if you aren’t the Premier, a Minister, or a leader of an opposition party, you have a comparatively very private life. From that angle, I can’t imagine speaking to the experience younger people or those whose parent is more publicly visible. 

We did learn to navigate the difference between mother-daughter conversations that happened to include politics versus specific political or policy priorities and approach that she was undertaking. Delineating that boundary made things much easier for us. 

MP: Favourite place to be and why?

Cheryl: Since we’ve been physically distancing, I’m dreaming of Tavernetta’s backyard patio on a warm evening, rigatoni and wine, playing cards with my husband. It’s pretty perfect. 

At home, my favourite place would be on our back patio in the sunshine, a book and 4th Street Pizza. Wearing sweatpants (I’m not going to pretend to be wearing classy lounge pants… in this scenario, it’s definitely sweatpants).

The trend here is that my favourite places are strongly shaped by the kind of food that I can get there. 

MP: What thing in your closet do you wear the most and why?

Cheryl: We’re physical distancing, so, truly awful lilacy-grey slippers because we’re rarely leaving the house and I’m always cold. In a typical world, I probably get the most use out of a pair of black La Canadienne ankle boots with a flat, slightly exaggerated lug tread and an embroidered camouflage cotton jacket by Opening Ceremony. They’re accessible and casual with a twist that I can layer up with more outlandish pieces. 

MP: If you could raid someone's closet, who would it be and why?

Cheryl: Does any answer to this question exist other than Moira Rose? 

I could look at and think about outfits all day, always. Raiding the closet of a non-fictional character, I’d pick someone who dresses in non-traditional silhouettes with lots of colours and prints, where everything looks intentional. Someone that enjoys getting dressed for the fun of it and to please themselves. I love Solange Knowles, Cate Blanchett, Iris Apfel, Janelle Monae, the Accidental Icon, Tracee Ellis Ross, Gemma Chan… I don’t want to pick one. 

MP: What is the next policy shift in Canada and globally and why?

Cheryl: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have said that I hope it to be related to energy and climate change. These are complicated, indirect, slow-burning challenges and governments simply are not good at addressing complex long-term problems. Complicated problems generally have complicated solutions, and don’t lend themselves to typical political cycles or communications approaches. I hope we can reform our capacity to execute appropriate, enduring policy responses reconciling valid economic interests with legitimate environmental and social risks. 

Today, I’m thinking about the social contract that Canadians have with our governments. What is the appropriate role of government in society? What do we owe to one another? I believe in equity of opportunity – but the world is not as simple as the harder you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the more successful that you will be. Where should government intervention be treated as an investment in society? It’s big and it’s vague and it’s messy but it’s critical. 

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