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Health advocacy work helped to heal Mark Holland during mental health crisis

Advocating for the health of Canadians gave Mark Holland a sense of purpose he needed to help pull him out of the darkest period of his life, the newly appointed health minister said in an interview.

Advocating for the health of Canadians gave Mark Holland a sense of purpose he needed to help pull him out of the darkest period of his life, the newly appointed health minister said in an interview.

After moving from government House leader to the health portfolio, he says it’s “the dream” to work in a ministerial posting he’s so passionate about.

Holland was a career politician when he lost his seat in the 2011 election, serving first as an Ontario city councillor in Pickering and Durham before running for federal office in 2004.

When he lost, he fell into despair.

“I had lost my sense of professional purpose, I’d lost politics,” he said.

He spoke candidly last fall about the mental-health struggle he endured at that time. He was told he was toxic, that no organization would want to hire him. His marriage failed and he was “not in a good place” with his children.

Holland said that he had tried to take his own life.

“I think about how challenging that dark place was. Climbing out of there was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.

A few months after the vote he took up a new job at the Heart & Stroke Foundation. Over the course for four years he was promoted from the manager of government relations to the executive director of the Ontario branch and national director of children and youth.

“I found a real purpose in health, in health promotion, and in prevention,” said Holland, who was reelected as an MP in 2015.

At the Heart & Stroke Foundation, he said, he learned about how small lifestyle changes can prevent illness and disease, which in turn frees up capacity in overburdened hospitals.

“It creates this virtuous cycle that I am deeply passionate about,” he said. “That was a professional engine that helped me get out of where I was.”

That engine will be revving as the return of Parliament will bring the new health minister an exceptionally busy fall.

Holland is expected to complete negotiations on new health-funding accords, launch a massive federal dental-care program and introduce legislation to define the government’s approach to pharmacare before the end of the year.

The new position will likely take a slight change in tact, as Holland moves from the highly partisan job of government House leader to healing federal and provincial divisions and collaborating with the NDP on shared health priorities.

“It is a very elbows-up sort of business in the House,” Holland admitted.

He does think his previous post will help him in the new job, as he always tried to be as reasonable as possible when talking with opposition House leaders about what the government was doing.

“The only way that we can take on the massive challenge of health is if we set aside our partisan issues, we set aside our egos and we just, with a laser focus, go after how we make the health system better,” he said.

Health systems have been in crisis since the pandemic, without enough staff to maintain care across the country.

All provinces and territories except Quebec have agreed in principal to a new $196-billion health accord with the federal government, which includes funding agreements tailored to the priorities in each jurisdiction.

Holland said he looks forward to signing the final agreements and then explaining to Canadians how each deal will directly impact their lives.

“This isn’t just an exercise in throwing some numbers in the air, this is materially different than anything that’s been done before because the money is tied to results,” he said.

It will also be up to the new minister to hold provinces accountable for those results.

He also said he is planning to consult with the NDP, the public and parliamentarians on the pharmacare bill the government plans to introduce this fall.

The legislation is part of the confidence-and-supply deal with the New Democrats that will see the party support the minority Liberal government on key votes to prevent an election before 2025, in exchange for movement on NDP priorities.

It remains unclear what will be in the bill, or whether the government intends to move forward with a national pharmacare program.

Though Holland didn’t commit to an external review of the government’s handling of the COVID-19, he said he wants to take time this fall to make sure any lessons learned during the pandemic are absorbed while they are still fresh.

“We have this trauma and the lingering feelings of COVID within us all,” he said.

As for his own trauma, Holland said he wants to avoid his job taking over his life again, which will be difficult given the load he’s planning to carry.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” he said. “That is going to be a challenge.”

He’s had many conversations with his partner and his kids about the importance of balancing his new job with this personal life.

“When you all you do is work, then the only perspective you have is work,” he said.

“I care about these things, because I’ve lived them.”