For Nancy Heppner, Briercrest College and Seminary and politics run in the family.
“My parents met at Briercrest in the early sixties,” Heppner said in a recent phone interview. “Mom was from B.C. and Dad was from small town Saskatchewan. I guess he swept her off her feet and got her to not move back to B.C.”
Heppner, who followed her father as the MLA for Martensville, attended Briercrest for a year in 1990-91 before going to university.
“I only planned on going for a year,” she explained. “It was just to get a foundation before I went out to figure out what I was going to be. I think my folks sent me there hoping I’d get married and not be their responsibility anymore. That’s how we joke anyway. But that didn’t work out.”
The MLA’s career, however, did work out. She discovered her love for politics when she went door knocking with her father during one of his first campaigns.
“I was kind of his go-to person for discussing politics after he was elected,” she said. “It just kind of popped into my head that ‘I love this.’ It was not something that I ever really aspired to growing up, but I learned to love it by talking to Dad about it.”
Heppner describes the path leading to her current position of MLA for Martensville as being an “odd set of circumstances of being in the right place at the right time.” Many of her past experiences have given her tools that help her today. One of these was working as a small business owner.
“I owned my own store which I started in 1999,” she said. “So I understand what it’s like to do business and how hard small business owners work and their contribution to their communities. The big companies – a lot of times they’re the ones that get in the newspapers when things are going well – like potash, oil and gas – but at the end of the day it’s a lot of these small businesses that are keeping especially our small communities alive.”
In 2001 Heppner moved to Ottawa to become the legislative assistant on Parliament Hill for Carol Skelton, MP for Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. In 2002 Heppner was promoted to the position of Question Period Coordinator for the leader of the official Opposition (Stephen Harper).
“My job was to figure out what kind of communication plans and strategies we were going after, what stories to follow, what things to follow up on,” she explained. “I wrote draft questions for the leader and I also coordinated with the other MPs who were asking questions and then we also had statements before the question period.”
The work demands for the position were very time consuming.
“I pretty much worked 13 hours a day for half an hour of question period,” Heppner said. “But it’s the one thing everyone pays attention to. It can get pretty rowdy – you know, people say we all act like a bunch of little kids – but the gallery’s pretty much empty for the rest of the day, so it’s something everyone wants to come see. You raise issues in such a way that the media is attracted, because that really drives public perception of what government is or is not doing.”
The MLA isn’t put off by all the drama during these question periods.
“It’s theatre in a certain aspect and I love it,” she asserted. “It can be outrageous, but you can get a lot done if you do it right.”
When the Conservative party formed the government in 2006, Heppner moved to the prime minister’s office and continued to work for a few months on question period from the government side.
“Asking questions was a lot more fun than answering questions,” she said with a laugh.
Heppner also worked as director of communication for the minister of Canadian Heritage before she returned home to Saskatchewan and was elected as the Saskatchewan Party MLA for the Martensville Constituency in a by-election held on March 5, 2007. She was reelected in 2007 and 2011 and has served in several cabinet positions. She is currently the minister of Central Services.
She says being a woman in politics hasn’t been a problem for her. In fact, she’s adamant about that.
“Women make up the majority of the population in Canada,” she said. “I don’t want to be treated as a special interest group because I don’t think I am. You hear people say, ‘Well, women will bring an idea on the floor and it will get shot down because she’s a woman.’ My response to that is maybe it was just a bad idea. When men bring forward ideas and they get shot down, they don’t walk away saying, ‘Oh, they don’t like my idea because I’m a boy.’ I think a lot of women do a disservice to themselves by injecting gender into the discussion when it’s not a gender issue. People expect you to be competent and gender’s not the issue.”
Election statistics seem to indicate that Heppner is doing more than just coasting on her father’s political success.
“My majority of the vote is higher than it has ever been,” she exclaimed. “It’s the highest that this riding has ever seen. This last election I had 83%. Before that I was at 74% and 77% of the vote. The basis of my riding has changed but historically it’s been a very traditional riding – a lot of Mennonite background. Considering all those things, I’ve seen no impediments to me either fundraising or getting support or getting people to vote for me based on being a woman.”
In the minister’s busy world of politics, her favourite task is getting to speak to school groups who visit the legislature.
“A lot of people throughout Saskatchewan bring kids here,” she explained. “I find they ask more interesting questions than the grown-ups do. I love the education part of it – to show these kids what we do and why we do it. I always encourage them to get involved . . . whether it’s town councils or school boards or your church boards. Anybody who’s in a position of power makes decisions for us every day that affect our lives.”
The MLA wants young people to know that their voice can make a difference.
“I think that a lot of times in politics it seems to be too big,” she said. “If people have an opinion they don’t know where to go. People need to phone us and let us know if we’re on the right track or the wrong track. Their voice does matter.”