Cabinet minister Karina Gould talks about the pandemic challenges of distributing vaccines, becoming a new parent and rising antisemitism

MP Karina Gould in Ottawa, 2021. (Credit: @KarinaGould/Twitter)

Being a new mother during a pandemic is a difficult feat for anyone, but it’s especially so when you’re also the youngest female cabinet minister in Canadian history.

With such a label comes tremendous responsibility, but Karina Gould, the first federal cabinet minister to give birth while holding office, seems not to be bothered by the pressure. 

“I think anytime you’re a new mom it’s difficult to juggle, no matter what your work is,” Gould, currently Minister of Families, Children and Social Development said in a recent interview with The CJN.

“Like most parents across the country I didn’t have daycare. So it was an interesting struggle to be a very busy cabinet minister with a two-year-old at home.”

Her son, Oliver, now three, was cared for by Gould and her husband Alberto Gerones in their home in Burlington, Ont., a city of around 175,000, northwest of Toronto, where Gould grew up. “I have to give full credit to my husband who stepped up in incredible ways so I can continue to work on behalf of Canadians,” she said.

A graduate of McGill University and the University of Oxford, Gould was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Burlington in 2015, at the age of 28, and her list of federal responsibilities has only grown longer over the years. She has served as Minister of International Development, Minister of Democratic Institutions, and, most recently, Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development.

 In 2018, the birth of her son inspired important public conversations about the struggles of parliamentary parents who are not entitled to parental leave—a result of not paying into Employment Insurance. (At the time, the Liberals had pledged a gender equity-themed budget, promising to institute a parental leave program for parliamentarians, but the plan has seemingly gone stale.) During her maternity leave, Gould worked from home instead of on Parliament Hill—an alternative that would become all too normalized a couple years later.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Gould’s primary objective with the federal government has been to respond to the challenge of COVID internationally. She helped allocate over $2 billion worth of additional support and international assistance for COVID relief plans, and worked to implement Canada’s vaccine sharing program, which distributed excess doses to vulnerable regions throughout the world. As a co-chair of Covax, a global collaboration led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, she oversaw international access to COVID tests, treatments, and vaccines.

In mid-November, two weeks into her new portfolio, Gould visited Edmonton with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce a childcare agreement for Alberta, which aims to reduce the costs of daycare for families over a five-year period.

But Gould’s tenure has also attracted controversy. In January, as Minister of International Development, Gould was the subject of criticism while overseeing the 2020 Liberal pledge of $24 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), an organization previously under fire with reports of corruption and close affiliation with Hamas. (The Liberals reinstated funding to UNRWA in 2016, after it had been suspended by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives).

The criticism intensified with evidence that textbooks produced by UNRWA denounced Arab states over the Abraham Accords and called for the banishment of Jews from Israel. Following these reports, Gould made a public statement, promising to investigate any problematic or controversial material, but three subsequent reports released by the IMPACT-se monitoring group showed that UNRWA’s educational material is still loaded with violence-inciting content, such erasing Israel from textbook maps, and encouraging children to wage jihad against “the Enemy.”

When questioned about this in the House of Commons on May 3, 2021, Gould said the following: “This government stands against antisemitism, and we have been very clear about that. As soon as I learned about this material I was deeply concerned and contacted my officials, as well as UNRWA itself, to get to the bottom of this. I have been in touch with counterparts around the world, and we are working with the UNRWA to ensure that the materials it teaches, which are provided by the jurisdiction in which it operates, meet UN values and uphold the principles of neutrality.”

Conservative MP Marty Morantz, who is also the Canadian representative of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, said he doesn’t believe enough was done to mitigate the controversy. “I have a serious problem with the idea of Canadian tax dollars going to fund the dissemination of school materials that teach young Palestinian children how to hate Jews.

“In my mind, the government’s position has been the same for many years—the support is for a two-state solution, for two states to live side by side in peace and security, and that seems wholly inconsistent with the idea of teaching a generation of Palestinian children exactly the opposite.”

The conflict between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel in May sparked an uptick of antisemitic hate crimes throughout Canada. Gould, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, doesn’t take this lightly.

Her paternal grandparents, from Czechoslovakia, were dating as teenagers before being separated in 1938, after they had moved to Prague to avoid the Nazi invasion.

“My great-grandfather, on my grandmother’s side, was very adamant that they had to leave,” Gould said. “He felt intensely what was coming.” Her grandmother managed to board one of the last ships leaving Poland to England, where she would stay with a Christian family who attempted to convert her to Christianity (unsuccessfully).

Her grandfather, at age 19, and his brother, age 17, stayed in Prague, and were ultimately deported to Theresienstadt, then to Dachau, and finally to Auschwitz. Young and healthy, they managed to survive the torturous conditions of the concentration camps, avoiding gas chamber selections and random executions.

Shortly before liberation in 1945, the two brothers were forced into a final death march with 300 Jewish prisoners. Only 49 survived, including Gould’s grandfather and great-uncle. After the war, Gould’s grandparents reunited.

Her parents met in Israel—her mother, who is not Jewish, was from Germany—and they moved to Canada, a country that provided ample opportunity for education and economic growth, as well as the promise of equality and diversity.

Of course, though, such ideals weren’t as entrenched in Canadian society as the history books might claim—a past of residential schools, colonial enforcement, systemic racism, and antisemitism were still lurking beneath the promises of this welcoming land.

Amidst apparent progress, increasing cases of antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black and Asian hate crimes, along with Holocaust denial—and glorification—have made the headlines of national newspapers in recent years.

“I feel such a sense of responsibility to make sure that the story of my family is known, and that it reinforces the need to look at the other as human,” Gould said. “It must teach us to remember and experience and live that shared humanity, and it must guide us in our current understanding of each other. It’s so unimaginable to see what happens when you don’t look at another human being as a human being.”

Gould also sees the imperative for Holocaust education to enable a deeper awareness of the cruelties that were historically imposed—in part, to avoid sloppy comparisons with pandemic restrictions, which have become prominent on social media. “You can’t compare what the Nazis did to some of the things that they are comparing it to now,” Gould said.

In recent months there have been trending tweets comparing proof of vaccination mandates with the Star of David sewn on the clothing of Jews during the Holocaust.

“That is why education is so important—so people understand what we are actually talking about, and what we’re trying to ensure never happens again,” she explained.

Her list of responsibilities, as a mother, MP, community advocate, and descendant of survivors, seems endless. Beneath it all, according to Gould, is the desire to give Canadians equal opportunity—whether it’s providing life-saving vaccines, lowering the cost of daycare, or telling the story of what happens when the flames of hatred are fanned.

“My grandmother would tell me this story of when she was 16 years old in high school, and the headmistress asked her to get up in her class because she was Jewish,” Gould said. “She then left Czechoslovakia and never went back. Her family knew there was a danger just by virtue of who they were. That is not something we can tolerate in our society. And we need to understand what that risk is.”