They came and grabbed what they wanted. It broke my heart. I was 12 when I had to open up my apartment and give away all of my toys. They took what they wanted. It was hard to let all of it go, but there was a weight limit on what I could take to Canada. I ended up taking one toy tank, my beloved stamp collection and a Polish book given to me by my Grade 7 teacher. I still choke up remembering it: she told me to never forget my language. And I didn’t. That book still is one of the most precious things I own.
My mother, my five-year-old brother Adam (who packed his teddy bear), and I left communist Poland in December of 1982 to join my dad, a sailor, who defected to Canada many years before.
My political aspirations were spurred by this time in Poland. My mom worked with the Solidarity movement to undermine the communists. I was forced to learn Russian in school, and helped hand out underground leaflets. When I came to Canada, first in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and then Edmonton … it didn’t take long before the political bug hit again. I started volunteering for a PC (Progressive Conservative) candidate at just 16. Then, I ran as a candidate in the provincial election in 2001, and was the first Polish-born person to be elected to a Canadian legislature. [I talked extensively about growing up in Poland and my family’s defection to Canada with reporter Jeremy Lye, the audio of which can be found below]
Now, I am running for the leadership of the party I joined so many years ago. If this campaign is successful, I would be the first foreign-born premier in the province in almost 80 years. It tells you what a welcoming place this is, that an immigrant who came with nothing could be seeking the highest provincial office. It is absolutely overwhelming and humbling sometimes when I think about it.
I am not the candidate that is endorsed by the elite, and I am proud of that.
Over the years, I have held cabinet positions in the education, post-secondary education, immigration, and employment portfolios. My work has included expanding provincial government programs to help new Canadians get their credentials and experience recognized, bringing employers in to do job fairs in welfare offices, and advocating for increases to Provincial Nominee programs so more temporary foreign workers can get their permanent residence.
I am also vowing to fight Ottawa over changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program, which has left many Alberta businesses without workers and workers without stability. The TFW program has never been ideal because Alberta needs permanent immigrants. We need people to come to this place, do the jobs that others are not available to do or are not willing to do, become Canadians, invest themselves in our communities and have the same opportunity that Canada has given me and my family. The current program doesn’t do that.
Being an immigrant has shaped my experiences and the way I see life. My parents protested against entrenched authority. I was told by the communists what my opinion was, and was advised not to ask questions. Today, I have gone very far in the other direction. I’ve never been afraid to ruffle a few feathers. That includes speaking out against some spending decisions made by the former Premier, and calling on my political colleagues to earn back Albertans’ trust. I am not the candidate that is endorsed by the elite, and I am proud of that.
The TFW program has never been ideal because Alberta needs permanent immigrants.
I recognize that Canada, and Alberta in particular, is a land of opportunity. There is a great education system, there are jobs for anyone who wants to work, communities are safe, and there is a high quality of life.
As the campaign unfolds, I am identifying economic, social, financial, and ethical priorities for a government under my leadership. I believe that creating opportunities for people to be their best is an important role for government. I want everyone to have the opportunities I had – a chance to learn, to feel welcomed in the community, to find a job, and to start a family. I am lucky to be here, but it takes more than luck to make a province successful.
There are three candidates running for the leadership, and only members of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives can vote. The voting takes place September 5 and 6, with ballots being cast online, by telephone, and in person.
My campaign website is VoteThomas.ca.