‘Granny of group' helps youngsters in policy program

May 26, 2005, vol. 33, no. 3
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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In 1975, one year after moving to Saskatchewan from the United States, Judy Harris' three-year-old son Ivan was hospitalized with spinal meningitis. When he was released, Harris was so pleasantly shocked by her 75-cent hospital bill that she photocopied it and sent it to all her friends back home.

“I remember every day why I came to this country,” says the Seattle native who this month will graduate as part of SFU's first master of public policy cohort. “I remember things like being pregnant in the States, and not having medical insurance, and arriving at the hospital in labour and being required to provide a $400 cash advance before I'd be admitted. I believe in the social framework and foreign policy of Canada, and I can tell you it really worries me when I see our policies slipping towards the U.S. model.”

Since arriving in Canada, Harris has actively served the various communities in which she's lived. Birth mother of two sons, and adoptive mother of four additional children, she has worked on behalf of non-profit housing associations, served on numerous boards and commissions, worked with seniors, youth, and First Nations, and served as a municipal councillor.

In 2003, she was thrilled to be accepted into SFU's new graduate public policy program - the first of its kind in western Canada. “After 30 years in the field,” she says, “I had had experience working with almost every disadvantaged group in this country, as well as business and financial sectors. I thought it was time to tie all my areas of interest together, and move into the policy realm so I could begin to treat problems, and not just symptoms.”

With the encouragement of her husband and family, Harris moved from their home in the interior of B.C. to an apartment in Vancouver's west end. On the first day of class, she was momentarily alarmed to discover that she was, as she laughingly recalls, “the granny of the group.” But she says it was “a joyful thing to experience the way the younger students shared their knowledge with me.” In return, she was able to help them by “attaching real life work examples to theories discussed in class.”

Harris says the program was “top-notch. I was absolutely on top of and on the inside of every important policy issue in the newspaper because of the amazing group of experts who instructed us.”

Harris recently completed her final papers - one an examination of alternative aboriginal justice systems, the other a study of extra billing in B.C. nursing homes - and is now looking to a career as a policy analyst, preferably at the provincial or municipal government level. “I consider myself a public servant. I'll bring 30 years of road-testing to my next job,” she says, “and there are a lot of miles I can still put on these seasoned wheels.”

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