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As Conservative Party deputy leader, Lisa Raitt hopes women will 'see themselves' in her

Lisa Raitt poses for a photo on Parliament Hill on May 9, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt considers herself a feminist. The newly named deputy leader of the Conservative Party, a suburban mother of two with extensive private- and public-sector experience, says she has always been concerned with women being treated fairly and equally at work.

But unlike Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, don't expect her to broadcast it too widely.

"I'm not going to run around saying 'I'm your feminist deputy leader.' I'm a feminist. I've lived it all my life," Ms. Raitt, 49, said this week during an interview at a downtown Ottawa coffee shop.

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"I don't think it's about me. I think it's about our policies."

Ms. Raitt, who ran unsuccessfully for her party's leadership, was named deputy leader this week. She is now the second-highest-ranking MP in Leader Andrew Scheer's caucus – and the only one of his former rivals to earn a spot on his senior team. Born in Cape Breton but representing the Toronto-area of Milton since 2008, Ms. Raitt will act as Mr. Scheer's lieutenant in Ontario and the all-important Greater Toronto Area, as well as Atlantic Canada, where the Conservatives were wiped out in the 2015 election.

But perhaps most important, Ms. Raitt will help to serve as her party's conduit to women – both in encouraging qualified women to run for office and expanding the Conservative base to include more people like her. "I'm hoping what women see is that they can see themselves in me, and the understanding that I know what they're going through," she said.

The former chief executive of the Toronto Port Authority, who wrote the port's first maternity-leave policy, used her campaign as an example of the type of feminism she preaches.

"My financial agent was a woman, my campaign manager was a woman. Anyone write a story about that? No. You know why? Because I didn't lead with it. Trudeau would have led with it, because he's all about symbolism," she said.

A practising Catholic, Ms. Raitt said she stands with the "status quo" on abortion, even if she is personally against it.

"I'm not going to prevent another woman from making that choice. And I do believe it's her choice to make," she said. "As a concept, do I like abortion? No. And the reason is I believe that life starts at conception. That's what I was taught, that's how I was brought up. I still believe that."

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Ms. Raitt is being rewarded on Mr. Scheer's team not for her results, but for her potential. Despite her varied ministerial experience and strong communications skills, Ms. Raitt finished eighth in the leadership race, with only 3.74 per cent of the vote. She attributes the result to a delayed entry in the race and difficultly fundraising in the same regions as fellow Ontario leadership contenders Kellie Leitch and Erin O'Toole.

"I wish I could have raised more money," she acknowledges. She also struggled with French, although she said she's continuing her language lessons three times a week.

Still, she and Mr. Scheer shared a bond on the campaign trail that lasted after the ballots were cast. "I respect him. He knows that we need to grow our base, and he sees I can help. And he also knows that I will be loyal," she said.

Part of her role, too, will be to help Mr. Scheer with caucus management after what was, at times, a heated leadership race. "Some people went after each other. And our job now is to bring everybody together. He, to me, was more unifying than anybody else," she said.

In particular, some members of Maxime Bernier's camp cast doubt on Mr. Scheer's razor-thin victory over the Quebec MP. Ms. Raitt said Mr. Bernier has since pledged to be a team player, although it's not clear what role he will play.

"If it was weighed in how well people did in the leadership, I wouldn't be sitting as deputy leader," she said. "What Andrew saw was I did connect with people. And that's valuable."

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Ms. Raitt is also facing a unique situation at home: Her husband, Bruce Wood, was diagnosed last June with early onset Alzheimer's. Mr. Wood's condition has remained stable since last year, she said, but acknowledges they're entering a "grey area."

"Things are still working and I'm not exhausted. But every caregiver will tell you that there is a path that you follow, and at some point in time I'm going to need support. And I'm not ashamed to say I'm going to need support," she said.

Above all else, Ms. Raitt said she values her party for allowing people to express themselves freely. For example, she has walked in gay pride parades, while Mr. Scheer has suggested he won't participate because they've become too politicized.

"If I were the leader right now, and someone said that they wanted to go on a pro-life march, I wouldn't tell them not to go," she said.

"You have to be able to exercise what you feel is your truth. But in that House of Commons, unless it's a free vote, you're going to be voting with us."

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