Five years after leaving the political bullring, Gerard Jennissen hasn’t eased into a relaxed retirement. In fact, it’s been the opposite.
“I find that I’m more busy than I ever was before,” said the former Flin Flon MLA. “In the past, a job was a job was a job. Politics wasn’t really a job for me, it was more like a passion. I never saw it as a job.”
Jennissen left provincial politics in late 2011 following four consecutive terms in office. For the first time in decades, he suddenly had spare time on his hands.
“The first year I wasn’t that busy, but I got into a lot of volunteer stuff and on boards and committees,” he said. “When I got up to 13 of them, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I have no time for myself.’”
Jennissen has gradually winnowed his commitments down. Today he only serves on the board for the Northern Manitoba Mining Academy.
“I think I’ll keep it to one board at a time,” he said.
Jennissen, a retired teacher, spends much of his time at home in Cranberry Portage, where he has lived since 1972. Around the same time he left politics, he and wife Lisa became grandparents. Gerard and Lisa now travel to Winnipeg several times a year to see their grandkids.
“That brings a new meaning to your life,” he said. “It’s an eight-hour trip, you have to do that up and down. We do that probably a dozen times a year.”
While the travel can be gruelling, it’s easier than it used to be. Jennissen’s children moved all over the world after leaving Cranberry Portage, living in Great Britain, New York and elsewhere in Europe.
“It’s better than we used to have,” noted Lisa. “They used to live in London. That was very difficult.”
Most of Jennissen’s time today is spent reading books or online, or occasionally writing short stories and poetry.
“I’m not the most computer-literate person,” he said. “If I run into a technical problem, I phone my son in Winnipeg.”
Jennissen has recently become fascinated with YouTube and similar sites, accessing historical videos and speeches.
“What strikes me most often is when I go online and see this particular little film or something and think, ‘Wow, I wish they had that when I was teaching,’” he said. “So much stuff you can access, particularly historical stuff, people speaking. You can actually hear them.”
Always a voracious reader, Jennissen used to read four hours or more each day. Lately, vision issues have curtailed his reading habits and impacted his life.
“I can read 20 minutes, and that’s it,” he said. “My eyes don’t work properly. I have to go back for a laser surgery. That’s a problem. Retirement means health issues become a big fact.”
Jennissen has had eye surgery in the past to remove cataracts, but his vision still hasn’t fully cleared. He suffers from glaucoma, a disease that causes gradual loss of peripheral vision. It is one of the main reasons he did not seek reelection in 2011.
Jennissen’s health issues and age – he turns 75 in February – have given him a new perspective on life.
“We become more introspective as we get older,” he said. “You’re more reminded of your own mortality. You get to a certain age – I was 74 and on the [Northern Health Region] health board, and I know full well that the average life expectancy in our constituency is 71. I’m three years older than the mythical average male. You don’t really feel that way, but reality takes over.”
While Jennissen has left politics behind as a profession, it remains a big interest of his. He has paid close attention to the field since leaving office.
Locally speaking, Jennissen sees positives and negatives in the area.
“I think it’s a mixed bag, in the sense that I think there’s been some tremendous progress being made in infrastructure, particularly in Cranberry Portage,” he said. “You see buildings that weren’t there before. Certainly the roads, we worked hard on that, it’s nice to see.”
Jennissen brings up some pressing issues, such as the closure of Cranberry Portage’s lone grocery store and “pockets of poverty” in remote communities and reserves.
But his biggest concern is the state of northern health care.
“You look at all the health indicators and compare them to the south, we’re more negative than anywhere else on all of those indicators,” Jennissen said. “That’s worrisome. We’re working at it, but progress is very slow sometimes. I know we try very hard, but it’s still an issue in this large region.”