National Post

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Friday, December 24, 1999

All the Queen's women
A new style is ushered in as Canada will soon have five female lieutenant-governors
Richard Foot
National Post

Laszlo Mezei
Hilary Weston, Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, infused the office with style and charm.

Clement Allard, The Canadian Press
Lise Thibault, Quebec's representative, shared a personal moment with the Queen after Princess Diana's funeral in 1997.

The Associated Press
Marilyn Trenholme Counsell, New Brunswick's Lieutenant-Governor, met the Queen in 1998.

It was the fall of 1997 when Lise Thibault met the Queen, on the Sovereign's first day of official duties at Buckingham Palace after the wrenching funeral that year of Diana, Princess of Wales. Ms. Thibault, newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, had been warned not to direct the conversation but rather to take her cues from Her Majesty.

Ms. Thibault ignored the protocol, however, expressing her sorrow and comforting the Queen in the midst of the grief engulfing the Royal Family.

"As a woman, it was absolutely impossible for me not to say a word about what she'd just gone through," says Ms. Thibault. "I shared with Her Majesty how she must be feeling as a mother and grandmother. It was a very, very precious moment in my life."

Ms. Thibault says only a woman could have consoled the Queen as she did that day.

"Men don't feel at ease sharing values and sharing human realities," she says. "They don't feel it's politically correct to cry with those who are crying and to give hope to those who need hope."

The Queen had not seen many lieutenant-governors like Ms. Thibault. She will soon encounter more.

In the coming months the Queen will welcome two other women to the role -- Lois Hole of Alberta and Lynda Haverstock of Saskatchewan -- each of them plain-spoken and aware of the pain and joy of the human spirit.

When they take office next year they will bring Canada's complement of female lieutenant-governors to five, an unprecedented number, including Quebec's Ms. Thibault, Marilyn Trenholme Counsell of New Brunswick and Hilary Weston of Ontario. Add to that Adrienne Clarkson, the Governor-General, and two territorial commissioners -- Judy Gingell of Yukon and Helen Maksagak of Nunavut -- and for the first time in Canadian history women are taking ownership, raising the profile and warming public perceptions about these often obscure ceremonial posts.

For 132 years, the office of lieutenant-governor has been almost exclusively a male preserve. Of the 225 who have held the post since Confederation, only nine have been women, with Ontario's Pauline McGibbon the first to be appointed, in 1974.

John Aimers, chairman of Canada's Monarchist League, calls the sudden appearance of so many female lieutenant-governors a natural evolution for a modern society.

"The fact that five of the 10 lieutenant-governors are soon to be women mirrors the population," he says.

Elsewhere in public life, women are not so well represented. Only a fifth of all MPs and a third of all Senators are female. Out of 738 members of the provincial and territorial legislatures, only 169 are women.

Dr. Trenholme Counsell, a former family doctor appointed Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick in 1997, credits Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, for deliberately elevating women into senior public offices.

"These are his choices," she says. "I believe the prime minister is making a great effort to reflect all citizens in his appointments."

Deliberate or not, Canada's current and incoming female lieutenant-governors are considered exceptional choices by constitutional observers. Hilary Weston, whose husband is Galen Weston, the food and grocery tycoon, has infused her office with style and charm. She criss-crossed Ontario, meeting schoolchildren and honouring volunteers. She donates her $92,000 salary to charity.

Ms. Thibault and Dr. Trenholme Counsell, whose appointments were criticized as patronage gifts to steadfast Liberal campaigners, are widely admired in their home provinces.

The appointments of Ms. Hole in Alberta and Ms. Haverstock in Saskatchewan were also roundly praised. Ms. Hole is a popular Edmonton gardening expert and chancellor of the University of Alberta. Ms. Haverstock, once a single teenage mother and a high school dropout, is now a clinical psychologist and former leader of Saskatchewan's Liberal Party. Both women are expected to bring energy and a down-to-earth touch to their new work as the Queen's agents.

Like the governor-general, lieutenant-governors have real, but rarely used, constitutional authority to convene and close legislative sessions against the will of the government and to name and dismiss premiers. It is, however, the non-political, more human aspects of the job by which lieutenant-governors are usually judged, and in which women who hold the office say they excel.

Dr. Trenholme Counsell has campaigned for child literacy during her term. Ms. Thibault, herself bound by a wheelchair, inspires the disabled in Quebec. Ms. Hole says she will pursue educational issues during her years in office and Ms. Haverstock says her focus will be on children and the less fortunate.

The men who preceded these women have been less passionate about social causes, advocating instead for Canadian history or funding for the arts. Others have failed to show much interest in anything at all.

In New Brunswick, Dr. Trenholme Counsell says women can reach out to ordinary people more easily than men can.

"I think that women bring a certain intensity to the role, a great deal of conscientiousness in terms of welcoming people, and a very, very attentive ear to issues that concern families and children."

"Women are perceptive, more so than men," adds Ms. Hole. "We're more understanding about people, and maybe we have a bit more compassion."

Jacques Monet, a constitutional scholar in Toronto, says this appeal to human values, and the element of female glamour, help to make the work of Canada's women lieutenant-governors more visible than that of their male colleagues.

John Aimers dismisses such generalities, saying women have no exclusive claim to compassion. Lincoln Alexander, Ontario's lieutenant-governor in the late 1980s, was famously called "a big teddy bear" by one child who met him at a public function.

"Just as Lincoln Alexander was warm and avuncular, Pauline McGibbon, the first female lieutenant-governor in the Commonwealth, was diffident and regal," says Mr. Aimers. "I would not have called her eminently huggable."

Mr. Aimers concedes that women bring a different set of experiences with them into public office. Ms. Thibault says conversation is certain to change at the annual private meetings that take place each year between the lieutenant-governors and the governor-general, as more women gather around the conference table.

"For sure the discussion will change," she says. "When women serve [in public life] we don't serve to become somebody. We serve because it's part of our soul. It's part of our genes. And maybe it's more feminine than masculine."

Copyright Southam Inc.