First Ladies of Canada
© 2012 Jeannine Ouellette
There is a select group of women in Canada, who although they are rarely the focus of books or articles, have played a key role in our Canadian history and sense of identity. They are the Prime Ministers’ Wives.
Since 1867, Canada has had 22 different prime ministers. Among those 22, three of them married twice, two of them never married, one was a widower at the time he was elected prime minister and one prime minister was a woman, bringing the total number of Canadian Prime Ministers’ Wives to 21.
Like other women all over the country, the Prime Ministers’ Wives have experienced their share of life ordeals, some having to leave their native home to set up family life in a new country, others grieving the loss of their newborn children, some surviving widowhood, others breaking new ground through commitment to change and dedication to a better life for all. During their husband’s mandate(s), many of these women participated in social and philanthropic work, and thus helped to shape a compassionate vision of a caring Canada.
October is Women’s History Month in Canada. Do you know the answers to these questions about the Prime Ministers’ Wives?
1. Which PM’s wife spent her first transcontinental voyage of the Canadian railroad on a platform built for her on the cowcatcher of the train (with her chair nailed down for safety) so she could see the “land united by the train”? Clue: There is a trailhead named after her at Lake Louise in Alberta. The trail leads to a lake that bears her name.
2. The oldest PM’s wife lived to be 102 years of age. Who is she? Clue: She was born in Granby, Québec in 1883 and died in Toronto, Ontario in 1985. She is interred next to her husband in the town of St.Marys, Ontario.
3. Which PM’S wife was a relative of Canadian hero Dr. Norman Bethune, a physician and medical innovator who is credited with developing the first mobile blood transfusion in Spain in 1936? Clue: Her husband was the first Canadian-born prime minister.
4. This PM’s wife was honorary vice-president of the Victorian Order of Nurses, served as one of the vice-presidents of the National Council of Women of Canada in 1893, and was also a piano teacher. Clue: A lounge in the Château Laurier in Ottawa was named in her honour.
5. Which PM’s wife was given “unprecedented eulogies for a non-MP” in the House of Commons for having devoted her energies to the advancement of her husband’s political career? She edited his speeches, was a constant presence in the visitor’s gallery and would also visit towns before her husband, so that he was prepared with information on the inhabitants. Clue: She was born in Manitoba and worked as a schoolteacher in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s.
6. One of the PM’s wives is the granddaughter of one of the founders of Amherst, Nova Scotia. Who is she? Clue: Two of her sons had career in politics (one son was a member of parliament, the other was a lieutenant governor).
7. This PM’s wife was quoted as saying: “Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman”. Can you guess who she is? Clue: At her request, it is reported that the practice of curtseying to the Governor General was discontinued.
8. Only one PM’s wife studied English literature at Simon Fraser University and went on to author three books on her life. Who is she? Clue: Her father was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans from 1952 to 1957.
9. This PM’s wife was the first and only spouse of a former Canadian Prime Minister to have run for political office. Do you know who she is? Clue: She was the first Canadian to be awarded an MA in Biotechnology, Law and Ethics from the Department of Law at the University of Sheffield in 2004.
10. One of the PM’s wives was the great-niece of John McCrae, author of the poem In Flanders Fields. Which one is she? Clue: She studied at Harvard Business School and is a past employee of IBM.
- Agnes Bernard, John A. Macdonald’s second wife, Canada’s first PM.
- Isabel Cox, Arthur Meighen’s wife, Canada’s ninth PM.
- Mary Bethune, John Abbott’s wife, Canada’s third PM.
- Zoé Lafontaine, Wilfrid Laurier’s wife, Canada’s seventh PM.
- Edna May Brower, John Diefenbaker’s first wife, Canada’s thirteenth PM.
- Frances Amélia Morse, Charles Tupper’s wife, Canada’s sixth PM.
- Maryon Elspeth Moody, Lester B. Pearson’s wife, Canada’s fourteenth PM.
- Margaret Joan Sinclair, Pierre E. Trudeau’s wife, Canada’s fifteenth PM.
- Maureen McTeer, Joe Clark’s wife, Canada’s sixteenth PM.
- Geills McCrae Kilgour, John Turner’s wife, Canada’s seventeenth PM.