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Laureen Harper holds up one of her adopted kitten on March 6, 2013, at 24 Sussex, the official residence of the Prime Minister in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Laureen Harper holds up one of her adopted kitten on March 6, 2013, at 24 Sussex, the official residence of the Prime Minister in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Don’t call her first lady: A rare sit-down chat with Laureen Harper Add to ...

This is a landmark year for Laureen Harper: She turns 50 in June, celebrates 20 years of marriage in December and, just one month ago, helped her husband mark seven years as Prime Minister. Even her mother’s seven-foot pet python, Boomer, just turned 20.

“I don’t feel that old,” she says with a smile. “What’s 50 supposed to feel like, anyway?”

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Mrs. Harper, a petite blond from rural Alberta, has long been cast as Stephen Harper’s foil, or his (not-so) secret weapon. Her warmth and down-home charm have helped satisfy Canadians who crave a connection with the elusive, inscrutable man they’ve elected three times since 2006.

Nearly two years ago, her husband won the coveted majority that had evaded him and his party twice before. The victory was a breakthrough that signalled a changed political landscape. But she says life at 24 Sussex Drive is much the same.

“Your family is your family,” she tells The Globe and Mail in a rare and intimate interview at the Prime Minister’s official residence.

She is more comfortable atop her Yamaha XT225 motorcycle or hiking with friends than sitting down with journalists or claiming credit for her charity work with organizations such as the Ottawa Humane Society, Meals on Wheels Calgary, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, CIBC Run for the Cure or the National Arts Centre (NAC), where she serves as honorary chair.

But a public life, no matter how inconspicuous you try to be, inevitably foments chatter and rumours. For Mrs. Harper, the whisperings seem to claim little space in her mind.

“I grew up in a small town,” she says in the main-floor sunroom overlooking the Ottawa River, currently devoid of the ice-fishermen she usually spots on winter days. “Everywhere you go, people talk. That’s just part of life.”

Mrs. Harper, clad in suede flats, dark skinny jeans, turquoise top and black cardigan, loosens up when the tape recorder is off, and whenever the hour-long conversation turns from herself and toward others – her children, her husband, her friends or her beloved cats (upward of 200 foster kittens have cycled through the residence under her watch).

Much has changed for Mrs. Harper since growing up the daughter of ranchers in Turner Valley, Alta., or attending Oilfields High School in the sister town of Black Diamond, or even since the early days of her husband’s prime ministership. She remembers, for example, the awe she felt at her first NAC gala some seven years ago.

“I had never bought a fancy dress and been to anything like that in my life,” she says, recalling her turquoise frock. “It was a star-struck evening.”

Personal transformations

That was around the time she transformed from Laureen Teskey into Laureen Harper, a public move meant to defray any potential confusion now that her husband was Prime Minister.

“I was very shy at the beginning and I wasn’t comfortable,” she says about using her public profile to shore up support for charities. “Now, I’ll go up and ask people to donate to a cause, push people and make them come to events. I’m totally comfortable with that.”

But don’t expect her to become the Canadian version of Michelle Obama: Mrs. Harper sees few parallels, despite their husbands' jobs.

“She’s the First Lady of the United States and it’s a defined role,” Mrs. Harper says. “I’m the wife of the Prime Minister – there’s no First Lady in Canada. … [The Prime Minister’s wife] can have a big role, a small role, whatever.”

So while Mrs. Obama is a mainstay on the campaign trail and appears on daytime talk shows championing her legacy cause, healthy eating, Mrs. Harper is more likely to meet with small charities across the country or in far-flung places such as India, where she travelled with her husband last fall and visited an orphanage for boys.

Last month, she appeared at the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau to talk about mental health, a subject dear to her heart because she knows families who have been touched by suicide.

“I’ve had some friends with some tragedies in their life,” says Mrs. Harper, mother to Ben, 16, and Rachel, 13. “How can I sit back when other people are doing all the work?”

Though her public-events schedule might not necessarily have ramped up in recent months, her new-found presence on Twitter means her profile is growing. Since joining less than two months ago, she’s gained some 3,300 followers on the social-media site.

“It’s fun,” she says. “But you don’t want it to overtake – like you’re always thinking about what you need to put on Twitter rather than living your life.”

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