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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 ...

Twitter allows her to connect online with Canadians, but Mrs. Harper seems well aware that she is, at least optically and logistically speaking, unlike most of them – for starters, RCMP officers guard her historic home and a maître d’ named Roger greets guests.

But if the pomp and circumstance were stripped from 24 Sussex, the limestone building would very much resemble a typical family home: a backpack tossed on the floor near the front door, socks draped to dry atop the rims of rain boots and photos of Ben and Rachel playing volleyball.

There is also a photo of Mrs. Harper hiking with a friend named Rona Ambrose, who happens to run a federal department that spends $14-billion annually on procurement.

When a photographer asks to take her picture outside, Mrs. Harper briefly debates whether to put on a blazer or to find a lint brush to roll the cat-hair off her cardigan.

She opts for the latter. She goes outside without a coat and a little while later returns, smiling: “It’s almost motorcycle season. You can feel it in the air.”

Busy days in the animal room

Last Saturday, when Mrs. Harper was in Welland, Ont., for her son’s volleyball tournament, the Prime Minister took over “cat duty,” feeding felines Stanley (a handsome grey tabby) and Gypsy (an impressively fluffy, rescued tortoiseshell) and cleaning the litter in the third-floor “animal room,” an unfurnished space with hardwood floors that currently hosts five kittens and a recently adopted chinchilla named Charlie.

Mrs. Harper’s love of animals goes back to her childhood, when her mother and father sheltered critters otherwise destined for a slow demise or a dinner plate.

“We had a pet sheep that had been mauled by dogs and we had to feed it out of a little bottle,” she says. “[My dad and I] bought a goat when other people were bidding on it to eat it. … Any animal with a hard-knock story ends up here, or where I was growing up.”

There was also a Palomino horse named Jack, and Maggie, an orphaned dairy cow they took in even though the family typically raised beef cattle. Today, Mrs. Harper’s mother, Barbara, drapes Boomer around her neck and takes him for walks.

Even the asthmatic Mr. Harper has an affinity for animals: He proposed the name Gandalf – after J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard – before kitty Stanley got his name. He even tries to calculate the cats’ birthdays.

“He’s good at math,” Mrs. Harper jokes about her economist husband.

For her own part, having studied at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and then spent six months travelling in 13 African countries after graduation, Mrs. Harper built a career in graphic design in Calgary. There, the photography lover ran her own company and continued to work while pregnant with Ben.

In the company of political women

She says she has a deep respect for Canadian businesswomen and female leaders, including those off the public radar who are rising stars in sectors such as mining and health care.

“I grew up when Margaret Thatcher was the only female political leader,” she says, adding that now-Calgary MP Diane Ablonczy sparked her own interest in politics some 25 years ago.

“But there are so many [women] now. … There are so many role models to follow in Canada – lots of premiers.”

In a rare semi-political statement of her own three years ago, Mrs. Harper teamed up with Indigo president Heather Reisman and Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human-rights activist married to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, to pressure the Iranian regime to spare a woman threatened with death by stoning for an adultery conviction.

The results remain uncertain. “We’re watching, but it’s not like we can go to Iran and say, ‘Take her out of jail,’” she says. “Pressure in the West can involve a great outcome, but you don’t want to make it worse for the people [involved].”

After marking so many milestones this year, what lies ahead?

Mrs. Harper says all her current charities – and there are dozens – are staffed with “wonderful people” and that she would be happy with “more of the same.”

But the more Canadians pay attention to her, the less likely it is that she and her daughter will wait at a downtown Ottawa walk-in clinic to see a doctor, who then asks if she can afford a prescription – as was the case just over a year ago.

Indeed, it becomes more likely that she will reflect on this statement with a flutter of nostalgia: “I like to walk down the street and nobody knows who I am.”

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