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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.”

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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