It was January of 1973 and Monique Bégin had just been elected to the House of Commons as one of the first three female MPs from Quebec. The 36-year-old sociologist, accompanied by fellow Liberal MP Albanie Morin, bounded into the Centre Block of Parliament, anxious to take their seats in the House of Commons chamber.
A security guard spotted the two women and shouted, “Ladies, upstairs,” directing them to the visitors’ gallery. When they objected that they were elected officials, the guard responded, “Oh no, there are no women MPs here.”
For Ms. Bégin, it was an unforgettable anecdote that inspired the title of her 2019 memoirs, Ladies, Upstairs!, and an early indication of the battles she would face in her remarkable rise as a female politician in a Canada still dominated by men.
Ms. Bégin, who died in Ottawa on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t deterred by those early insults, becoming a powerful minister of health in the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, pushing for creation of the Child Tax Benefit and the Canada Health Act, whose precepts still form the basis of Canada’s state-funded health care system.
“She was a consistently thoughtful, progressive voice on public policy in Canada,” said Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier who’s now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Rae first met Ms. Bégin in the 1970s when they were on opposite sides of the aisle in the House of Commons. He was a young NDP MP who often challenged the Liberal government in which Ms. Bégin was a leading cabinet minister. Yet they respected each other and developed a friendship that lasted decades.
Mr. Rae called her “a wonderful person” with a great sense of humour who was interested in getting to know people personally rather than simply engaging in partisan politics. And when Mr. Rae became a Liberal himself and ran for the leadership in 2006, Ms. Bégin backed his candidacy.
“When I started off in politics, she was my inspiration,” said former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps. “Monique’s body of work was always pushing the envelope” for women.
Ottawa writer and journalist Charlotte Gray, a friend for 40 years, said Ms. Bégin showed incredible bravery at a time when “women cabinet ministers were treated incredibly badly by the press and their own colleagues.” And she brought a unique approach to the almost seven years she served as federal health minister.
“She could talk health economics and systems but she could also talk about the real experiences of health care for most people,” Ms. Gray said.
Monique Bégin was born on March 1, 1936, in Rome, Italy, the eldest of seven children of Lucien Bégin, a sound engineer from Quebec, and his wife, Marie-Louise (née Vanhavre), an accountant from Brussels, Belgium. Her father was an adventurer and self-made man, who left his home in small-town Quebec and travelled to Europe in the 1920s, where he studied acoustical engineering and ended up working for a Paris-based firm.
When war broke out in 1939, the family, now with three young children, fled first to the south of France, then returned briefly to Paris before fleeing south again. They crossed into Spain and then Portugal, where they finally were able to sail to New York in August of 1941.
Returning to Canada, the family settled in Montreal, where Monique lived the challenging life of a newcomer who stood out from her Quebec schoolmates with a different accent and unusual European clothes.
Monique excelled academically but the family was often short of cash. When she applied to a Catholic college, the nuns suggested that she work as a server in the dining hall in return for a fee exemption. Her proud mother refused. Instead, Monique attended teachers’ college on a scholarship and ended up in charge of a class of 52 girls. She was 19. The job proved overwhelming and she resigned.
Ms. Bégin began working as a secretary at the University of Montreal while trying to get accepted there as a student. But things weren’t going well at home. On her 21st birthday, her authoritarian father threw her out of the house for “undermining his paternal authority.”
Ms. Bégin enrolled at University of Montreal and earned an MA in sociology. She pursued PhD studies in Paris but didn’t complete her degree. Returning to Montreal, she began teaching sociology and helped found the Fédération des femmes du Québec (Federation of Quebec Women) in 1966. Her public profile began to grow.
In 1967, at age 31, she was hired as executive secretary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The commission’s 1970 far-reaching report recommended the right to maternity leave, a daycare programme and rights to abortion and birth control.
A year later, Ms. Bégin got a call from Marc Lalonde, Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, asking her to run for the Liberals. Concerned that “power was dirty,” she hesitated before finally agreeing to seek the nomination in the suburban Montreal riding of Duvernay.
When local Liberal organizers saw her CV, they immediately changed her birthplace from Rome to Montreal, fearing that her foreign origins wouldn’t sell with francophone voters. All to no avail. Backers of a local candidate packed the nomination meeting and Ms. Bégin lost.
Mr. Lalonde called back and told Ms. Bégin that he planned to parachute her into the Montreal riding of St-Michel. It included a substantial Italian-Canadian community, so her CV was changed again. Having Rome as her birthplace was now considered electoral gold. She won easily.
In 1976, Ms. Bégin was appointed to cabinet as minister of national revenue. It wasn’t an easy introduction. At a welcome cocktail party, the deputy minister joked that he had a hobby farm and added, “My favourite cow is called Monica.” She later confided that she felt like slapping the bureaucrat, but didn’t.
A year later, Ms. Bégin was promoted to the high-profile department of national health and welfare. She believed in the idea of a guaranteed annual income, which proved too expensive, but in 1978 she pushed to introduce the Refundable Child Tax Credit, which she considered an important step toward poverty alleviation.
Faced with funding constraints, Canada’s free health-care system started unravelling. Doctors began to extra-bill patients and the provinces were imposing user fees. Ms. Bégin decided to act, eventually proposing legislation that would set five principles on the provision of universal health care and threaten to impose financial penalties on provinces that failed to abide by them.
The fight turned nasty. The head of the Canadian Medical Association referred to the legislation as “a rape of the spirit, if not the legal stipulations of the Canadian Constitution.” Ms. Bégin recalled that provincial ministers opposed to the measure ganged up on her at a federal-provincial meeting and used “vulgar words” to attack her.
But she persisted. “Your philosophy is either universal medicare or it’s privatization,” she said in a radio interview. “My philosophy is universal and you don’t negotiate philosophy.”
In the end, the legislation passed unanimously in the Commons in 1984, just prior to the election that saw the Liberals ousted from power and Ms. Bégin leave politics. “I’ve been called the saviour of medicare,” she later recalled. “But I just did my job.”
Patrick Fafard, a professor and expert in health policy at University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences and the Faculty of Medicine, said the legislation was important because it allowed Ottawa to lay claim to a leading role in the provision of public health care in Canada.
While the act stopped extra billing, it never stipulated what Ottawa’s share of health-care costs should be, and over the years Ottawa’s share of that spending continued to decline. Above all, concludes Prof. Fafard, the Canada Health Act “was highly successful politically and symbolically.”
An ardent federalist, Ms. Bégin was an energetic backer of the No side in the 1980 Quebec referendum on separation. During the campaign, Lise Payette, a Parti Québécois minister, tarred female supporters of the federalist cause as “Yvettes,” a pejorative reference to a docile girl in Quebec school texts. In reaction, Ms. Bégin became a high-profile participant in massive “Yvette” rallies of federalist women, turning the insult into a campaign success for the victorious No campaign.
Following politics, Ms. Bégin returned to academia, initially teaching at University of Notre Dame in Indiana and McGill University before being named in 1986 as joint chair of women’s studies at University of Ottawa and Carleton University. In 1990, she was appointed dean of health sciences at University of Ottawa, a position she held until retiring in 1997.
From 1993 to 1995, Ms. Bégin co-chaired Ontario’s Royal Commission on Learning, whose report proposed widespread reforms, including an emphasis on early childhood education. She was appointed under an NDP government, however the report’s recommendations were largely ignored by the subsequent premier, Progressive Conservative Mike Harris.
Ms. Bégin was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1997 and was promoted to companion in 2020. She was awarded 18 honorary degrees. She was a member of the boards of McGill University and the Ottawa Heart Institute and also served as a member of the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health.
Ms. Bégin leaves her siblings, Marie Bégin and Sébastien Bégin, as well as numerous nieces and nephews. She never married.