Pat Carney, who died July 25 at age 88 after a period of poor health, was a trailblazer for women throughout her rich and varied life. Cutting her teeth in journalism, she was the first woman to write a regular business column for a major daily newspaper in Canada. She barnstormed through the macho world of mining and oil and gas exploration in the Canadian Far North, where few women ventured, as a socio-economic consultant based in Yellowknife.
During her high-rolling years in politics with the Progressive Conservative Party, she was the first woman to hold each of three major economic portfolios, serving as minister of energy, mines and resources, minister of international trade and president of the Treasury Board. She was on the front lines of negotiations that produced Canada’s landmark Free Trade Agreement with the United States, spearheaded the scrapping of the country’s increasingly loathed National Energy Program (NEP) and, during her brief time on the Treasury Board, launched a comprehensive, far-reaching Task Force on Barriers to Women in the Public Service.
But for many, Ms. Carney’s most consequential legacy was her critical 1991 vote in the Canadian Senate that kept abortion out of the country’s Criminal Code. Despite a severe flare-up of the painful arthritis that plagued her health for years, she boarded a Vancouver flight to Ottawa, determined to vote against her government’s Bill C-43, put forward by Justice Minister Kim Campbell to replace previous abortion legislation struck down by the Supreme Court. But the bill, which had passed the House of Commons, could still have sent doctors to jail for performing abortions when a woman’s health was not at risk. This was anathema to Ms. Carney, who had always believed abortion was a private matter between a woman and her doctor.
The day before the vote, Ms. Carney recounted later, “in a threatening voice that chilled me to the bone,” Ms. Campbell warned her against voting “no.” In her journal, she wrote “Heavy, heavy pressure.” The next day, undeterred, Ms. Carney was the first Progressive Conservative senator to stand and vote against the bill. Six Progressive Conservative senators followed, several of whom told her they had intended to abstain but changed their minds when they saw her vote.
It turned out that each vote mattered, since the final count was a tie. That defeated the bill, and abortion has remained outside the Criminal Code ever since. A few days later, Senate government leader Lowell Murray removed Ms. Carney from her position as western senator on a key committee, citing her vote on Bill C-43.
Despite the price she paid, Ms. Carney remained proud of her decision. When Roe vs. Wade was overturned last year in the United States, she wasted little time penning a piece for The Globe and Mail, reminding Canadian women how fortunate they were to have no restrictions on abortion and the role she had played in keeping it that way.
As a woman and an MP from far away British Columbia, Ms. Carney considered herself an outsider in the clubby atmosphere of Ottawa. Often, she said, she had to fight for her views to be taken seriously. At the same time, her bluntness and candour did not always endear her to those she worked with. She professed to dislike politics.
“There are many good things about politics. It’s just hard to recall them” she once said. Yet, she spent more than 25 years in Ottawa.
Dora Patricia Carney was born May 26, 1935 in the intoxicating, international settlement of Shanghai, a twin to her brother Jim. Her father, James Carney, the son of homesteaders in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, had fought in the trenches of the First World War. In 1920, he whetted his taste for adventure by jumping ship and settling in Shanghai, serving variously as a police officer, public health officer and meat inspector. In a romance worthy of Hollywood, he met a 29-year old, South African-born journalist on board a Canadian Pacific passenger liner, as she was on her way to Hong Kong to marry her fiancé. Instead, enchanted by Mr. Carney’s tales of life in Shanghai, Dora Sanders got off the ship with him, and the two were soon married in the gardens of the British Consulate.
The idyll did not last long. Japan overran Shanghai in 1937, prompting the family’s departure for Canada in 1940, just before foreign residents were interned.
“My earliest memories were all of war and Japanese,” Ms. Carney recalled. The family eventually bought a ranch not far from Nelson in the B.C. Interior. Mr. Carney was the region’s lone veterinarian. Young Pat relished raising pigs, milking cows and occasionally helping her father with surgery duties. But her adventuresome mother may well have been a bigger influence. Dora Sanders Carney was a long-time writer who authored a memoir of her life in Shanghai and wrote for numerous Canadian magazines.
Pat left home for the University of British Columbia in 1953. With her brother Jim, she soon joined the university’s rambunctious student newspaper, the Ubyssey, and the course of her life changed. “We pushed open the door and entered the rest of our lives,” she wrote in her memoir, Trade Secrets. The newspaper’s capricious, beer-drinking staff was loaded with talent. Her first editor was future famed CBC correspondent Joe Schlesinger. Her second editor was Allan Fotheringham, who became a nationally-known political columnist and author.
Ms. Carney soon graduated to the city’s daily newspapers, first with the Province, where, at 21, she married the paper’s rewrite chief, Gordon Dickson, 15 years her senior. In 1964, she switched to the Vancouver Sun during its final years in the legendary, hexagon-shaped Sun Tower with a newsroom known for, she remembered, “feuds, intrigue, infighting, and vengeful editors and reporters.” As the Sun’s business columnist, a landmark position for a woman journalist at the time, she travelled widely, reporting on B.C.’s swashbuckling forest industry and the heady, early days of oil and gas exploration in the North. She also wrote about the plans of an ambitious 39-year old car dealer named Jimmy Pattison, now one of Canada’s richest billionaires, to make a million dollars. She described him as “a jumping bean of a man.”
During a strike at the Sun in 1970, she headed north to freelance and never returned to daily journalism. By then, she had fallen in love with the vastness of northern Canada, its daring bush pilots and no-holds-barred entrepreneurs. With her brother Jim, she formed Gemini North, an economic consulting firm based in Yellowknife. There were frigid nights in sleeping bags, hazardous flying to isolated camps, bunking in small, remote cabins. Ms. Carney loved it all.
“Money couldn’t buy the experience,” she wrote fondly in her memoir. Gemini North thrived, producing most notably a six-volume, 2,200-page report on the social and economic impact of a proposed Arctic gas pipeline.
But the business didn’t hold her. She returned to UBC for a master’s degree in community and regional planning, and in 1979, a self-described “left-of-centre Red Tory,” she accepted a suggestion to run for the Progressive Conservatives in the diverse, multi-neighbourhood riding of Vancouver Centre. In her first foray, she came within 100 votes of upsetting Liberal and former Vancouver mayor Art Phillips.
She reversed the result in 1980, and with mixed emotions, headed to Ottawa with a salary that was less than half of what she had been earning. By then a single parent, she single-handedly forced a change in the rules by boycotting Parliament until she was allowed to use her travel allowance for her son’s trips to and from Ottawa, so she could see him more frequently.
When Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives won a thumping majority in 1984, Ms. Carney was in his first cabinet as Minister for Energy, Mines and Resources. She hit the ground running, helping negotiate a key accord to jointly manage Newfoundland’s offshore oil reserves with most of the royalties going to the province, before moving on to extinguish the NEP and restore oil and gas pricing to the marketplace. For her efforts, she was named “Oilman of the Year” by Oilweek Magazine, although, she noted acidly, as a woman she was still banned from membership in Calgary’s Petroleum Club.
Mr. Mulroney rewarded her with transfer to the hot-button ministry of International Trade, putting her in the middle of Canada’s contentious free-trade talks with the United States, headed by the irritable Simon Reisman who, according to Ms. Carney’s memoir, liked neither women nor interference. The two clashed repeatedly, and there were times when Ms. Carney felt shuffled aside by Mr. Mulroney. In time, however, she and Mr. Reisman learned to work together, and she was there for the signing of the watershed agreement on Oct. 4, 1987, albeit privately miffed that Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s name appeared above hers.
Ongoing arthritic pain prompted Ms. Carney not to seek re-election in 1988, and in 1990, Mr. Mulroney appointed her to the Senate. Although she found it riddled with “male chauvinist attitudes left over from the 1950s,” she stayed 18 years. Her high-water mark was an all-out campaign to thwart government plans to automate West Coast lighthouses and eliminate their human operators. Ms. Carney co-chaired parliamentary committee meetings up and down the coast, packed with people who told dramatic stories of rescues at sea and lives saved thanks to lighthouse operators, who also provided vital weather reports. In the end, only eight of the 35 lighthouses were automated.
In 1998, she married Paul White, a mining engineer she had known since she was 18, waiting on tables in the Kootenays. After leaving the Senate, she retired permanently to Saturna Island, the most remote of B.C.’s Gulf Islands, where she had maintained a residence for years. Ms. Carney adored the coastal life, parlaying her love into a best-selling collection of short stories about Gulf Island characters.
Throughout her life, Ms. Carney retained strong feelings for Shanghai and the land of her birth. She was particularly pleased to learn that the main boardroom in the trade building of the Canadian embassy in Beijing was recently named The Honourable Pat Carney Room, in recognition of her roots and promotion of trade with China.
“China remains the place I return to in my dreams,” she wrote in her memoir, “where I hear the silky, sibilant sounds of a young willow tree’s leaves rustling in the wind, and the cool song of a stone water fountain.”
Ms. Carney was predeceased by her husband, Mr. White; ex-husband, Mr. Dickson; and brothers, Jim and Tom. She leaves her son, John; stepdaughter, Jane Reid; and sister, Norah.