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British Columbia Judith Guichon, the Lieutenant-Governor who decided B.C.’s political fate

British Columbia’s Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon inspects the guard before delivering the Speech from the Throne inside the legislature in Victoria in February, 2015.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When Judith Guichon was named B.C.'s 29th Lieutenant-Governor in the fall of 2012, the lifelong rancher pledged to use the largely ceremonial position to educate British Columbians about sustainable agriculture.

Since then, she has launched a signature biodiversity program and become B.C.'s most active lieutenant-governor on the record, going back 50 years. But just months from Ms. Guichon's retirement, the unprecedented situation in B.C. politics thrust her into the spotlight, leaving the province's political fate hinging largely on the viceregal.

Following a non-confidence vote on Thursday, which saw Christy Clark's Liberals defeated, Ms. Guichon was left to decide whether to dissolve the legislature, triggering another election; or call on NDP Leader John Horgan to form a new government. In the end, she rejected Ms. Clark's request for a new election, clearing the way for Mr. Horgan's New Democrats to take power.

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She had been seeking advice from a team of more than 30 experts from across Canada as well as Britain and Australia – other Commonwealth countries that use the Westminster parliamentary system. These experts included viceregal counterparts, constitutional lawyers, legal experts and former MLAs, offering guidance through e-mails, phone calls and in-person meetings.

Joe Gardner, a friend and neighbour of Ms. Guichon for more than 30 years who now serves as a trustee at the Government House Foundation, described the Lieutenant-Governor as educated and careful, one who draws from a network of friends and mentors and "gives everything a lot of thought."

"I don't think there's probably anyone better to be in the position she's in," Mr. Gardner said in an interview. "She didn't sign up for this decision … but she is in the position and I believe she will make the right decision."

Mother and ranch owner

Ms. Guichon was born in Montreal and raised on a farm near Hawkesbury, Ont. She met commercial pilot Laurie Guichon during a road trip from Montreal to Whitehorse in the early 1970s and the two soon married, moving on to his family's ranch in B.C.'s Nicola Valley.

Mr. Guichon's family had ranched in the area for more than a century, growing a small parcel of land with just a few cows into a sprawling property with thousands of cattle, hundreds of horses, a general store, a post office and a hotel. Judith and Laurie Guichon officially took over in 1979, becoming the fourth generation to run the ranch.

Together, the Guichons studied holistic management, a farming method that puts an emphasis on sustainable management of agricultural resources, and introduced it to other ranchers in B.C. Thriving, multigenerational ranches don't exist by accident, she would tell them, adding: "True environmentalists wear cowboy boots."

The Guichons adopted four children, two boys and two girls. In an article posted on the Adoptive Families Association of B.C., adapted from a 2014 speech, Ms. Guichon wrote that she and her husband "always wanted a large family, and we had plenty of resources and wide open spaces to offer."

Her children would also help get her through some of her darkest days.

In 1999, Mr. Guichon died suddenly in a motorcycle accident. The kids were then 20, 16, 15 and 13.

"To say that I would not have endured without my children is not overstating the case," Ms. Guichon wrote. "The love of my children enabled me to carry on."

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A single mother and ranch owner, Ms. Guichon busied herself further, serving on local health boards and starting a recycling society in Merritt with neighbours. She was also director for the Fraser Basin Council of B.C., director of the Grasslands Conservation Council of B.C. and a member of the Nicola Water Use Management planning committee.

Mr. Gardner, the long-time friend and neighbour, described Ms. Guichon as hard-working and very involved in the community.

"She's the busiest woman that I know," he said.

Ms. Guichon later married Bruno Mailloux, an invasive-plant specialist who also worked in logging and ranching. Like her, Mr. Mailloux was a Quebecker who transplanted to B.C.

In 2010, Ms. Guichon became president of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association. General manager Kevin Boon recalls bonding with his former boss during long drives from a Kamloops office to meetings with government officials and other stakeholders across the province.

"One of the things that always struck me with Judy, and always meant a lot to me, was she took a really genuine interest in me and my family, my children," Mr. Boon said.

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"Two of my children had been diagnosed with [multiple sclerosis] and Judy took it upon herself to research MS. Every now and again I'd get a note from Judy, or a call, and she'd say, 'Did you know this about MS?' She genuinely cared and was trying to help."

In turn, Ms. Guichon would talk about the challenges of losing her first husband, her time as a single mother and taking over the ranch. They chose conversation over music during these long drives, with the exception of occasional traffic reports on the radio and arguments with the GPS, which the two dubbed Lucy for its female voice.

A prime opportunity

In 2012, an advisory committee on viceregal appointments was established to find a replacement for lieutenant-governor Steven Point, who would be completing his five-year term that fall. The committee consulted with B.C. legislators, stakeholders and other members of the community, presenting a short list to then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Ms. Guichon, known to bureaucrats largely for her work with the B.C. Cattlemen's Association and admired for her contributions to community, was on that list. She was notified by way of a telephone call, which she initially thought was a practical joke.

The decision, friends say, wasn't easy. Though Ms. Guichon saw a prime opportunity to contribute to the province, it meant she would have to divest herself of the ranch she spent so long growing, handing the reins over to her children.

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"Being able to give that up is very difficult in the ranching industry because it's such a hands-on business," Mr. Boon said. "I know she weighed that very strongly. One of the things she said was, 'At the end of the day I had to think about the succession of this. If I don't let go and don't trust my children to do it, who am I going to trust and when am I going to trust them?' "

In November, 2012, Ms. Guichon was sworn in, becoming only the second woman to hold the position since it was created in 1871.

At that time, she told The Globe and Mail: "I thought this was an opportunity to find something else to keep me busy and allow [my children] to make their own decisions with me looking over their shoulders."

In 2014, Ms. Guichon launched Stewards of the Future, a program that aims to get high schoolers outdoors and engaged in stewardship projects that showcase the importance of diversity. She has called it one of her proudest achievements as Lieutenant-Governor.

She is believed to be B.C.'s most active lieutenant-governor, attending roughly 580 events in 2016 alone.

Dr. Ralph Nilson, president and vice-chancellor of Vancouver Island University, from which Ms. Guichon recently received an honorary degree, praised her for recognizing the "the importance of the rural-urban dialogue" and using her platform to draw attention to sustainability.

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Regarding Ms. Guichon's critical decision, Mr. Boon said he has full confidence she would make the right one based on the thought and meticulousness she demonstrated in her previous roles.

"When it came to decision-making … she spent an enormous amount of time researching and looking into all the possible outcomes. She wanted to know every angle of it," he said.

"There is no decision that she makes that she doesn't weigh out very carefully."

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