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Lois Rae

V. Tony Hauser

'Enjoy life. That's the best thing to do. Don't think of where you might be if you were doing something else. Enjoy what you're doing, and where you are, and love your family and friends." Such were the words and philosophy of Lois Rae, the mother of former Ontario premier Bob Rae.

Mrs. Rae died of heart failure on Dec. 5 in the palliative care unit of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, just two days after celebrating her 100th birthday. Even at the end of her life, politics and diplomacy continued to play an important role. When she learned that her friend, former prime minister Jean Chrétien, would be dropping by to offer congratulations on her centenary, she insisted on wearing a Liberal-red nightshirt.

Her relationship with the former prime minister began in 1967 when her son John, joined Mr. Chrétien's staff as an executive assistant. Their friendship solidified throughout Mr. Chrétien's career and continued after he left office. "Lois was articulate, and a strong-minded person. She was very knowledgeable," Mr. Chrétien said.

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Lois Esther George was born on Dec. 3, 1914, in London, England, the eldest of three children. Her Australian-born father, Stanley George, was a physician who set up practice in the family home on Finchley Road. The family lived an idyllic existence until Stanley died suddenly of kidney failure, when Lois was 15. Lois offered to leave school to help support the family but her mother wouldn't hear of it: She and her husband had been determined their children would go to university.

Insurance money, and support from both sides of her family, afforded Lois the opportunity to develop her inquiring mind. She studied history at Cambridge University where she obtained her bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees.

In 1937, while attending a summer school in Geneva, she met Saul Rae, a charming, musical young Canadian on the verge of getting his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He immediately asked the dark-haired beauty on a date for that evening but she already had one. He wanted to know if she would break it. "I'm sorry," she replied. "But I'm not the sort of person who breaks a date." An arrangement was made for the following night. It was the beginning of a loving relationship that lasted 60 years.

"My mother was a practical, calm, down-to-earth person who lived in the moment. My father was a talented musician and comic talent as well as being a highly intelligent guy. They complemented each other perfectly," Bob Rae said.

The couple married in September of 1939, in Baltimore, where Dr. Rae worked with George Gallup, inventor of the public opinion poll. Dr. Rae then taught for a year at Princeton University before joining Canada's Department of External Affairs, as it was then known. It was the beginning of his 40-year diplomatic career with the Canadian Foreign Service, during which Mrs. Rae would accompany her husband on postings around the world, including Paris, London, Washington, Geneva, Mexico, New York and The Hague. The couple had four children: Jennifer, John, Robert (Bob) and David.

During the Second World War, while her husband was away on diplomatic business, Mrs. Rae worked in Ottawa at the National Film Board as an administrative assistant for John Grierson, the board's founder. Later, she worked for the CBC doing audience research. She thrived on discussions with creative people and liked earning her own paycheque.

"She was a quiet feminist who believed women should be able to have their own careers, but she didn't make a big fuss about it," said Bob Rae, who served as Ontario's NDP premier from 1990 to 1995, and as interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011 to 2013.

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In 1956, the Raes bought an island cottage on Big Rideau Lake, near Ottawa, and considered it to be the family home. No matter how far-flung their various diplomatic postings it was a place to gather with family and friends in the summer, something that was extremely important to her.

While she enjoyed her husband's jocularity and ability to entertain at the piano, Mrs. Rae was keenly aware of assisting his career. David Wright, professor of foreign affairs at the University of Toronto, recalled the couple's teamwork when Dr. Rae was ambassador to the UN in the early 1970s.

"We used to work on speeches and messages with Saul. He would go home for lunch and come back with little marginal notes and improvements that had been written in pencil. They were from Lois," Prof. Wright recalled.

As the wife of a diplomat, Mrs. Rae was in charge of maintaining household budgets at various embassy residences they inhabited, and entertaining dignitaries. An enthusiastic bridge player and voracious reader, she kept up to date with the issues of the day. "Her genuine interest in people, and ability to give them her full attention, plus her keen interest in ideas and the world around her made her ideal for the role of a diplomat's wife," her daughter, Jennifer, said.

While Mrs. Rae could converse on a wide range of topics, one thing that hadn't been discussed in her family was her husband's Jewish heritage. Dr. Rae's father had changed his surname from Cohen after marrying Helen Rae, the Glaswegian daughter of a shipyard draftsman. Their mixed Jewish and Presbyterian marriage caused strife in both families so, in 1912, they left Scotland and immigrated to Canada. Mildly surprised to learn of their Jewish connection, Jennifer relayed the information to her brothers. At that time, in 1968, she was dating Pierre Trudeau, a Roman Catholic. The Raes divulged the family history because they didn't want their sons and daughter to be caught off-guard by possible media attention to another mixed relationship. "It rounded out a family story," said Jennifer. "We were all proud."

While the first serious setback in life had been the early loss of her father, Mrs. Rae was to suffer two more. Her youngest son David died of lymphoma in 1989. Ten years later, after a series of small strokes, her husband died of heart failure. She endured the losses with a quiet strength believing, as her daughter put it, "that you just get on with things." The close-knit Rae family motto is "Make an effort."

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"My mother was a high-impact person with no pretense," John Rae said. "We were extremely lucky to have her with us as long as we did, and in good health." The final words belong to Mrs. Rae: "I've been blessed with a beautiful life."

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