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Politics Claire Kirkland-Casgrain was Quebec’s first female legislator

Quebec Minister of Transport Claire Kirkland-Casgrain is greeted by a dignitary at Toronto International Airport during a visit on Nov. 22, 1965.

Claire Kirkland-Casgrain – lawyer, politician, judge and mother – always seemed taller than she really was. Maybe it was the sheer stature of her accomplishments in a life marked by a series of firsts: the first woman elected to Quebec's National Assembly, the first to sit in the provincial cabinet and the first to be appointed as a judge to the provincial court. Or because she was so prodigious and energetic, needing two secretaries to keep up with her when she was in cabinet. Or because she was a multitasker who made it all look so easy, even when it was not.

"If I wanted to have lunch with her, I needed to make an appointment," her daughter, Lynne Casgrain, the ombudsman of the McGill University Health Centre, said. "When she was in cabinet, I remember being with her in a restaurant, with a pile of documents on the table beside her. In between bites, she'd scan and sign them while carrying on a conversation."

Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain died in Montreal on March 24 at the age of 91, when her heart stopped just after she had asked for a glass of crème de menthe liqueur. The request was typical for one who chafed at expectations that women be meek and take second place, no matter that for much of her life women were relegated to a subordinate role both in law and in practice.

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When she married in 1954, like all other married women in the province, she could no longer do things she had taken for granted, such as open a bank account, approve medical care for one of her children or sign a lease for an apartment without her husband's co-signature. In response, three years after her election, she oversaw the passing of Bill 16, which gave married women more power to run their own lives without the paternalistic consent of their husbands.

The bill was but one highlight of a political career that included stints in the ministries of transport, communications, cultural affairs and tourism, hunting and fishing. Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain arrived in Quebec City at the dawn of the Quiet Revolution, when the province began to emerge from the repressive regime of Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis. It was a heady time marked by a rejection of the Catholic Church in favour of a secular society and carefully considered measures that strengthened everything from social services to civil rights.

In the vanguard, Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain brought a sensibility that saw her push for more public green spaces and wildlife sanctuaries; for heritage conservation and cultural development and safer driving laws.

"Her concern for road safety meant my two brothers and I were the only kids on the block who had to wear seatbelts," Lynne Casgrain said. "And when she was the minister of tourism, hunting and fishing, we got to go to festivals throughout the province and we even learned how to handle a gun."

In a news release, Lise Thériault, Quebec's deputy premier and the minister responsible for the status of women, noted that Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain is the perfect symbol in the story of women's advancement in the province because she was such a force for change. "Her invaluable contribution to the cause of equality between women and men will remain engraved on our collective memory," she said.

Marie-Claire Kirkland was born on Sept. 8, 1924, in Palmer, Mass., the only child of Charles-Aimé Kirkland and Rose Demers Kirkland. Both her parents grew up in Ville Saint-Pierre, a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal's west end; their experience informed their outlook and actions for the rest of their lives and helped to shape those of their daughter. Rose Kirkland was a brilliant woman who managed, with only a Grade 4 education, to teach herself English and rise to become the principal secretary of the senior partners at a major Montreal law firm. Charles-Aimé Kirkland, who was studying at Harvard University at the time of his daughter's birth, was a crusading physician turned politician who represented the riding of Jacques Cartier, on Montreal's West Island, from 1939 to his sudden death in 1961.

In his practice and travels, Dr. Kirkland had seen what the world could do to unprepared, unqualified women and he wanted his daughter to be independent, educated and able to stand on her own two feet. He took her with him on campaigns, and she listened to him speak eloquently against everything from anti-Semitism to pollution and the Duplessis regime. He represented possibility because he was a working-class kid from Ville Saint-Pierre who got a good education and grew up to become a doctor. He was among the Liberals who defeated Mr. Duplessis in 1939 and he became a vocal member of the opposition when the Union Nationale won back power in 1944.

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At his side, his daughter learned about the principles of fairness and equality – and how to prevent ballot boxes from being stuffed. She grew up to be girly and steely all at once, always perfectly made up, with pedicures, manicures and well thought-out opinions she could defend on a dime. "In a way, she was very authoritarian and a lot less liberal than my grandfather was," Ms. Casgrain said. "But she shared his social humanism."

Although Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain dreamed of going into the arts and perhaps becoming a dancer, her father bribed her by saying he'd pay for law school and then she could do anything she wanted. After completing a law degree at McGill University in 1950, she articled at a Montreal law firm where her only remuneration was a parking spot, unlike her male colleagues, who received salaries.

It was a similar story when she went into practice after her admission to the Quebec bar in 1952. There would be no big-business litigation for Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain; instead, in the days before no-fault auto insurance, she took on the cases of those who were injured in accidents, especially when a drunk driver was involved.

"There she'd be, grabbing her camera and going out to take pictures at the site of the accident," her daughter said. "Mostly, her clients were women."

In 1954, she married Philippe Casgrain, a lawyer who would become a Queen's Counsel and the president of the Montreal Bar Association. The couple had three children when their lives took a turn: Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain's father died and she took his place as the Liberal Party's candidate in the riding of Jacques Cartier. No nonsense, she put to quick rest the first controversy she encountered by refusing outright to wear a hat, as was the custom for respectable women upon entering the National Assembly. She was an MNA, after all, duly elected and equal to her male colleagues – and there was no way she was going to wear a hat to work.

In a 1998 interview with the McGill News, she said she didn't feel pressured because people had low expectations of her as the "woman representative" to whom her Liberal Party colleagues would refer inquiries from female constituents. But she didn't let it bother her, preferring to go her own way and lobby for jobs no one expected her to want, such as a place at the cabinet table as minister of transport and communications.

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Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain and her husband divorced in the early 1970s and she left politics in 1973 to become a judge on the Quebec Court bench. After years in the spotlight, Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain finally wanted something more stable, with time to spend with her children.

"She was always so busy, and always seemed to be preparing a dinner party or a luncheon," her daughter said. "She didn't like to be alone. She always wanted people around her, both friends and family."

In the late 1980s, Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain married Wyndham Strover, whom she had known in law school. Her Catholic parents, as liberal as they were, would have been horrified at the very idea of the union because he was both a Protestant and divorced.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who married Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain's daughter, called her the "world's perfect mother-in-law."

"There was never a conflict or flicker of disapproval," he continued. "She commiserated when I lost cases and she cheered when I won. More important, even though her family was at the top of the social pecking order, there was a total absence of prejudice when it came to her own daughter marrying me, the son of Jews from Poland."

In 1985, Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain was named a Knight of the National Order of Quebec and in 1992, she was named a member of the Order of Canada. She has received honorary doctorates from McGill (1997), York University (1975) and the University of Moncton (1965).

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Ms. Kirkland-Casgrain leaves her husband, three children, Lynne Casgrain, Quebec Superior Court Justice Kirkland Casgrain and Marc Casgrain, their spouses and seven grandchildren. A national funeral is to be held Saturday at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, in downtown Montreal.

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