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evolving role

First ladies, Michelle Obama, left, Carla Bruni of France, right, chat as they pose during the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009.Gerald Herbert

This weekend, the spouses of the G20 leaders will nibble on local fruit at the top of the CN Tower, learn how to bead moccasins from Algonquin leaders and put on their most-practised smiles for the competing flash bulbs of photographers. But their more important task is to uphold the unofficial Hippocratic oath of the political spouse: Do no harm.

Spouses may have greater influence than ever on the way their partners govern at home, but when abroad, they must adhere to rigid rules on how to conduct themselves at international summits.

"Their basic job is not to do damage," Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, says.

Mr. Troy cites a memo written by U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1972, where he considered bringing his wife on a state visit.

"If Pat comes to China, she's coming as a prop," Mr. Nixon wrote.

Not a lot has changed since then, Prof. Troy says.

Though prominent presidential wives such as Laura Bush and Michelle Obama have advocated for their own political initiatives at home, they've stayed away from the microphones at international summits.

Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University, says spouses have less agency at these summits than they do on state visits partly because of logistics.

"The problem here is you have 20 spouses and they have 20 different kinds of interests," he says. (In the end, only nine spouses are attending). "It's hard to have them do something that would look less than artificial."


But that generic programming always has an overwhelmingly female tinge to it - never mind the fact that two of the spouses are men.

Today, while the G8 leaders meet in Huntsville, Ont., their spouses will learn about native peoples' craftsmanship and artistry in a morning called "The Muskoka Experience" followed by a lunch full of local fare.

The Sunday itinerary includes a sumptuous brunch atop the CN Tower in which the spouses will be introduced to 10 "Women of Distinction," all hand-picked by Ms. Harper.

Beverley Mahood, a country singer from Kilbride, Ont., is one of the 10 chosen ones. She's also performing for the G8 leaders in Muskoka, a gig she says ranks "right up there with when I win a Grammy."

The brunch, however, is about meeting family women.

"I'm excited to meet Michelle [Obama]- she is a mother, she is a family woman and she is a wife," she says.

Regina jewellery designer Rachel Mielke created 30 custom necklaces as gifts for the event. The excitement for her, she says, was her jewellery would be around the necks of style icons.

Family women. Style icons. No wonder the only two men of the 20 spouses - husbands of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner - are staying home.

The absences make sense to Prof. Jacek. Ex-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's husband avoided most international meetings.

"The feeling was that he was an embarrassment," he says.

But while the spouses are advised against making public statements on hot-button issues, the well-educated group can certainly chat amongst themselves about more than just their approval of the dinner menu.

Summits can be a haven for the lonely other halves of presidents and prime ministers, Prof. Troy says.

"If you're feeling frustrated or if you're feeling bored, this is an opportunity to share concerns, to find people who are likeminded in the zone of confidence and comfort. If you do have a cause, this is an opportunity to find people who have shared interest and the same power," he says.

McMaster University communications professor Alex Sévigny has an even more optimistic view of a spouse's evolving role at summits.

"It's a growing advocacy role for causes. I think there's a move away from the notion of spouse appendage and towards spouse advocate and spouse co-representative."

Prof. Troy says Ms. Obama may not get to speak up about her position on the McChrystal affair, but she can recruit support among other spouses for her less-controversial childhood obesity initiative. The stipulation, though, is "it has to be done within all the protocols and pageantry of the summit."

Spousal missteps

Though they're expected to be the "background music" at international summits while their partners do the real work, some political spouses just can't avoid making headlines themselves.

- Cecilia Sarkozy, France's former first lady, was all smiles when she accompanied her husband to the 2007 G8 summit in Germany. She caused a stir when she left early - missing the official spouse photo - "for personal reasons." At the time, reporters interpreted it as a crack in the first couple's marriage. That fall, Mr. and Mrs. Sarkozy divorced.

- Laura Bush and former U.S. president George W. Bush ducked out of a few sessions in their respective programs at the 2007 G8 in Germany. In Ms. Bush's memoirs, published this year, the former first lady said they weren't feeling well and speculated that she and her husband had been poisoned.

- Nicolas Sarkozy's third wife, Carla Bruni, was around to get her photo taken at the G8 in Italy last year, but was tardy. She attended the L'Aquila portion of the program, but skipped the events in Rome. News reports suggest it was a public snub directed at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, of whom Ms. Bruni is not a fan.

- At that same summit, Mr. Berlusconi, who was and still is in the middle of divorce proceedings, raised a few eyebrows when he found an alternative to serve as host to the leaders' spouses: Mara Carfagna, his newly appointed equality minister and former topless model.

- It would be much easier for South African President Jacob Zuma to RSVP to summits if the invitations said "+3." Instead of picking one of his three wives for this year's G20, he chose his daughter. Last year, he went to the G8 and G20 with his second wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli, which may have heightened the existing tension at home. In 2009, after he delivered his state of the nation address, his wives caused a stir in the media as they jostled to be closest to him during a photo session.

The wives club

These are the spouses in the country this weekend

  • Laureen Harper, Canada
  • Kristiani Herawati, Indonesia
  • Kim Yoon-ok, South Korea
  • Svetlana Medvedev, Russia
  • Michelle Obama, USA
  • Emine Erdogan, Turkey
  • Gursharan Kaur, India
  • Nobuko Kan, Japan
  • Margarida Sousa Uva, European Union

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