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Prime ministers’ wives have answered the call

For much of the first half of the 20th century we were governed by the dour bachelor Mackenzie King. His wifelessness may have contributed, though he was an effective prime minister, to his lifelessness. R.B. Bennett was a bachelor as well. It may have hardened his personality. Many unsympathetic observers viewed him as a pompous (rhymes with brass).

Wives of prime ministers received little notice until John Diefenbaker's better half, Olive, began accompanying him everywhere on campaigns in the late 1950s. In contrast to her husband, his flashing eyes, his howling bluster, Olive was gracious and benign. She was by no means a leading lady in the mode of her glistening contemporary, Jackie Kennedy. But the press admired her, as did the people, as did, most of all, the Tory Tornado. Commenting on her popularity, Dief observed, "You know, no matter what they say about her, it will always be an understatement."

It would be a mistake to understate her importance or that of most of the prime minister's wives who followed her. It would be offside also to get in a lather over whether the current PM's wife needs one or two paid factotums. Even on a slow news day there are better things to do.

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How important have Canada's leading ladies been? At the unveiling of his prime ministerial portrait last week, Paul Martin, his voice nearly breaking, said that he owed everything to his wife, Sheila, who he'd known since the 1940s. In and out of office she steadied him.

Aline Chrétien turned 80 last week. Jean Chrétien would tell you the same about her as Diefenbaker and Mr. Martin said about their spouses. He met Aline on a bus in Shawinigan in 1951 when he was 17 and hanging out in pool halls and getting thrown out of schools. She helped rescue him from his delinquent proclivities.

As Canada's leading lady, she was serene and classy and a sage adviser. She was the one who persuaded her husband to defy party rebels and run again in 2000. Mr. Chrétien did, winning another majority. She was the one who in 1995 locked the bedroom door on the knife-wielding intruder at 24 Sussex.

Brian Mulroney married Mila Pivnicki when she was 19 and he was a heavy drinker. As the habit got worse, she told him you either lose the booze or you lose me. Out went the moonshine. As the PM's wife, she had her own office and staff and worked hard on causes such as cystic fibrosis. She brought style and sophistication to the office, prompting the press to accuse her of profligate spending.

Best to deflect such criticism with a touch of humour. Mr. Mulroney would roll out a yarn of how he lost his credit card but didn't bother to report it. The reason? He figured the thief would put fewer charges on it than Mila.

Stephen Harper's relationship with Laureen has been the subject of varied speculation. But she was a highly effective leading lady, softening a government's callous image with her friendly, upbeat nature. She's the one who persuaded her husband to appear on the National Arts Centre stage and do Beatles' numbers. She was a strong campaigner for him and for causes such as anti-bullying initiatives, animal welfare and the Trans Canada Trail Foundation.

Lester Pearson's wife, Maryon, didn't win any popularity contests, and the trials of Margaret and Pierre Trudeau are well documented. But for the most part, our first spouses have served the country and the prime ministers well.

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While talking with Laura Bush about a first lady's role, Michelle Obama, who has a staff of 22, observed how "We can't waste this spotlight. It is temporary and life is short and change is needed and women are smarter than men."

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is fashionable, smart, caring and popular. In her privileged though unpaid position she is working like our other leading ladies on important causes. Like them, she can make a big contribution. All the more so if the spotlight shines on what's important instead of kerfuffles.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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