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She has had a long career of public service, played groundbreaking roles on behalf of women and spends half her time travelling the world representing international organizations. Yet it seems Huguette Labelle has just begun.

She was the first woman to head the Red Cross in Canada and the first francophone woman to rise to the position of deputy minister in the federal government. She advanced the cause of women as head of the Public Service Commission and was the longest serving president of the Canadian International Development Agency.

But Dr. Labelle hesitates to single out a particular position she has held, because she has been so deeply committed to each one that she has to be prodded to advance to the next. And for her, more opportunities and contributions lie ahead.

"The job I am in is always the best one," she says.

Dr. Labelle, chancellor of the University of Ottawa and chair of the board of Transparency International, is being honoured today by the Women's Exchange Network as one of 15 "Trailblazers and Trendsetters," pioneering women who have contributed to society.

What she calls her "smorgasbord life" began on a farm near Rockland, Ont., a francophone area east of Ottawa. She was the youngest of three children. Her father grew crops, raised dairy cattle and worked for a company that made ducts for new construction.

Her mother acted as a nurse-midwife to local women, at times turning the family's living room into a delivery room.

At 15, she was sent to learn English at a high school in Ottawa, where hers "was the only francophone name on the list." She went on to get an undergraduate degree in nursing, a master's in educational administration and a PhD in education, all from the University of Ottawa.

One of her early inspirations was her godmother, her mother's sister Betty, who worked in the government, fiercely believed in education and set goals for her niece.

Nurse training was her early focus, but while running the health science program at Algonquin College in Ottawa in 1973 she found herself "co-opted into the government," one of only five women among 700 civil servants at the executive level. She began as an adviser to the deputy minister of health and rose through a series of senior jobs, but says she refused promotions and ignored job offers a number of times because "whatever I was doing was the most important job in the world."

She was encouraged to stretch the limits by managers who "believed in me an awful lot more than I did myself." One was Bert Wisking, in charge of executive staffing for the Public Service Commission, who lectured her to not sit comfortably in one position when her talents were needed elsewhere and she could act as a role model for women.

"He really gave me a guilty feeling," Dr. Labelle says, "And he pushed me along."

By 1980, she was made a deputy minister as under-secretary to the Secretary of State, only the third woman in history and the first francophone woman to rise to that level in the government. That same year, she became the first female president of the Canadian Red Cross.

She remained a deputy minister for 19 years, becoming associate secretary to the cabinet and deputy clerk of the Privy Council, chair of the Public Service Commission, deputy minister of transport, deputy head of the Millennium Bureau of Canada and president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a position she held for almost seven years.

As under-secretary in 1982, she read out the proclamation giving Canadians a new Constitution before the Queen and then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau signed it at a ceremony on Parliament Hill. Characteristically, it was a job she offered to relinquish. "I suggested to Mr. Trudeau there would be many ministers who would love to do that - I wasn't running for election - but he said, 'Don't complicate my life, this is part of your job, let's not change that.'"

At the Public Service Commission, she was charged with improving the lot of women, who held fewer than 1 per cent of senior positions in the bureaucracy. The key was not to set quotas but to give women an even footing and the encouragement to apply for positions, much as she had been encouraged, she says, noting that women today hold about 30 per cent of executive jobs in government. "It's still not 50-50, but the change has been tremendous."

Working women can pay a price on the home front, she says. "You have a big guilt bag on your back, because you know that you're carrying many things at the same time, and you'd like to do each one better." Despite her own 70-to-80-hour work weeks, her family "always found time to be together."

She was offered a post as ambassador but decided not to uproot her children Chantal and Pierre, then teenagers, and preferred to remain a deputy minister. "The capacity to influence policy was huge."

She retired from the government in 1999, determined to immerse herself in organizations, institutions and causes that reflected her passions of higher education, governance and the environment.

Her largest focus these days is Transparency International (TI), based in Berlin, an organization created in 1994 to combat corruption. She came to know TI's work while at CIDA, which was an early supporter of the organization. In 2000, she joined TI's advisory council, and was elected chair in 2005.

She travels to TI's Berlin offices eight or nine times a year, participates in conferences and visits the organization's 100 chapters around the world. In a period of nine days last month, she held bilateral talks with the presidents of Indonesia and Latvia and the head of the caretaker government in Bangladesh.

Peter Eigen, TI's founder and past chair, says Dr. Labelle works strategically and sensitively, building consensus and finding ways to get things done.

"She is truly respected in prominent circles, among presidents and prime ministers and heads of international organizations," he says.

Three-quarters of what Dr. Labelle currently does, including her work with TI, is voluntary. She refuses two-thirds of the invitations she gets to join boards and support organizations, although "I always keep myself open for something I can't say no to."

She has accrued more than a dozen honorary degrees, received a number of medals and awards and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. As Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, a position she has held since 1994, she plays an honorary and advisory role, presiding over official functions and academic matters.

She works long hours at the home in Ottawa she shares with life partner Arthur Kroeger, who was also a long-serving federal deputy minister. "The computer is too close - and the BlackBerry and the telephone," she notes.

Other organizations she is involved with include the Council of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, UN Global Compact, Katimavik, World Bank Institute and Canadian Bureau for International Education. She also provides advisory services to national and international institutions.

Her destinations in the coming weeks include South Africa, Rome, Greece, New York, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Davos, Switzerland, where she attends the World Economic Forum.

"I don't see myself ever stopping working, I don't know what I would do," she says. "Life is short, you've got to do as much as you can as long as you can."

She feels she has been able to help women both by example and by ensuring they are considered for jobs equally to men. She advises women to be open to new opportunities and experiences. "Just do your best at what you're doing today, and people will notice."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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