Editor’s note: This is the final in a series on Catherine Callbeck.
CENTRAL BEDEQUE — It’s an image now part of Prince Edward Island’s political history.
But when it was captured, the story it told was unheard of in this province.
The picture, taken in 1993, is of a premier, Speaker of the House, deputy Speaker, Opposition leader and lieutenant governor. They are all women.
Known as the First Five. Catherine Callbeck was among them.
Friday, Callbeck’s 75th birthday, marks her retirement from the Senate and, she says, retirement from political life.,
For women in politics in this province, past and present, Callbeck — the first woman MLA to represent her district and riding as an MP, the first and only female Island premier and, at that time, the first elected female premier in the country, was a trailblazer, someone who paved a path for the women who followed.
“She stirred my interest in politics when I moved from the mainland to Bedeque. She, at that time, was the Minister of Health for the province and then became a neighbour,” said Nancy Guptill, who was in that photo. “She certainly did a lot of leadership roles, not just in politics but also within the community.”
Guptill was Speaker of the House from 1993 to ’96, during the time Callbeck was premier, and represented the former District of 5th Prince, which is now St. Eleanors-Summerside, from 1987 to 2000.
“I think it was the Status of Women that initiated (the photo), recognizing that there should be something, a picture taken, because it was quite incredible that you would find five women in the top jobs,” Guptill said.
She cannot imagine politics on P.E.I. without Callbeck and her not being involved.
“I would think Catherine would have to keep an eye on everything that’s going on,” she added. “I don’t think her mind will ever leave the political field.”
Pat Mella, to many, was Callbeck’s arch nemeses, the Opposition leader during her years as premier and one of the five women in that picture. The lone Opposition member, Mella took Callbeck to task on issues of the day, often getting into heated debates on the floor of the legislature.
“I just have such profound respect and admiration for her,” said Mella. “Her commitment to public service is really conspicuous. She was never into it for the money. She was always talking about how important it was to do things for Prince Edward Island and she still is.”
She called Callbeck serious, but fun, someone who was successful in business and didn’t need a career in politics to make a significant contribution to the Island.
“I don’t think we could have a better representative in the Senate. She is just one great, great person.”
Paula Biggar holds one of the positions captured in that photograph. The past seven years she has been deputy Speaker and Carolyn Bertram the Speaker of the House.
“It set the bar pretty high on P.E.I. to put women in those kinds of roles,” Biggar said of the province’s political landscape at that time. “For women to get into politics in general is a challenge, certainly provincial politics.
“Because of Catherine and Nancy and Libbe, all those women, they opened the door for women in politics on P.E.I.”
Biggar called Callbeck an inspiration to the women who came after her.
“She had represented Prince Edward Island and herself in the Senate on behalf of P.E.I. in a very distinguished way. She has represented P.E.I. with dignity and distinction.”
Senator Elizabeth Hubley held Biggar’s position in 1993 in Callbeck’s government.
“We were all doing our part and fulfilling the roles that were presented to us,” said Hubley. “I don’t think we felt because we were women that we were doing anything out of the ordinary and I don’t think we thought very much about the fact that we were women.
“It is certainly something I was proud of, to be part of that group. I look at it now with great pride.”
Hubley also spent several years with Callbeck in the Senate, adding her presence in the Red Chamber will be greatly missed.
“She’s non-stoppable but she does that in a way that is very effective,” said Hubley. “She wants to better the lives of all Islanders and certainly all Canadians.”
Callbeck never thought of her self in those early years as a trailblazer. She admitted, though, to being met with sexism in her early political life.
But, she had always been a woman in a man’s world — the only woman while at Mount Allison getting her bachelor in commerce, the lone female teaching business at what is now the New Brunswick Community College and, in business, often the lone woman in the boardroom.
“When I got in, I know there were a lot of people that felt that women shouldn’t be in politics. I was told that. I didn’t really let that interfere.”
As she prepares for a life out of the spotlight, Callbeck, who doesn’t brag about her accomplishments, can now comprehend the path she paved for other women.
“I was presented with an award in Ottawa for being a trailblazer. I didn’t see it when I was doing it. When I look back and realize that I was the only woman or the first woman to be elected premier, yeah,” ... her voice trails off and then she continues. “It’s big for a shy kid coming from Bedeque.”
Callbeck’s hopes to spend more time at her cottage in Fernwood, a place where some summers during her political career she never got to see.
But she is firm in her assertion that a career politics is in the past.
“There is a time for everything. I’m ready to move on. I want to take some time to look after some personal things because when you are in public office for that long a lot of things get put on the backburner.”