A tribute to P.E.I. Senator Catherine Callbeck

Published on June 19, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is a tribute to retiring P.E.I. Liberal Senator Catherine Callbeck, delivered in the Senate in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, by James Cowan, leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

Honourable colleagues, today we pay tribute to our good friend Senator Catherine Callbeck, a great Canadian leader and champion of her beautiful province of Prince Edward Island.

Senator Callbeck grew up in a small community of some 150 people. She studied in a two-room schoolhouse, and worked from the age of 12 at her family’s hardware business. She always knew she wanted to go to university, and went on to become the second woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Commerce from Mount Allison University. I should add that one of her fellow students at Mount A was my wife, Shelagh, who tells me that Senator Callbeck was “a Borden girl”, and that they were “a colourful bunch”. Shelagh didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask!

Soon after university, Catherine decided, in her words, “to try teaching”. She applied for and was offered a position in the commercial department in McAdam, N.B. However the school had two pay schedules – one for men and a different, lower one, for women. This, you can imagine, was not acceptable to her. She pointed out that she would be doing the same job as the men and should be paid the same. She got the higher pay.

Senator Callbeck later joined the business faculty at the St. John Institute of Technology, now the New Brunswick Community College. Once again, she was a trailblazer; she was the only woman in the faculty.  

She then returned to work in the family business, but in 1973 she was asked to help organize the activities for the centennial of the Island – and she did – and then was asked to help out on other committees around the Island. Suddenly both political parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, were courting her to run. Being a woman of common sense, she of course chose the Liberals – and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1974, Senator Callbeck was elected to the Legislative Assembly of PEI, and became the first woman to serve in cabinet with a portfolio, serving as PEI’s Minister for Health and Social Services. The trailblazing continued.

In 1988, she became the first woman elected as the Member of Parliament for Malpeque, and only the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons from P.E.I. Then in 1993, she was elected Leader of the Liberal Party of P.E.I. and then the first elected female premier in Canada, with her party winning every seat but one. Colleagues, historic accomplishments of that magnitude take extraordinary hard work, dedication, character, and in P.E.I., I might add, more than a few strawberry socials.

Her accomplishments as premier were too many to list here, so I will confine myself to mentioning only one – well, two, really: Senator Callbeck delivered the Confederation Bridge while making the difficult cuts that were required to get the province’s financial situation under control. She left office 10 points up in the polls.

Colleagues, we all know Senator Callbeck to be a dedicated and serious stateswoman. But I’ve done a little digging and uncovered a few stories that I really think you should hear, in order to have a truly accurate, complete picture of our colleague.

First, there is the story of Bonnie and Clyde – no, not the gangsters or the movie characters, but two Siberian tigers who briefly inhabited Freetown, just east of Summerside, during Premier Callbeck’s tenure. As you might imagine, the tigers were very popular with the locals but less so with the wildlife authorities. And so controversy erupted!

Appeals and petitions endorsed by thousands of Islanders poured into the government to let the beloved celebrity tigers stay. Yet the premier would not turn a blind eye to the province’s exotic animal regulations. After all, on the Island that gave birth to Confederation, was the rule of law to mean nothing? An election was on the horizon, so every day Premier Callbeck was forced to confront her staffers with escalating levels of intensity: “What are you gonna do about the tigers?” “What are you gonna do about the tigers?” “WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT THE TIGERS?

I am told it got to the point where staffers would duck for cover. Bonnie and Clyde eventually found their way to a Nova Scotia Zoo, but I have it on good authority that to this day, staffers who passed through the premier’s office periodically turn to each other and say in unison: “What are you gonna do about the tigers?”

And then there was the day when she stormed into the office outraged. Sources tell me they had never seen the premier so angry. It turned out that the government was paying for Barenaked Ladies to come to P.E.I.

“We absolutely need to stop this,” she reportedly said. “I will not stand for this.”

The Premier continued in her livid denunciation for several minutes before pausing to catch her breath, at which point the staff explained that the Barenaked Ladies were not a burlesque show but a band – and in fact, a band of conservatively and fully-clothed young men.  

In 1997, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Senator Callbeck to the Senate.  She served on a number of committees including our National Finance and Banking, Trade and Commerce committees. But in all her work here, I suspect that among the most personally satisfying may have been her work on the Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, and especially during the several years the members of that Committee worked to produce first the six highly influential reports on the Canadian health-care system, and then the groundbreaking report on mental health, "Out of the Shadows At Last," which led directly to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Yes, “It’s not what the world holds for you. It’s what you bring to it.”

Senator Callbeck, we here know what you brought to this chamber; the people of P.E.I. know what you brought to them; and Canadians know what you brought to the country. My very best wishes to you as you move into this next stage of your life, with your family and many friends on your beloved Island.