The merry (and not-so-merry) wives of Ottawa

They marry for better or worse, as Maryon Pearson said, but not for lunch— and often not for dinner

Robert Lewis November 15 1976

The merry (and not-so-merry) wives of Ottawa

They marry for better or worse, as Maryon Pearson said, but not for lunch— and often not for dinner

Robert Lewis November 15 1976

The merry (and not-so-merry) wives of Ottawa

They marry for better or worse, as Maryon Pearson said, but not for lunch— and often not for dinner

Robert Lewis

In the United States it is the Year of the Political Spouse. At an otherwise doleful Republican convention in Kansas City, rival cheering squads erupted every time Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came in to sit down. And during the Presidential campaign, Carter strategists rated appearances on the stump by members of the family as percentages of the candidate himself; accordingly, when Rosalynn Carter filled in for Jimmy in Oshkosh, she was said to be “worth” 41% of Carter. Mercifully, the backroom boys in Canada haven’t yet attempted to quantify the merits of Margaret in Moncton or Maureen in Moose Jaw, although both women have made periodic campaign appearances: Margaret Trudeau during the last two elections and Maureen McTeer during the Conservative convention that elected her husband leader. So far the spouses and families of

Canadian politicians have played much more subdued roles, and reports of their activities have been correspondingly circumspect.

The press generally accedes to the requests of politicians, led by Prime Minister Trudeau, that their private hours remain private. (Truoeau’s press aide recently told reporters flying with the PM to Japan that anything his wife might say on the plane was to be considered off the record.) This, however, has not deterred Ottawa’s political wives from voicing their frustrations. Margaret Trudeau has mused about security agents behind trees in the backyard and her husband’s “brown boxes” of paperwork in the study. Maureen McTeer’s determination to chart an independent course from the Leader of the Opposition has generated public debate and underlined the fact, contentious in male-dominated politics, that the younger spouses of the Ottawa whirl will not continue to do business as usual. Their message is that politics is not all glamour, jet trips and posh parties.

Margaret Trudeau and the wives of other cabinet ministers, unlike most women working at home, have access to incomes that allow more flexibility in running households and traveling the globe (with expenses, the PM makes $69,900; his ministers $54,600), but the demands of public life are special, too. The hours are not necessarily longer than in industry, medicine, teaching or sales; but politicians travel regularly, often on weekends, and as Jane Faulkner, wife of the Minister of State for Science and Technology, puts it, they always have “the press down their throats.” Nor are there many certainties— a point recently made by Bernard PanetRaymond, the new president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, who whined that the reason more businessmen don’t run for office is that they “are reluctant to expose themselves to the mudslinging on the hustings. And if they are elected,” he added, “it may be for only four years.

What do they do when their time in parliament is over? Will they have a job to go back to? And, if they’re elected to the wrong party, they don’t have any power anyway.”

Eight years ago Madeleine Basford stood at the window of a downtown Ottawa apartment and looked out into the night toward the bright lights of a hotel where her new husband. Ron, was plotting strategy for John Turner’s Liberal leadership campaign. Tears welled in her eyes, and she began to sob. She says she cried a lot in those early months in Ottawa from sheer loneliness and isolation. But that’s changed now. For instance, eight months ago, while a woman cared for her two young children back in Ottawa, she rode off on a snowmobile driven by an RCMP officer to view the midnight sun during a 5,000-mile tour of the high Arctic with her husband, the justice minister. “Em older now,” she says. “I see things in a perspective that I didn’t then.” When she was 25 her first husband, a 31-year-old architect, dropped dead from a coronary. By the time she married Basford three years later, he was already heavily involved in politics and accustomed, at age 35, to operating on his own. “I don’t think anybody can be prepared for this life,” she says. “It is a totally different reality. In some ways it is no different than the woman from Okotoks who marries the executive from Imperial Oil, but the fluidity and insecurity of politics separate this life from the others.”

Madeleine Basford has just called a pet shop to inquire about prices on a litter box for the family pet, an alley cat, named Dewey. While the storekeeper goes off to inquire, leaving the telephone dangling, she finds herself listening to a three-way denunciation of the Trudeau government taking place in the shop—none of the participants aware that the justice minister’s wife is on the open line. On another occasion, duringa visit to the Vancouver waterfront, she sees a highly personalized statement against the gun control legislation advocated by her husband: a handscrawled sign on a dockside wall reads SHOOT BASFORD. At home alone one evening, a Vancouver radio station calls to inquire where her husband is, and reports it has just received a death threat against him. (Incidents such as these are not uncommon for the wives of cabinet ministers. Lyn LeBlanc has not been particularly involved in the public activities of her husband, the Minister of Fisheries, but at the peak of protests against the federally sanctioned killing of baby seals last winter hundreds of demonstrators blocked the street in front of their home in downtown Ottawa, threw ketchup on the snow and chanted, “LeBlanc is a killer.” Fortunately, eight-year-old Dominic was away with his father at the timeand Geneviève, three, didn’t understand what the fuss outside was all about.)

There are times, generally Wednesday nights and the occasional weekend, when

Ron Basford comes home as husband and father. At such moments Madeleine Basford may be consulted about positions he is taking in cabinet. She plays devil’s advocate: “I have a wider variety of contacts with a range of people,” she says. “I’m out in the marketplace. I have a chance to do more general reading than he does. I try to be useful in conveying ideas from people from whom he doesn’t necessarily hear.” But for a bright woman, participation in the events of state is a minor joy, particularly victorious election nights. “In some ways,” she concedes, “I’d like it to be my trip. To be absolutely truthful, I’m sure there’s a streak of sheer, unadulterated

jealousy. He could do it without me.” Maryon Pearson, the grande dame of one-liners on life as an Ottawa wife, once remarked of Lester Pearson, “I married him for better or worse—not just for lunch.” For now, Madeleine Basford has resigned herself to being de facto head of a single-parent family—at least until her husband quits politics and her children are older. There will be time later, she thinks, for a career of her own. But for bright-eyed Megan, the younger of their two children, life is not so complex. In the midst of her struggle with a malfunctioning toy, she beams, “I can’t wait for Ron Basford to come home.”

There seem to be two kinds of political wives in Ottawa: those who push their husbands ahead in their careers, and those who pedal softly. The pushers include Adrian Lang, wife of Transport Minister Otto Lang, Maureen McTeer and Gayle Nystrom, the wife of NDP MP Lome Nystrom. The pedalers include Ruth Macdonald (whose husband almost resigned from politics altogether before he became finance minister), Margaret Trudeau, Geills Turner, wife of former finance minister John Turner, and NDP leader Ed Broadbent’s wife Lucille. During the 1975 NDP leadership campaign, Broadbent was undecided whether to run despite tremendous pressure from the party hierarchy. but Lome Nystrom, unwanted by the hierarchy, was running full out. The difference may have been the two wives, and at least one NDP official speculated dreamily at the time that everything would be perfect if only the two candidates would swap wives. Broadbent decided to run after the party promised him weekends off to listen to Bach and read books.

Most wives are no more than ornaments on the political scene. They show up in the public gallery of the Commons when their

husbands speak, they play hostess at countless boring parties, and they appear at his side when he goes out. But some of the younger wives are starting to demand—and get—more out of political life. Liberal MP Jim Fleming’s beautiful wife., Ilona, has worked as his secretary. Adrian Lang started working for her husband during the 1972 election and is now his fulltime special assistant for press relations. At age 34 she has to endure the inevitable rumors that result from spending her days meeting with reporters. “Everytime Em seen having a drink with someone wearing pants,” she notes ironically, “Em having an affair.” And Maureen McTeer gets involved in Tory strategy sessions, though not in a formal way. She was present at one meeting between Clark and his aides last summer and, after listening to one aide make a pitch for the Tory leader to take more specific policy stands, she reportedly stood up and declared: “You’re nuts.” Interventions such as that can be embarrassing to a politician and, perhaps realizing this, some wives have started staking out their own careers as an outlet for their energies. Paradoxically, McTeer is just: such a case, as she takes another crack at

university this year in her bid to become a lawyer. Gayle Nystrom works as a reporter for CJOH-TV in Ottawa, using her maiden name, Morris. Sharon Gray, wife of Liberal MP Herb Gray and a lawyer, tried to start her own political career earlier this year but lost the Liberal nomination in the riding of Ottawa-Carleton. John Turner’s old seat. Some wives are prevented from pursuing their own careers because of the potential conflict-of-interest, a problem that rankles.

Ruth Macdonald, a business administration graduate from Radcliffe and a former Toronto bond trader, has to cope with the fact that her husband’s job as finance minister prevents her from seeking employment in an Ottawa financial house. So in addition to caring for their four children she is now working for World University Service of Canada, which promotes public interest in the underdeveloped countries. In 1964 Jeanne Sauvé lost regular employment as a Radio Canada commentator when her husband, Maurice, entered the Pearson cabinet; now that she is communications minister in the Trudeau government, he is not invited to sit on certain boards of directors.

Compared with the spouses of backbench and opposition MPS, the husbands and wives of cabinet ministers have it easy. With smaller staff's, fewer resources and none of the filters cabinet offices provide, they are more exposed to public pressure. Suzanne Stewart, wife of Liberal backbencher Ralph Stewart and mother of eight children, says the phone at home in Ottawa rings regularly with constituent complaints, many of them sharply pointed. One night the Stewarts were asleep around midnight when someone from his northern Ontario riding of Cochrane called to complain about an item on codpieces on Peter Gzowski’s late night CBC talk show. “They go to Ottawa as idealists,” says Suzanne, “but I can tell you they don’t leave idealists.”

The families of opposition and backbench MPS, many of whom live in the riding while the MP spends his week in Ottawa, also face the problem of prolonged separations. “Politics,” admits Alberta Conservative Harvie Andre, “is hard on families.” An influential member of Joe Clark’s inner circle. Andre moved his family to Ottawa from Calgary a year after he was elected in 1972. The Andres subscribe

to the view that the political family that lives together is more likely to stay together. “Politics,” he says, “does attract people who like to be around power. There are political groupies. Frankly, I don’t see how people find time to cultivate these relations.” At which point Joan Andre quips, “Oh, if I wasn’t here...”

One reason Ottawa is regarded as the Sleepy Hollow of the nation is the naïve view, encouraged by Press Gallery reporters who live in glasshouses of their own,* that nothing terribly sexy transpires on the Rideau. In fact, the dalliances of some of the capital’s foremost citizens would raise eyebrows in Caracas. The closest the public has come to this “problem area” —as they might say in the Privy Council Office— was the infamous Munsinger affair of 1966. But Ottawa politics is no less devoid of tender moments than any Western capital—and the clock does not tick only in Hull. It was a cabinet minister who recently called his girl friend in Toronto to complain about his treatment by Pierre Trudeau, only to find the sentiments reported in the press the next day; he didn’t know that at the time she happened to be in bed with a reporter. One of the liveliest tales making the routes of the Ottawa Press Club these days suggests that Joe Clark’s party discipline problems may not relate solely to the question of national unity. It is said, on reliable authority, that one of his MPS returned unexpectedly from an outof-town assignment to find a colleague in flagrante delicto with his wife. Of course, the politician who is serious about his work hasn’t much time for extramural titilation, and in the main the high rollers of state and their mates seem to be a genuinely square bunch of people who are intrigued by such conventional notions as service to country. One cabinet spouse recently confessed that she was faithful to her husband because “If he ever found out I was fooling around, he would be devastated.”

A veteran Ottawa columnist observes that there was a lot more playing around in the 1950s and early 1960s, when most MPS left their families back in their ridings for six months a year. Apparently, there were secretaries on the Hill at the time who would make Elizabeth Ray look like an amateur. Now, with free air travel provided to MPS between Ottawa and their ridings, most MPS return home on weekends. Even so, there are still incidents. Notes former Conservative MP Gordon Aiken in his book The Backbencher-. “Every now and then a female gets on staff[on the Hill] with more than typing on her mind. And she finds takers.” He relates the case of the MP who was having an affair with another’s secretary, the liaison often taking place in the latter’s office after hours. The affair was

*ƒ/ is not in the Canadian tradition to pay attention to marriage breakdowns, sex and the like, unless they demonstrably affect a politician ’s performance, and as a result Ottawa has no gossip columnist, an unusual gap in press coverage for a capital city, but perhaps not an unwelcome one.

apparently broken up when some colleagues threw a metal wastebasket through the office window during one such rendezvous. Says Aiken: “He knew he had been found out and never went there again.” There is probably more opportunity for illicit sex during the many trips MPS take both inside Canada and abroad in the course of their duties, although it is more often the reporters and aides who travel with them who take advantage of it. Says Aiken: “The first thing to remember is that they [the MPS] are scared to death of getting caught at anything improper... It’s sudden death in politics.” Nevertheless, one Conservative MP is famous for his predilection

toward prostitutes while on the road and once ordered not one, but two, up to his room while attending a party meeting in Halifax.

The growing tendency for MPS to bring their families with them to Ottawa has created a whole new set of tensions within political marriages. Politicians put in long hours, and the lengthy separations between husband and wife—despite the fact they live in the same city—can be tougher on a marriage than separations forced on them by geographic distance. A reporter recalls sitting in former finance minister John Turner’s office one day when his wife, Geills, called, wondering when he was go-

ing to be home. They had a date for the theatre. He said he was sorry but he had to cancel because a last-minute change in schedule had him making a speech that night in the Commons. After he had hung up, he turned to the reporter, shook his head, and said: “This is a crazy life.” Another minister’s ears are still ringing from his wife’s reaction after she had called him at the office only to be told he was too busy to come to the phone. As a result of such tensions, the casualty list for Ottawa marriages is quite long. It almost included the Trudeau’s marriage, although Pierre and Margaret seem to have discovered their own equilibrium following her visit to the hospital for psychiatric treatment in 1974. Concludes former Liberal MP Paul St. Pierre: “Politics is best suited for two kinds of people: young, unmarried, intelligent men in their twenties, or men near retirement but still active. In between, it’s no good.”

The wives who find the going toughest in the nation’s capital are the traditionbound products of small-town Canada who have run smack into urban life and the feminist movement in Ottawa. Janet Foster grew up in Picton, a town of 5,000, and married the area veterinarian, Maurice Foster, a man with whom she had gone to school. Then, in 1968, he came to Ottawa as the area’s Liberal MP, and she recalls that “my heart was pounding and my hands were clammy” the day she arrived for her first meeting of the Parliamentary Wives Association (she is now president). Being married to a politician is a harsh life, she says. It is having to decide, alone, if your teen-age daughter can go to her first discotheque and wondering what you will do when the kids are gone. It is watching your children grow older, in effect, without a father. It is, in Madeleine Basford’s words, “ coming to terms with what you’re not going to be.” Asked why politicians stay in the game, Janet Foster looks thoughtfully out her living-room window—on the lawn, a Liberal sign signals the ongoing by-election in Ottawa-Carleton—and replies, “Sometimes, I don’t know. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. He’d be away a lot, no matter what he was doing.”

Abigail McCarthy has written a thoughtful book on spouses in politics called Private Faces /Public Places. Obviously, it was a catharsis of sorts, an exercise in sorting out her life after she and Senator Eugene McCarthy split up in the wake of his agonizing run for the U.S. Presidency in 1968. “Women, unlike men, are willing to accept friendships with qualifications,” she observes. “They accept the fact that their lives are determined by relationships, that before they are persons they are somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. And that no matter how much they love a friend, that friend has to be sacrificed if there is a choice to be made between her interests and the interests of her husband.”

It is true, as Ruth Macdonald puts it with

total sincerity, that “some of my best friends are Conservatives,” and that lasting friendships endure across party lines. But politics is a blood sport, with winners and losers, and rivalries are intense, particularly among mates from the same party, and never more so than between the spouses of government MPS vying for seats at the high table of government. “The cabinet,” as Madeleine Basford observes wryly, “is not a company of friends.” It is not uncommon to hear a wife denouncing her rival for a poor performance at the latest reception on Embassy Row. And yet the collective sense that all 264 MPS, their spouses and families, are bobbing in the same menacing turbulence often leads to interparty relationships that go far beyond the conventional niceties. One MP with a serious drinking problem has found solace in the sympathetic attentions of a couple in another party. Another member benefits from his particular friendship with a Commons colleague and his wife who include his motherless child in their family. Janet Foster marvels that one of the sons of Tory Ged Baldwin collaborated with her own teen-age boy in a recent school election.

In 1958. Norah Michener, wife of the former Governor General, wrote a 21page volume entitled Memorandum For The Wives Of Members Of The Senate A nd The Flouse Of Commons. 11 was a more formal era in which the Prime Minister’s wife did not sing songs at diplomatic dinners abroad and the wife of the Leader of the Opposition did not serve cake barefoot to visitors at Stornoway, and the purpose of the book was to instruct Ottawa wives in matters of protocol (on visiting the wife of a diplomat: “When you go take with you one card of your own and two of your husband’s ... he calls both upon the Ambassador and upon his wife, whereas you call only on his wife”). In the introduction Mrs. Michener tried to put life as an Ottawa wife into perspective. “Life in Ottawa, because it is the capital city of Canada, is somewhat more formal than in other Canadian cities and towns. It is not, however, on that account in any way lacking in reality, sincerity or interest.” But perhaps the last word on the subject belongs to Maryon Pearson, who once said that “behind every successful man there’s a surprised woman.”'O’