Breaking Ottawa’s best-kept secret: An exclusive interview with Sheila Martin

KATE FILLION January 23 2006


Breaking Ottawa’s best-kept secret: An exclusive interview with Sheila Martin

KATE FILLION January 23 2006


Breaking Ottawa’s best-kept secret: An exclusive interview with Sheila Martin



Paul Martin strides quickly into campaign events, tilting forward from the waist, as though his arms are more impatient to enter the room than the rest of him. And because he is relatively tall, and famous, there’s an immediate refocusing of the crowd— maybe especially now, when the vultures are gathering.

Sheila Martin tends to slip in a minute later, virtually unnoticed. At the Canadian Club last Wednesday, where the Prime Minister made a direct appeal to Toronto business leaders, the announcer introducing the head table overlooked her entirely; Paul Martin joked to the audience that even at the G8, they’d remembered to introduce his wife.

But everything about her public demeanour telegraphs, “Don’t look at me.” Until now, she has never granted an interview about her own life; before he became Prime Minister, she granted a single interview, about her husband, to one of his biographers. When a reporter cornered her in 2003 and tried to get her to talk, she murmured, “I don’t think anyone will be interested.”

Yet Sheila Martin is not boring. If anything, she’s a little too complicated for sound bites. A traditional homemaker, she is an untraditional political wife who dislikes politics even more than the average Canadian. She’s intensely private, but opened 24 Sussex Drive to the public for the first time. Wealthy and privileged today, she worked as a chambermaid when she was a teenager and remains wholly unpretentious. And though she has spent the past two years living in a fishbowl in what is essentially a gossipy small town, she has managed to create and protect a separate life that includes a keen interest in Second World War history and the sock aisle at Winners.

She also has a mind of her own. That much is obvious from watching her watch Paul Martin—or, more often, not watch him—give a speech. She does not do the Nancy Reagan adoration thing. Her emotions-annoyance, amusement, boredom—flicker across her face, and she has perfected the art of surreptitiously checking her watch while pretending to brush something off her sleeve.

Afterwards, when people want to talk to her, she is warm and friendly. A photo? Of course, over here-out of sight of the press photographers. Oh, this is your daughter? Come this way—away from reporters—where we can really chat.

Even now, with the Liberals in free fall, Sheila Martin does not glad-hand or promote the platform or, God forbid, herself. What she wants is to get to know you. Where you live, and whether it’s closer to this street or that one. What you read most recently and whether you liked it. She doesn’t work a room; she locks into a conversation and stays

until the handlers drag her away.

“I don’t go for the following-after-him bit, I’d rather just branch out and talk to people,” she explains. She doesn’t do events on her own. Her main role now is to support her husband, who says, “Well, campaign planes and buses aren’t very roomy, but what that means is that Sheila’s always nearby. It means a lot that she’s with me.” What she brings is “a great sense of stability.”

The staff is happy to have her along. She’s said to have a calming influence on the boss, and to make him watch a movie or read in the evenings, so everyone else gets some time off. He never relaxes completely, she concedes with a sigh, adding cheerfully that she has no problem in that department.

Stephen Harper’s wife, Laureen Teskey, has taken to the trail with gusto, and Jack Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, is herself running for Parliament in Toronto. Paul Martin’s wife says, “You can’t not campaign, that would look a little weird, wouldn’t it?” And, a minute later, “It’s not the best time in your life, let’s put it that way.”

Sheila Martin once said ruefully, remembering the time her husband ran Canada Steamship Lines, “business I look back on as being Utopian.” Part of it seems to be her dislike or at least distrust of the media. Yet in early December, way back when the Liberals were leading in the polls, word filtered down through party operatives: yes, Sheila Martin had finally agreed to an interview, sometime in January.

As it turned out, on Jan. 7, she had fewer reasons than ever to want to speak to a journalist. The front page of the Globe featured a huge picture of the Tory leader and the headline “How Harper fashioned his lead.”

The La Presse headline: “Harper supplante Martin,” in Quebec of all places.

Yet, when she entered the suite set aside for the interview on the 2lst floor of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where the Martins were staying until the debates ended, the Prime Minister’s wife was anything but reticent. Trim in a black turtleneck, black pants, and the same mint-green leather blazer she’d worn to an event in Newmarket two days earlier, there was nothing grand or intimidating about her. Nor was she programmed or plastic. Was it all right, she asked apologetically, to sit on the sofa, rather than the chair that had been set aside for her? She was having difficulty hearing out of her left ear, because of a sinus infection brought on by all the flying.

She was completely without vanity—she sat for a photo right after the interview without checking a mirror, applying makeup, or asking how she looked—and once she relaxed, laughed frequently. But it quickly became apparent why Mrs. Martin does not do interviews: she does not spin, or is incapable of it. When asked who her best friend is, she tilts her head to the side and imitates a Stepford wife: “You mean, besides my husband?” Then laughs, hard. “I don’t really have a best friend, I’d say more three or four close friends.”

The National Post asked the party leaders the same question in 2004. Stephen Harper named his brothers andjack Layton and Gilles Duceppe named childhood friends; Paul Martin, who has called her his closest confidante, singled out his wife. “Of course he did,” says Martin, 62, rolling her eyes in the way of a woman who’s been married 40 years and knows her husband all too well. “Oh well, since he picked me, I suppose I should pick him.”

It is, by all accounts, a happy marriage, founded on a strong friendship, shared sense of humour, adoration (his) and an ability to keep things in perspective (hers). He is known for a quick temper—“oh yeah,” she says with a shrug, “his father was like that”—and she for her composure. She is grounded in the everyday—remembering the keys, organizing the schedule—while he, famously, cannot cook Kraft Dinner. Friends say he is careful to be self-deprecating around her—much as

The hardest part, she says, is ‘reading everyday that your husband is corrupt’

his father learned to be with his mother, Nell, who, as family lore has it, once plopped down on a curb and, to the amusement of a crowd, refused to get up until he stopped being pompous. Although much more reserved, like her late mother-in-law, Sheila Martin is down to earth, a voracious reader and very bright (intelligence is the quality people who know her never fail to mention).

And like Nell Martin, who held her family together while her husband was an MP, Sheila Martin is the anchor and organizer who, as he acknowledged in his speech at the Liberal leadership convention in 2003, has made Paul Martin’s life possible. When she was a teenager, they lived on the same street in Windsor; their mothers were friends, their fathers were law partners, and his younger sister was her best friend. But her first extended exposure to him was disastrous: a long drive—she does not think much of his driv-

ing—to the cottage so she could visit his sister, complete with a couple making out in the back seat. Sheila, 17 at the time, was mortified and couldn’t think of anything to say to the dashing, worldly 22-year-old. But he remembered her crisp pink dress. Three years later, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and he was in law school, he asked her out for a date—bowling— and she broke up with her boyfriend, who, she once noted dryly, “I’m sure I could have stuck with if I had known about politics.”

On paper, the Martins had a conventional arrangement: he was the provider and she was the homemaker, raising their children largely on her own—“I was travelling all the time,” as Paul Martin once put it—as he climbed the ladder at Power Corp. then took over Canada Steamship Lines. On weekends, they went to their farm in the Eastern Townships; charades were a favourite family game.

“I was really the last of the generation that got married and had kids at 22,” says Sheila Martin, who has a B.A. in English literature and completed one year of a master’s in education before moving to Montreal and giving birth to her first child, on her first wedding anniversary. “You’ve got to remember, 1965, [a woman] went to do a graduate [degree] in education, social work or library science. My father was a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer, my brothers are lawyers—I never even thought of going to law school,” she says, adding, “That doesn’t say a lot for me.”

Family is still the centre of her life. She is close to her parents, now in their late 80s; her three younger brothers and their families are frequent visitors to the farm. She sets her calendar by her three sons—“Let’s see, Jamie

had just been born”—and her voice brightens when she talks about them. On 9/11—her wedding anniversary, and her eldest son’s birthday—she refused to let her husband, then finance minister, use the phone at the farm until “ the boys,” two of whom were out of the country, had called to say they were safe.

“Everybody’s a little biased about their kids, but ours are funny, they’re great company, they’re smart, and—anyway, so, that’s that,” she says, cutting herself off.

She is fiercely protective of their privacy, possibly for security reasons; all three declined interview requests. Their father transferred control of CSL to them in 2003, and they are now hugely wealthy, at least on paper; Paul W., 39, who works at CSL, and Jamie, 36, an aspiring screenwriter, are said to be quiet, like their mother. David, 31, is supposed to be the most like his father, but Sheila Martin says, “I would like for the country’s sake if

T wouldn’t want [my sons] to go through what politicians go through,’ she says

people like my sons went into politics, but I wouldn’t want them or their families to go through what politicians go through.”

While the cut and thrust of political life is not to her taste, she is interested in policy, particularly social programs and the arts. The Prime Minister phones her several times a day just to chat, practises big speeches in front of her, and seeks her advice on major decisions. “I certainly tell him what I think,” she says. “It probably doesn’t carry all that

much weight, but I remind him of things.”

The degree of influence she has with him is not how she takes her measure. She’s got her own interests: books especially and the arts generally—she has been on the board of the Writers’ Trust for years, and also volunteers for the National Theatre School—as well as gardening and home design. She’s interested in hospitals, and for years raised funds for the Montreal Neurological Institute; in the late ’60s, she and some friends started an investment club that hosted guest speakers such as René Lévesque. She enjoys social as well as military history; her father was a POW at the end of the Second World War, but rarely talks about the experience. She loves Scrabble (the PM likes playing hearts), movies like “Remains of the Day, or Pride and Prejudice for the 40th time” (he’s a Harry Potter fan), and puttering around at their farm (a passion he shares). Her friends joke about the long-suffering male Mounties who accompany them to antique shows, chick flicks, and Winners—“a great store!” says Martin, who, like the PM, is not allowed to drive, for security reasons. On Sundays, she does the New York Times crossword puzzle, and calls the ambassador to the U.S., Frank McKenna, if she gets stuck; she’s faster, but he fills in the clues in order.

“She has her own life,” says Jane Nicholson, who has known the Martins since the early ’80s, and whose husband, Peter, is the top policy guru in the PMO. “Anybody who is married to a man, or a woman for that matter, whose self-actualization is tied up in large part in what he or she does, has a very selfcontained life. It’s just the nature of that sort of marriage. I’m not even sure it’s a generational thing or an age thing, it’s just the way

it is: if you’re going to keep your relationship with a very strong person, you have to be a strong person too.”

Is she, in fact, a feminist? “Oh, I think I am,” Sheila Martin nods. And though it has turned out rather well for her, she says, laughing, “If I had a daughter, I certainly wouldn’t let her get married right out of university!”

The spouse of the Prime Minister—that’s the official title—has no official role. But the ideal prime minister’s wife is a useful prop, proof that he’s lovable, right up to the moment that she expresses an unscripted opinion or a shred of personality, at which point she becomes a liability. Think of Maggie Trudeau. Or Maureen McTeer, refusing to change her name.

Still, Canadians are more flexible than Americans, who expect their First Lady to preside prettily over ribbon-cuttings and galas. “Under a parliamentary system, a lot of those head of state affairs fall to the governor general, so there aren’t the ceremonial trappings we’ve seen around the U.S. presidency,” says Sylvia Bashevkin, a University of Toronto political science professor. “And the result is tolerance for a much wider variety of spouses. We’ve seen those who enjoyed the spotlight—I think Mila Mulroney would fit in that category—as well as private people like Sheila Martin.”

The transition has been, says Martin, “an eye-opener. It’s as if you went from one life to another.” She can no longer raise funds for charities, nor can she so much as step on the street without first alerting security; she is always accompanied by Mounties, though they will wait outside the door if she uses a public washroom. The PM’s job, it turns out,


is “really sort of a two-person thing. And I guess you’re just expected to go along.” There have been marital changes, too: “I see him more now than I’ve seen him in 30 years!”

The hardest part, even worse than the fact that “you are never really alone,” has been “reading every day in the papers that your husband is corrupt.” Her way of handling it: “I don’t read the papers anymore.” While he is able to ignore attacks, she seems not to have developed a protective membrane. “I know he’s not corrupt, and our friends know he’s not corrupt, but you know, that’s hard.”

Maybe particularly hard because Sheila Martin clearly misses Montreal. After more than two years, 24 Sussex Drive still doesn’t feel like home. The prime minister’s residence is enormous—34 rooms—and not exactly cozy. The Martins live on the second and third floors, among endless bedrooms and a TV room. Downstairs, the grand reception rooms are “very nice, but the lighting isn’t great, so you’d never go down and read.” Besides, there are always people working, not to mention the ever-present security detail.

There’s something else, too: the prime minister’s residence belongs to the people. Martin didn’t feel free just to change things, willynilly, though she has added more Canadian furniture. And she feels strongly that more Canadians should be allowed to visit. In 2004, she included 24 Sussex Drive in an open-house tour—the others were private homes—to benefit a local hospice; it was the first time the residence had been opened to the public, and tickets sold out almost immediately. For three days, hundreds of people trooped through to check the place out.

She has hosted endless events for dignitaries, but also likes to invite lesser-known Canadians; in November, she had a group of

female veterans over for tea. “She’s got an avid interest in the Second World War and a real empathy and respect for veterans, because of her dad,” says Heather Peterson, a close friend since the late sixties. “She’s very similar to her father, actually, reserved, and with a dry sense of humour. She took him to Holland with them in 2004, because he was in the Holland campaign.”

Martin prepares for foreign trips by reading up on the countries and trying to find the perfect gifts—difficult, because “there was no list left, so we don’t know what was given” by previous prime ministers. Sheila Martin will be leaving a list, which includes such items as Haida carvings and pottery.

And, for the President of the United States, a re-gifted bowl made of petrified wood. “George Bush loves bowls,” she explains. “The first G8 we did, [they] gave us a red maple bowl, and it was beautiful. I actually had two at home that I hadn’t realized I had, because

we’d been given them at various things, and they’re really lovely. So we gave one to the President.”

Laura Bush, she says, is “a very easy, normal, sane person.” Mrs. Putin is “great, great.” Cherie Blair is “terrific.” She’s enjoyed meeting author Lynn Truss, Karen Kain, Nelson Mandela, and “so many people that nobody’s ever heard of, who are just as kind, good, what have you.” She’s also visited survivors of the school shootings in Russia and the tsunami in Asia. “It’s brought home that we actually live in a very safe country, and prosperous country. I think it just makes you want to do more, do more for other people.”

“I think I read in the papers that she would happily be gardening,” the Prime Minister says, “but to be honest, I think in her heart she loves what we’re doing as much as I do. You would have to be a very different person not to appreciate what a terrific privilege it is.” He also points out, “she is tremendously interested in things. She still loves meeting new people and seeing old friends and hearing what people have to say.”

The best part, it seems, has been crisscrossing Canada. “You realize what diversity we have, not just in terms of geography

Her friends joke about the Mounties who accompany them to Winners

but people,” says Sheila Martin. “Maritimers are different from the Manitobans, and a lot of that is who settled which region, but they really are.” As a whole, she says, we are kind, caring, reserved, and “deep down, people are really proud to be Canadian.” She smiles, and gets up to leave, not once having stumped for the Liberals.

The average political wife of her vintage has sacrificed mightily to help her husband get into power, and has carved out some for herself. She would be frantic, or angry, or embittered to see him on the verge of losing the position that made it all worthwhile. Sheila Martin, however, is not the average political wife. She gives the impression that she will feel bad for her husband if he loses—very bad, in fact, because she believes he can help the country—but she will be just fine.

Anyway, she says, her husband will never retire. Even when he leaves politics there will be something else to do. Friends suggest the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. As for kicking back and enjoying the good life on the beach, it’s just not an option, at least not for Sheila Martin, who looks horrified when the possibility is mentioned. “Oh God, I’d never want him home all the time! My goodness.” M