End of an era

The announcement by Marjory LeBreton that she is resigning as Government Leader in the Senate brings to an end – almost – one of the longest-serving working lives – 50 years – of anyone on Parliament Hill. I say almost because she will continue to sit as a Senator for another two years before retiring at 75.

Marjory demonstrates the classic case of how women in her generation got ahead. They started at the bottom and worked their way up by dint of sheer effort, moxie and common sense, characteristics she has in abundance. Marjory started working for the Progressive Conservative Party in 1962 and by 1965 was accompanying Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as he campaigned across Canada by train.

When I first met Marjory in 1970 she was part of the four-member steno pool in Robert Stanfield’s office. As you might imagine, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is the last hope for many in society who write lengthy letters about everything from conspiracy theories through UFOs to how their furniture talks to them. Whenever there was a full moon, Marjory would shake her head and say, “Well, the nuts out there will be filling our mail box this week.” And they always did.

Marjory continued to work for the PC leader after Joe Clark was elected but really came into her own under Brian Mulroney who put her in charge of patronage appointments. It’s a role you’d think would be easy, overseeing happy recipients of government largesse. But for every satisfied person there are ten others who got nothing and complained bitterly. Marjory was fair, forthright, and handled the role with aplomb. In 1993, Mulroney appointed her to the Senate. That would have been a sufficient capstone to her career but she made the leap from Progressive Conservative to “just” Conservative and Prime Minister Stephen Harper named her Government Leader in the Senate, a position with cabinet rank.

Women in business have not succeed in anything like similar numbers as women in politics. Jalynn Bennett, for example, started as a secretary in the investment department of Manufacturers Life and rose to become a senior executive. Bennnet was also among the first female members of the previously boys-only York Club and Toronto Club. But she never became a CEO. Only a very few women have reached that pinnacle, less than ten among the top 500 firms.

By contrast, among today’s thirteen leaders of the provinces and territories, six are women, and they oversee about 75 per cent of all voters. That so many women reached the pinnacle in politics is due to Marjory and many others like her who made sure that their pioneering paths carried along other women in their wake.

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