Monique Bégin: “A true teacher and a friend”
By Michelle Hibler
When Maclean’s magazine presented Monique Bégin with its 2017 Parliamentarian of the Year lifetime achievement award, it called her a feminist trailblazer.
“A trailblazer?” she says. “No — and in the 1960s the word ‘feminist’ was not used.”
But there is no denying that she led the way, becoming in 1972 one of the first three women from Quebec elected to the House of Commons and going on to carve out a place in Canadian political history. By 1984, however, when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau announced he was leaving politics, Bégin decided she would too.
“The only job I could imagine next was to become an academic,” she says. It spoke to her love of learning and circled back to earlier work as a teacher. She soon found her home at uOttawa — which she calls “my university” — as the first holder of the uOttawa-Carleton University joint chair in women’s studies.
Bégin enjoyed her 1986 to 1990 tenure in that role, but admits to early pangs of doubt. While she had lost some battles in politics, those she won had improved thousands, if not millions of lives.
In the classroom, however, she wasn’t sure what impact she was having on students. She says Caroline Andrew, then responsible for the women’s studies program and now a Faculty of Social Sciences emeritus professor, reassured her that a professor, a course or even an idea could change a student’s life.
Dean of a new faculty
Bégin’s appointment as dean of uOttawa’s new Faculty of Health Sciences in 1990 — only the second such faculty in Canada — signalled her renewed commitment to society’s health care challenges. Under her watch, the faculty strove to put the social dimensions of health on an equal footing with the biomedical sciences.
After her term as dean ended in 1997, Bégin became a visiting professor in the Telfer School of Management’s Master of Health Administration program. She revelled in spirited discussions about the state of health care in Canada, encouraging her students and faculty colleagues to think outside the box in tackling seemingly impossible challenges in this area.
“Monique was instrumental in helping me navigate some headwinds the program was facing,” says Wojtek Michalowski, vice-dean (research) at Telfer and former director of the MHA program. “Her advice was always balanced, evidence-based and reasonable, and I knew she would always be there to help our program and our students. I consider myself a very lucky person to have her support — a true teacher and a friend.”
Bégin “retired” more than once from uOttawa before her final departure at the end of 2010. However, she continued to give presentations in various faculties until immersing herself in work on her meticulously detailed memoirs, which draw on more than five decades of saved agendas.
A remarkable life
In Ladies, Upstairs!, she recalls a remarkable life on the public stage, which began in April 1965. Bégin, then a young Montreal sociologist, was a panellist at a conference organized by Quebec feminist icon Thérèse Casgrain to mark the 25th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the province.
That conference sparked the creation the following year of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, with Bégin elected as its first vice-president.
Soon after, she was appointed executive secretary to the landmark Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, which produced 167 recommendations on reducing gender inequality.
When asked to run for the Liberal Party in a 1971 federal by-election, Bégin decided politics weren't for her. A year later, she reconsidered, and won a resounding victory in Montreal-Saint-Michel, Quebec's most densely populated riding.
In 1977, her promotion within Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet to the health and welfare portfolio launched her years-long crusade to protect universal health care, a cornerstone of Canadian social policy.
But if the Canada Health Act, passed unanimously in April 1984, is Bégin’s most celebrated achievement, it’s not what she is most proud of.
“I’ve been called the saviour of medicare,” she says. “It’s a great honour, but I just did my job.”
Closer to her heart is the passing of the 1978 Child Tax Credit, aimed at helping low-income and single-parent families.
“You have no idea how proud I am of that," she says. "It was my first bon coup.” The then-modest, tax-free $200 a year paved the way for today’s Canada Child Benefit of up to $6,500 a year.
Just before the 1984 election, Bégin “called it quits,” as she says. “After 12 years, I’d been around the block in politics”— four general elections, one minority government, and three appointments to the biggest portfolio, health and welfare.
Reflecting now on her numerous awards and honours — including membership in the Order of Canada and 18 honorary doctorates (uOttawa’s was bestowed in 2003) — she still feels “like there’s been a case of mistaken identity. Why me?”
“By strengthening the country’s health care system and social safety net, Monique Bégin enhanced the well-being of all Canadians,” says uOttawa President Jacques Frémont. “That she went on to devote 25 years of her life to the University of Ottawa is an enduring source of pride, and we couldn’t be happier to have her call this her university.”
2003: Monique Bégin in her office at the University of Ottawa.