Calm, cool and collected: Catherine Callbeck

Catherine Callbeck, the first woman to be elected premier of a Canadian province, comes from a world where hard work and attention to duty count for more than easy sound bites — and a lack of charisma may be an asset.
By Deborah Jones
SUMMERSIDE, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 1993

Catherine Callbeck
Catherine Callbeck in 2013; she was appointed to the Senate in 1997. (Handout, © Studio GR Martin)

As dusk and a soft rain settle over the neat fields of Prince County, Premier Catherine Callbeck sits quietly in the front passenger seat of her red Sable sedan on her way to Summerside to open an art show. She’s feeling low with the flu. It doesn’t help that dinner was a muffin on the fly, that she arose at 6 A.M. to prepare for an all – day budget meeting, or that it will be 10 P.M. before the driver drops her off at the door of her Charlottetown apartment. But as the car pulls to a stop in front of the Eptek exhibition centre, Callbeck runs a pick through her sandy blond hair, straightens her navy blazer, opens her own door and plants her sensible pumps on the curb, rising tall and patrician and exuding a no – nonsense air. “Hello, how are you?” she says coolly as she strides into the hometown crowd of art patrons and a round of photo sessions, and then she repeats it again and again, with exactly the same monotone drawl and stiff smile.
The earnest style of the premier of Prince Edward Island, although much lampooned by CBC Radio’s Double Exposure, has not stopped her from securing a unique place in Canada’s history books. Last January, when she handily won the leadership of the governing provincial Liberal party in the wake of Joe Ghiz’s resignation, the feat was not a Canadian woman’s first — in 1991, Rita Johnston briefly became premier of British Columbia after winning her Social Credit party’s leadership race. But whereas Johnston was soon defeated in an election, Callbeck won a 31-seat majority in P.E.I.’s 32-seat legislature on March 29. And if that accomplishment was somewhat eclipsed by the ascension of Canada’s first woman prime minister in June, Kim Campbell has yet to win the endorsement of a cranky electorate.
In an age of cynicism toward politicians, Callbeck’s lack of charisma may even be an asset. She has no more in common with the well-caricatured backslapping pol than Anne of Green Gables has with Madonna. Her comments and body language usually seem rehearsed, as though she memorized key phrases and gestures from the Dale Carnegie public-speaking course she once took. Partly because of her latent shyness, and perhaps because she finds empty talk a distraction from weightier matters, Callbeck seems incapable of the easy banter that produces effective sound bites. During the election campaign, a television reporter asked Callbeck a similar question on economic development three times; a later comparison of the tapes showed she had answered the question each time in precisely the same words, inserting at the same intervals her trademark gesture of arms outflung with palms flat up.


Prince Edward Islanders don’t need the media to size up politicians — they do it personally, on their doorsteps, over church suppers and at community events.


Elsewhere, so stolid an on-air style might mean a giant image problem. But P.E.I.’s 130,000 inhabitants don’t need the media to size up politicians — they do it personally, on their doorsteps, over church suppers and at community events. In these situations, even die-hard supporters of other parties are impressed by Callbeck’s businesslike attention to detail and the sophisticated sort of missionary zeal she exudes. And it helps, in this traditional province, that her dedication to hard work has become as legendary as her dislike of two F – words.
For nearly a century, Callbeck’s store in Central Bedeque (population 224) was as much a fixture in P.E.I. society as Woodward’s in Vancouver or Eaton’s in Toronto. Islanders came from all over the province to buy stoves, groceries and screwdrivers, and they worked with the Callbeck family on community volunteer projects, from helping Vietnamese refugees to organizing church picnics. Callbeck’s was an old-fashioned family business in which everyone pitched in, and when Catherine was born 54 years ago, it was inevitable that she’d adopt the family’s conservative creed of good business, good works, patronage of the United Church and steadfast adherence to the Protestant work ethic.
In its latest incarnation, Callbeck’s store was a sprawling warehouselike building, which still dominates the tiny village, just east of Summerside. Across the street on a corner lot is the family home still occupied by Callbeck’s 86-year-old mother Ruth, and shared during the Premier’s girlhood by her father Ralph, brother William and, in an attached apartment, two maiden aunts. It’s hard to imagine children being naughty within the immaculate, big clapboard house, embraced by a manicured lawn and painted pristine white; indeed, Callbeck’s deportment clearly testifies to an upbringing in which politeness was next to cleanliness.
But neither was the family wholly parochial. Aunt Louise, once a missionary in prewar Japan who had traveled and read widely, “opened up the rest of the world to me,” says Callbeck. Recalls longtime friend Mary Murray, who sometimes joined the Callbecks for Sunday after-church dinners: “There was no such thing as small-mindedness or meanness … they were people who saw the positive in everything.”


When her father died, family duty prevailed over career. At 29, Callbeck came home to help run the business. 


Young Callbeck attended a two-room elementary school a stone’s throw from home, carpooled to Summerside for high school and spent holidays stocking store shelves and waiting on customers. Among local children, her outstanding trait was her painful shyness. She studied business at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and Syracuse University in New York, and education at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and moved on to teach business students in New Brunswick and Toronto. But when her father died in 1967, family duty prevailed over career. The following year, at 29, Callbeck came home to help run the business.
Blessed with classically handsome features and a dignified bearing that make her seem taller than her 5 – foot – 8, Callbeck says there have been beaux in her life, but she won’t discuss them. She now lives alone. I asked her, over lunch on the day before the trip to Summerside, why she had never married. Summoning a regal reserve, she replied: “Because I’ve never met the right person.” As Kim Campbell and others have discovered, a woman politician’s marital status tends to be public property: “Thank God, I’ve got grand-children, or I’d be called a lesbian,” New Democratic Party Leader Audrey McLaughlin once quipped in exasperation. But perhaps Islanders are more circumspect than most: the lack of a partner for the Premier rarely enters public political debate. Callbeck herself addresses the subject reluctantly, brusquely and in the most generic of cliches. “I never look back,” she told me. And: “I don’t allow myself regrets.” She also told me her personal motto: “Each day is the first day of the rest of my life.” The odd thing is that, coming from her, the bumper-sticker aphorisms somehow sound sincere.
We had this conversation in my hotel’s lounge, which I’d suggested as an alternative to the noisier dining room. Fellow journalists later told me this was a faux pas on my part — the premier does not frequent lounges. But Callbeck was gracious and, after adjusting her glasses to read the menu and commenting mildly on the dim lighting, she ordered a turkey sandwich (no mayonnaise) and a straight club soda, and sat stiff-backed and vigilant, her enduring shyness palpable.

It may seem odd that such a reserved woman would choose a highly public career, but for Callbeck, the attraction of politics seems mainly cerebral — when she speaks of her career in her vague way, it is as an opportunity to “discuss ideas,” to “pick people’s brains,” to solve problems. “I like to grab hold of something and do it,” she says. “It’s simply the challenge of so many things out there that could be done.” Another of Callbeck’s well-meant cliches is: “One person can make a difference.” In any case, she got the political call, and she’s not one to shirk a duty.
Through public service activities, she had earned a reputation in her early 30s as a doer. Her resume would eventually include service as a local church elder, as chair of P.E.I.’s major arts centre, as a member of the boards of two universities and as an activist for several national and local institutes and charities. In 1973, she chaired P.E.I.’s centennial celebrations in the Bedeque area, and the next year, the Liberals offered her a candidacy in the 1974 provincial election.


The decline of the country way of life, and the growing dominance of chain stores, changed Callbeck’s life.


The Liberals won, and she served in the cabinet in the health and social services portfolios. As minister, Callbeck gained a reputation as competent, but no trailblazer. She did not re-offer in 1978. Instead, she remained in Central Bedeque to help expand Callbeck’s hardware division and to open a furniture store in Charlottetown. But the decline of the country way of life and the prevalence of big chain stores took their toll, and by the late 1980s, Callbeck’s store began a gradual decline and would eventually close for good.
With Callbeck’s in trouble, Catherine’s brother Bill invested in a large Home Hardware store in Summerside, and Catherine set her cap at a federal Liberal seat in the traditionally Tory district of Malpeque. She won by about 2,000 votes by dint of hard canvassing and attention to detail. Mary Clancy, a Liberal MP from Halifax, remembers getting late-night phone calls from Callbeck to check on some policy detail. “You knew she had read everything on the subject, probably in the back of her car bumping along country roads, and this was her final call getting another opinion before making a statement,” says Clancy. Callbeck served as the opposition critic in several posts, including energy, mines and resources. At caucus gatherings, she was the quietest MP present, but her colleagues respected her knowledge and diligence.
Callbeck was beavering away on the Hill when Joe Ghiz resigned late last year and polls showed her to be the Liberals’ best bet to replace the popular leader. She easilywon a party riding high in the polls and had no trouble leading it in the election to capture every seat except that of Tory leader Patricia Mella.
The opposition leader’s personal style is a refreshing change from the Premier’s. “Hello!” Mella declares warmly, rushing into her office a few minutes late and impulsively clasping my hand in two of her own. A working mother and former teacher, Mella has many kind words to say about her rival, including “honest” and “hardworking.” But having failed to crack the Liberal stranglehold on the province, Mella bristles at what she and many pundits believe to be one reason: patronage.
The provincial Tories had vowed to eliminate the system of patronage appointments, for which The Globe and Mail recently dubbed P.E.I. “Panama on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.” Callbeck’s stout defence of the system may have been a key element of her success in a province with 18.3 percent unemployment and where a mere handful of voters can sway the outcome in each riding. Just how transparently the system works became clear after a business speech Callbeck gave last summer at an Island resort. As she was leaving, a laborer asked her for a summer job, and she kindly told him — in front of two reporters — to visit his MLA for an application.


“Nowhere else in Canada is patronage so blatant.” 


“Nowhere else in Canada is patronage so blatant,” marvels Charlottetown political scientist John Crossley. Fumes Mella: “Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to buy votes!” Callbeck, while agreeing that permanent jobs should be awarded on merit, argues that seasonal and part – time government jobs should go first to the needy, and local MLAs know best who has the greatest need. She shows every sign of sincerely believing that nobody abuses this time – honored system.Callbeck is similarly disinclined to buck traditional values when it comes to social mores. That’s where the tales of those two F – words come in.

The first, “feminist,” is a word Callbeck openly dislikes, because “it means something different to everybody.” So-called women’s issues are really everybody’s issues, she says, and will be put on the table with everything else. This stance has enraged many feminists in a province where there’s just one women’s shelter, no abortion facilities and hard-pressed legal services.
The other F-word probably should not be spelled out in a family magazine. In 1987, she was chairwoman of the Confederation Centre for the Arts when new artistic director Walter Learning staged a musical about Elvis Presley that used That Word quite a lot. The board rejected Callbeck’s proposal to censor it. Learning, who attended the meeting, recalls that Callbeck then “simply folded up her notepad, allowed as how she could not continue as chair under the circumstances, left and announced she was resigning.”
Charlottetown businessman Regis Duffy, who has known the Premier for more than 20 years, says the incident reveals Callbeck’s purist approach. This may bar her from accepting the compromises necessary in government. But it also shows her strength of will. And it will take strong will and more for the Premier to tackle P.E.I.’s faltering economy. Her priorities are economic development, education, eliminating the $83 million deficit and streamlining the civil service — a task she began immediately on taking office by cutting the number of government departments from 13 to eight. She emphasizes the need to attract new business and to build the fixed link to New Brunswick.
“I’m excited by the prospect of creating jobs,” she says, sounding more Tory than Grit. To prove she is up to the task, Callbeck touts her business education and experience with the family store. Only a few opponents are discourteous enough to mention that Callbeck’s store was forced out of business.
At the Summerside art show, a crowd of patrons listen politely to Callbeck’s wooden speech extolling the virtues of the centre and the talents of the five featured artists. “And now, I declare this show open,” she says at the end. Then, it turns out that there is a ribbon to cut. She snips. “And now, I declare this show open,” she repeats seriously in what could have been a self – deprecating quip but clearly isn’t. Nobody laughs; everyone applauds and then lines up to shake her hand.
Much, much later, Callbeck extricates herself with painstaking politeness from the last group of art patrons and walks into the cool, damp evening air outside. “Did you see any paintings you liked?” she asks me as we walk toward her car. Well, yes, a wharf scene by local painter Greg Garand appealed to me. “Oh, I didn’t see that one,” she says, and for the first time in three days,she totally surprises me by turning on her heel and walking back inside to view my choice.
Only then, while I’m standing waiting for her, do I begin to appreciate what the voters of P.E.I. see in Catherine Callbeck. She may not be warm, but she is kind. And while this upright woman might not be everyone’s idea of a confidante, her sense of duty, fundamental decency and mile-high work ethic aren’t bad qualities in a leader, especially in an age wearying of telegenic bimbos of both sexes.
After another series of farewell handshakes, the Premier heads for her car — and home. But as raindrops start to drum on the roof, she asks her driver to swing by a constituent’s house so she can personally deliver some papers. Then, there’s a detour to the Callbeck family home to fetch a silk scarf she’s promised to donate to a charity quilting bee. On the road back, she gazes at the neat clapboard houses and pristine farms. “I’m very fond of the Island,” she declares. “I love P.E.I.” Coming from Catherine Callbeck, this statement is tantamount to unbridled passion.

Copyright © 1993 Deborah Jones

Originally published in Chatelaine, October, 1993

Epilogue: In October 1996,  after 3 1/2 years of political turmoil, Catherine Callbeck resigned as party leader and premier. The following month her unpopular Liberal party lost power in a provincial election. In 1997 she accepted a patronage appointment to the Canadian Senate. 

References and further reading:
Catherine Callbeck page on the Canadian Senate website
Author interview on CBC with Wayne MacKinnon, author of Callbeck biography The Politics of Principle.
Wikipedia entry on Catherine Callbeck