Monique Bégin

was an academic, the former Minister of Health and Welfare Canada, and one of three Québécois women first elected to the House of Commons.

Living a Feminist Life in the 1960s - Monique Bégin


Monique Bégin talks about living a feminist life in the 1960s — a time when the term “feminist” was not commonly used. 

Monique Bégin: I've always been a feminist, but I should point out for the listeners and anyone watching that the word "feminist," and my friend Micheline Dumont, the great feminist historian of Quebec, told me this herself, that the word "feminist" wasn't used in the 60s in Quebec. Absolutely not. That's a very important point. We defined ourselves differently. We were pro-women, but the word "feminist" didn't exist. The second wave of feminism started in the 1960s. Not in France. It took much longer there. And... in my free time, at some point... Yes, that's right. Because I was a young sociologist, and I still hadn't finished my thesis. I never managed to finish my doctoral thesis. but the other one, yes, I graduated with a master's and received 18 honorary doctorates in all kinds of things. I still don't know how I ended up getting those. Young sociologists were starting to appear in TV shows that were called "feminine," TV and radio shows, especially TV, which was gradually replacing psychiatrists. I was invited to a few TV shows to discuss topics that I can't remember at the moment. Probably news. And one day, in April of, I would say, 1965, in April 1965, if I'm not mistaken, Thérèse Casgrain, who wasn't a senator yet, just Mme. Casgrain, who made annual pilgrimages to the Quebec government to get women’s right to vote, because they didn't yet have it in Quebec. Unbelievable, but it's true. She got it under Godbout, I think, but I'm not even sure. The Liberals were in power at some point before Duplessis, and they gave women the right to vote in 1945 or 46. In 1965 or 66, I can't remember exactly, Thérèse Casgrain, on her own, she called her friends, as she would do, and she started something, a weekend-long celebration at a hotel in Downtown Montreal to celebrate, I think, the 25th anniversary of women's right to vote.

A Female Pioneer in Quebecois Politics - Monique . . .

4 min 51 s

Monique Bégin reflects on her early political career as one of the first female Quebecois politician...

Monique Bégin: After the Commission, I gave a lot of speeches. Obviously, I was invited a lot as the Commission's former executive secretary, on top of my work, and I'd tell women, "You need to go into politics. That's where it's happening. "At whatever level you can: School board, municipal, provincial, federal. "You need to go into politics." But I didn't know what it meant, and it wasn't for me. It was definitely not for me. I'm very sensitive, and I thought that I knew nothing about it, and I couldn't imagine it at all. After the Royal Commission, instead of going back to Montréal to work for Fernand Cadieux, I got job offers in Ottawa right away. The first one was the one I took. Pierre Juneau, whom I knew through his wife, Fernande and whom I knew anyway because as a young couple they lived upstairs from us in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. He asked me to be an assistant for the research... for the research group at the CRTC, which was brand new. He was the first chairman of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. Those were great years. So I accepted and I started working at the CRTC, which at that time was in front of Parliament on Metcalfe Street, across from Parliament, right downtown. One day, the phone rang. I'd been at the CRTC for at least a year. And all of a sudden, I think it was in April, I got a phone call. It was Marc Lalonde, who was still Secretary at that point, Pierre Trudeau's Principal Secretary. Over the phone, he told me that the Prime Minister's Office... that the Prime Minister wanted to have me as a candidate in the next federal election. I burst out laughing and said, "No thank you, Sir. That's definitely not for me. Thanks." It would be a by-election, he explained, in Saint-Henri... He said, "You went to school in Saint-Henri. "You taught there. You know it." I never lived there. It's not at all the same. He said, "We're going to give a reward, "a citizenship judge position, "to the Member of Parliament, who's been there a long time. "It will be great for him." I thought that was appalling. It was scary to see things done that way. I laughed and said, "Thank you, Sir, "politics is not for me at all." A year later, I got a phone call from Marc Lalonde, Mr. Lalonde, as I called him. He simply asked me to go to the Prime Minister's Office right away. So, I think, because I was on a little civil service committee, at that point I was a civil servant, which was created by the Privy Council to implement the Royal Commission's recommendations. So, I had meetings all the time. There were no women in the Liberal caucus. That's just the way it was. There were no female members in the Liberal caucus. So, we decided that, to implement the report's recommendations one at a time, male ministers would also take turns serving as Minister responsible for the Status of Women. That way, they'd be forced to learn something. At least, that was my hope. I don't think that ever happened, but still. That was our goal. So, I took the Commission's report, because it was under discussion not in the PMO, but at the PCO, the Privy Council Office. So, I took it and headed to the PMO. Then, I walked into a room, and saw people like... ministers, who I'd seen on TV but didn't know personally. My brief was nothing like that. I was asked to introduce myself, and to my astonishment, I thought about it and told them I would get back to them. I got back in touch with them two or three days later and said I had conditions, one condition was that I be given a safe seat, because I can't afford the luxury of learning politics and... I needed money. This was before there was public funding. Partial public funding of elections. And I've forgotten the third.

Politics and Gender - Monique Bégin 

2 min 58 s

Monique Bégin discusses her experience working in the male-dominated world of politics in the 1970s.

Monique Bégin: I should probably say what it means to go into politics. To go into politics, in other words, to go to Parliament, and what caucus life is like. What struck me the most... So, there were three women elected from Quebec. I forgot. That was my other condition for the Prime Minister's Office. I wanted at least three women in safe seats. Not just me. Three women in safe seats. Because if you're on your own, you're just... I don't know, the regimental mascot. Three is the beginning of a group. I should have asked for more, but back then, it had never been done. No leader had ever done this. The three were elected because they'd given me their word, the party had given me its word — the Prime Minister's Office. There was Jeanne Sauvé and Albanie Morin in the Louis-Hébert riding in Québec City. But Jeanne Sauvé became a Minister right away. so she was no longer a simple Member of Parliament, and Albanie Morin was named Number Two (Deputy Speaker) in the Speaker's chair. So, we didn't see her much either. But I really liked Albanie Morin, who died of cancer not long after. I had just become a minister. So, I was the only one, basically, at all the provincial and federal caucus meetings. I discovered a world like the Napoleonic Wars with Trudeau as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister. The political language was always about crushing your opponent, covering your retreat. I don't know the words in French. I always wrote them in English in my memoirs. But they're all military terms. Trudeau knew the Napoleonic Wars by heart. There's nothing more... First, the language before Pierre Trudeau, the language of the House of Commons that we hear today it's always terms of attack, terms of war. For most of the population, ordinary men and women, especially women, it's not part of their vocabulary at all. So that's already pretty shocking, completely mind-boggling, because it's quite widespread, and it creates a tone that's the opposite of collaboration. But that's it — that's also part of the political game.

Leaving Politics - Monique Bégin

3 min 34 s

Monique Bégin explains the reasons behind her decision to leave politics in 1984 and how her focus s...

Monique Bégin: I'd thought a bit about it, and even discussed it with some friends, about running for leadership of the Liberal Party But I wasn't really interested. And good thing I wasn't. I wouldn't have been any good. It wasn't at all for me. What I ended up doing worked out well for me. I'd done my time. It was pretty straightforward. Above all, it was the values represented by Pierre Trudeau that aligned with mine. Several of my Cabinet colleagues had a very strong affinity to Liberal values in the best sense. In other words, taking risks doing new things. They made up a good part of the Cabinet. There were some very conservative Liberals in the Cabinet, too. There was Marc Lalonde, Allan McEachern, except when he was against me, but otherwise, there were several ministers, Cabinet members who were remarkable. I had done my time. I understood that I absolutely didn't want... I knew I didn't want to be prime minister, that it wasn't for me. I also soon realized, it was clear as day that we would be defeated. After 17 years of Pierre Trudeau, people couldn't take it anymore. The bilingual boxes of Corn Flakes, it all came out. It was terrible, it wasn't nice at all. I saw no reason why I'd go into opposition, because I'm someone who builds. I'd spent nine months in opposition under Joe Clark. I really didn't like that. I build. I'm not there to attack. Very often, you're forced to attack someone. You have to get up in the House, and since I was in the first rows of the opposition, my new opponent, the Minister of Health and Welfare, was the former mayor of Toronto. Come on, how could I forget his name? David Crombie, who was a very open-minded conservative, very modern, who did good things. I was supposed to get up and attack him? It was ridiculous. So, that wasn't for me. I'd done my time. That's it. Obviously, I had to find a job right away, because I had been a public servant, and at the time, I'm not sure how it is now, but a public servant who became a politician couldn't return to the public service. I'm a sociologist, which you don't exactly see every day. I hadn't been in that field for 12 years. So, after thinking about it and talking with a good friend who helped me a lot, an MP who helped me introduce the "Canada Health Act," Claude-André Lachance, I decided on an academic career. I'd taught children, I'd gone to Teacher's College, but I'd never been an academic. I hadn't had enough money in Paris to finish my doctorate.

Breaking Barriers: Monique Bégin’s Journey to the . . .

3 min 25 s

Monique Bégin talks about her legacy in Canadian politics — including her impact on the status of wo...

Monique Bégin: So, my opinion. We'll start with politics, obviously. I was technically the first woman from Quebec elected to the House of Commons, before the others. I was declared elected at 8:05 p.m. I had a large majority, which was shocking, because Trudeau got a minority. But I had no idea. I didn't comprehend it yet at all. Still, there were five women in the House of Commons. There, you have an exceptional photo by the "Globe and Mail," and they gave me the copyright because they never found the photographer. It's by the arches inside the Parliament buildings, over the main entrance, and all five of us are there. So, all three Québécois women. I'd negotiated that we needed three women from Quebec in safe seats. I didn't even know what that meant, but they said yes. They wanted me, so they said yes. So, Jeanne Sauvé, Albanie Morin from Québec City, who died very young from cancer, Monique Bégin, Flora MacDonald, for the Conservatives. She was the party secretary, but she'd never been elected. And Grace MacInnis, the daughter of the founder of the CCF-NDP, who'd already been elected. She was the only woman in the House for five years. So, there were five of us. The next time, in July 2018, there were... Gosh, I had a nice list with all these numbers. Let's say there were... 12 or 19. I can't remember. And it's going up. But to this day, to me, parity means more or less 50/50. Feminist scholars in Scandinavia studied their countries: Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They're a great example. They really have a 50/50 split. A few years ago, when their legislature, their parliament, got to 33%, these women researchers showed that a lot had begun to change in parliament. Files on children and family, childcare, everyday issues began to emerge. It was no longer just about oil. I'm not saying oil because of Canada, but because of Norway, and their own resources from the land and sea. Then, attitudes started to change. The guys were no longer as insulting as they had been. Many things started to... The behaviour and the matters before Parliament start to change. So, 33% is the minimum. We're not at 33%, despite "Sunny Ways" and all of that. It's very nice, but we're not there yet at all.

The Canada Health Act - Monique Bégin

2 min 55 s

Monique Bégin discusses the Canada Health Act — which she introduced to the Parliament of Canada in ...

Monique Bégin: I'll do it as quickly as possible. I'd like to talk... Here. I'll start with this one. The future of Medicare and health care in Canada, which we think is set in stone. Well, right now, every newspaper since late 2019, and for the following year, covered the lawsuit filed by Dr. Brian Day from Vancouver, a specialist who has... a private clinic, works only in the private sector, and charges what he wants. He filed a lawsuit that aimed to kill our universal Medicare using the "Charter of Rights and Freedoms". It seems very sophisticated, but the goal is a system, and it's going to the Supreme Court. So, this is a major challenge. The point I'd like to make quickly is that Medicare, the stability of Medicare rests on three things, three pillars that are constantly shifting. I've said this a thousand times, and now I can't remember, but I mean... The stability of the Medicare system relies on the provincial governments, the federal government and organized medicine. And that can fall apart at any time. The clients are the Canadian population, but they have no direct say in the matter. So, we really need to see that the future of our... I completely agree that our system is not perfect, starting with the key concept called "fee-for-service." This concept is a poison in our system. It goes back to Saskatchewan, with the creation of Medicare by the NDP and Tommy Douglas, and they were forced to accept it, because there was no Medicare. It was the province of Saskatchewan that created Medicare, which the federal government ended up copying. And under Pearson, the two components were free hospitals... free hospitals, and then free doctors. They developed and became, which I defended, which became the "Canada Health Act."