Senator of the Month
Prince Edward Island
Senator Callbeck experienced many firsts throughout her career. At Mount Allison University, she was the only woman in her Bachelor of Commerce class; then she became the only woman on faculty teaching business at St. John Institute of Technology; she went on to serve as the first woman with a portfolio in PEI's cabinet; and also became the first woman to be elected premier in Canada. She was appointed to the Senate on September 23, 1997.
GDC: You have and are a formidable presence that can be felt when you walk into a room. Were you such a force when you were young?
CSC: No, I was extremely shy when I was young and all through high school and even University. When I look back at the changes in my lifetime, that is one of the big ones. It happened when I got involved in the community. It was 1973, centennial year on the Island, and they wanted somebody to chair the organizing committee for the nine communities in my area. So they asked me and I thought about it, and I recognized that if I am ever going to get rid of this shyness, this is my opportunity.
So, I pushed myself – I often say to people that are thinking about going into politics that are hesitant or reserved people, I say look, you've really got to push yourself, you've got to get out there on a limb and do it – that's what I did. And the events were successful, because I had a tremendous committee and we worked hard. From then on, I was asked to sit on committees all over the Island and that really was the beginning.
GDC: Did you have any role models growing up?
CSC: I have to say that growing up I had a lot of great role models, because I grew up in a community of 150 people that were very dedicated to their community and to their church. Those role models were within my own family and within my own community, so I was very, very fortunate.
GDC: Do you think we are getting away from community involvement? Are we as good today as we used to be?
CSC: I think that life is very different today. When I grew up, with 150 people in that small community, most of the people worked in that community. They had farms and businesses within the village. Now where you had 8 farms, you probably have one, so people have had to look for work elsewhere. They tend to go to Summerside or Charlottetown and when they do that they get to know people there and their social life is there. So, it's altogether different. But I have to say that for PEI, for the percentage of Islanders who volunteer I think we are ranked number 2. In fact I think that for the percentage of donors we are also number 2.
GDC: So did you know in high school that you wanted to go to university?
CSC: I just always figured I was going to university. I don't even remember thinking about it, it was just what I was going to do. And I was going to take a Bachelor of Commerce because we were a family involved in business. In our house, the main topics at our dinner table were business and church and what was going on in the community. I worked in the business from the time I was 12.
GDC: Did the fact that you were the only woman in your commerce program at university distract you in any way?
CSC: You know, I never really thought much about it. I just knew that was what I wanted to take, I wanted to be involved in business and the fact that I was the only woman did not really bother me.
And then of course I went on. I taught at the St. John Institute of Technology, which is now the New Brunswick Community College. I was the only woman on the business faculty but I certainly did not feel out of place at all.
GDC: Many women discuss the "glass ceiling", pay equity issues etc. Did you experience that at all in your career?
CSC: Well, I remember one time, after University, I decided that I would like to try teaching. I looked in the paper and there was a teaching job in the commercial department in McAdam, NB which is a small community. I applied and they offered me the position. BUT, at that time there was a salary scale for women and a salary scale for men. They offered me the salary scale for women and I said no, I wanted what the men were getting because I was doing the exact same job as the men. So they gave it to me.
GDC: It seems you were less of a "bra burner" and more of a woman who simply expected things to be a certain way, take it or leave it.
CSC: Well that's it. I felt it was very unfair and why shouldn't a woman get the same pay as a man for doing the same type of work?
GDC: So, what got you into politics?
CSC: With my involvement with community organizations, one thing led to another and I was asked to run politically, by both the Conservatives and by the Liberals. But I really got introduced to politics when I was at Mount A, through model parliament. In my second year, I was asked to run for the Liberals, and I ran and was elected in my 2nd, 3rd and 4th years in model parliament. That's where I really got initiated, because it was not, at that time, wise for my family to be involved politically if you ran a business. So, we never really discussed politics that much. Unless some of my relatives came to visit who were very much involved, otherwise, it was community, it was church and just what was going on generally.
So when I agreed to run for the Liberals in '74, I wanted to run and represent the district, but still be involved in the business. I spoke to the premier and my understanding was that, down the road, if I really liked politics, that there might be the chance that I could be a cabinet minister. But that was not my ambition getting in.
Anyway, as it happened I was elected on Monday and we were called in for a meeting. At the end of the meeting he read out his cabinet and he said the deputies would meet you here in 15 minutes – and I was in the cabinet. Health and Social Services. Then later responsibility for the disabled and non-status Indians was added to my portfolio.
GDC: Whoa, not areas you had really worked in previously.
CSC: Yes. So, that was a pretty sharp learning curve, because I really didn't know too much about politics or government. As I say, it was the people of Fourth Prince who elected me and I will always be indebted to them because they took a chance on somebody who did not know much about it.
GDC: But then you only stayed four years?
CSC: I learned a lot, worked with great people and worked hard. As you know, public life has a lot of demands, so after four years I decided to go back to the family business. It was started in 1899 by my grandfather. I was there for 10 years and in that time we expanded into Rustico and into Charlottetown.
GDC: And like that you left, not looking back at politics?
CSC: Well as they say, politics was in my blood. And every time an election came round over that time, I was asked to run, either provincially or federally. So, eventually I decided, that if I am ever going to do it, I have to get on with it, because I'm not getting any younger. So, I ran in Malpeque and was successful. I sat in the opposition in the House of Commons which was very different than being in government. I am the kind of person who likes to do things and get on with it. When I was Minister of Health and Social Services, we had the money so it was one new program after the next helping people. But, in opposition it was different and it took a while to adjust to that.
But I got to like it and decided I was going to run again in the next election. I had my team together, but then the Premier of the day, Joe Ghiz, said he was resigning and the phones started to ring off the hook. And of course at first I said no.
GDC: And yet again people were calling you, as they had in the past, to participate and lead.
CSC: Yes, so eventually I agreed to run for the leadership, and became the leader at the convention on January 23rd, 1993. And then I called an election at the end of March and we won every seat but one. But we would have been better off without winning so many seats, because when you do that your opposition becomes the press. And we were facing some serious situations. We were facing the biggest deficit in the history of the province. We had to grapple with that, but I am pleased to say that we did have two balanced budgets as well as the greatest drop in EI figures in any province in Canada, and we ranked second in Canada in economic activity. So we did a lot of things. We were the government that delivered the Link [Confederation Bridge]. But mind you we had to make difficult decisions and when you have to take things away from people it is not an easy task. But, as a government we knew what we had to do and we did it and we really showed results down the road.
GDC: What were some of those difficult decisions?
CSC: Well, we had campaigned on getting the deficit under control, improving the health and education systems, and creating economic activity. Getting the deficit under control was the hardest thing and we thought we had it under control with the cuts we made in the first year. But then the federal government changed at the end of ‘93 and they cut back on payments to the provinces.
We spent hours in cabinet going through the programs. The bond graders told us we were going to get downgraded if we did not get it under control and we were paying huge amounts of interest at the time. The more you pay in interest the less you have for health and social programs, so we had to make a lot of difficult cuts.
GDC: And you were still comfortable being the only female at this time?
CSC: Look, you are so busy trying to get things done for your province that you just don't have the time to think about anything other than getting your job done.
GDC: And how did your time as premier end?
CSC: We made so many changes and our internal polls were telling us that we were doing OK. But there was one poll that said maybe things were not as good as we thought. We decided to have an election later in the fall. I have to say that I was exhausted and I thought that the summer would give me some opportunity to revive myself. Anyway, the tiredness would not go away. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have the energu for another election campaign. Now the summer went well for us, and we were up 10 points when I stepped down. It wasn't until quite awhile later until I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – for many people it does a number in terms of your energy. Anyway, I went back into the family business and then the PM called me to be a Senator.
GDC: Your performance as a Senator is quite active and almost as though you are still a Premier.
CSC: Well, I think that is what you are here for. I mean you are here for sober second thought, but you are also here to look after your region to make sure they get a fair deal. And, then I do have people who are used to dealing with me and tend to call me. I work very closely with the MPs and I enjoy getting into issues that affect people to see what I can do to help and get it straightened out.
GDC: So how do you feel about the EI reform given that PEI relies so heavily on seasonal employment?
CSC: Well, we are a province of seasonal industries and that is a fact. Agriculture, fisheries and tourism. Take farming, for example. Today farm labourers have to be pretty sophisticated because of the complicated machinery involved in running a farm. You just do not learn that overnight. Now, the government is saying that after six weeks, let's say, you are supposed to take another job that pays 30% less than what you are making right now and within an hour’s drive. So you take people that are working in my area that are on farms. They have maybe four months where they draw on EI. So now, they have to go and apply for another position. And as I understand it, if they tell the company where they are applying that they are only looking for 3 or 4 months work and they don’t get hired, the EI people say you are no longer going to be eligible for EI. So, if they commit to full time work, then they are not going to be there for the farmer and then the farmer will need to find more skilled workers. So every year he is going to be scouring to find people.
GDC: Many people seem to perceive this as an effort to fill employment gaps out west.
CSC: Well, yes. When I am travelling to Ottawa, I end up sitting next to someone who is on the plane heading to Fort McMurray and when I am coming back, the same thing, someone returning home to PEI. Now, you can argue that they are spending their money in PEI, but what does it do to the family? It causes big problems, and eventually some get tired of travelling and they just move out west.
GDC: What do you think of the Pogey Police? Is this "reform" potentially creating a breeding ground for false claims?
CSC: Well I do not really understand their role. This question was asked the other day in the Senate, and we never really got an answer. Now as I understand it, these people come to your door and ask you to come to an interview. If that is the case, why not phone or use email? But then you read that no, they are out there trying to get more information and some people will say it is an intimidation tactic. I have yet to get a straight answer.
GDC: Are party politics taking over our policy / voting process?
CSC: Well I think it depends on your party. Certainly what we are seeing right now in the federal government has never been seen before. But I think that with the party system, that on issues you have caucuses, and you have vigorous debate on policies. If it is decided that is the policy, then that is the policy of the party. Now if you disagree because it does not suit your district, you have some choices: vote with the party or not, abstain, or sit as an independent.
GDC: So, that's it? Do you mean cut ties with the party entirely, or just vote against the party on that one issue?
CSC: Well you have a number of choices. You can not vote at all, or you can vote against. There are a number of things that you can do. But if that issue makes it extremely difficult for your district, you may decide not to vote.
GDC: Have you ever voted against the party line?
CSC: No, I guess I cannot think of anything.
GDC: What do you like to do outside of work? It sounds as though you do not turn off.
CSC: Yes, I have been a workaholic all my life. And I certainly put in my full day’s work. But outside of that, I love going to movies, and the theatre. I love art. I have a cottage in PEI where I spend the summer. Now there were years I was hardly ever at that cottage. But I do enjoy being on the water. I'm right on the beach. I used to golf and curl, but because of back problems I had to give those sports up. When I was younger I played
hockey in high school and university.
GDC: WOW, even hockey!
CSC: Yes, I followed in my mother’s footsteps. She played when there were not very many women playing and she was on a team called the Crystal Sisters, who were just inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame on the Island last summer, because of their success. They were champs in Atlantic Canada and were going to go on to the Nationals but could not raise the money.
GDC: Now, you retire in 2014. What do you want people to remember about you?
CSC: That I represented Prince Edward Island well. I guess that's it. You know, I never set out to be a trailblazer. A lot of people, they get out of University and they have their life all mapped out. I didn't, but I did have principles. I believe you have to live by them, and let them guide you, because it is you that has to live with your decisions. As I said one time when asked about a contentious decision I’d made, "Look, it was a matter of principle. I was given a job to do and I did it."