As the first Francophone woman president of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Honourable Marie-P. Charette-Poulin has faced her share of challenges.
Born in Sudbury, Charette-Poulin did not initially plan to eventually sit in the Canadian Senate. She has had an unconventional and diverse career path, having had jobs in social work and radio, attending law school, and politics. Her energy and passion shine through in her charismatic speech, recognized by those around her.
In 1995, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed her as the representative of Northern Ontario, making her the first woman to chair the Senate Liberal caucus. She stands for women, the Francophones of Ontario, and the communications profession.
This year, the University of Ottawa Press published She Dared to Succeed, a biography by Fred Langan that follows Charette-Poulin’s life and journey to becoming a senator.
Charette-Poulin very kindly shares insights with UNACTO about Francophone culture and community, gender equality, and how we can bridge the gaps in Canadian society.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
What went through your mind when you saw the published book?
My first job at Radio-Canada was as a researcher, then as a producer. You’re in the background, and I enjoyed putting the limelight on different people.
The challenge with having a biography written is that, all of a sudden, the limelight is on you.
I’d get blinded by these lights because I’m not used to it. I’m humbled by it. The author of the book, Fred Langan, is a very good journalist and a professional biographer. He said to me, “Get over it, Senator, I’m writing the biography. I’ll say what I want to say. I’m just doing the interviews”. And he did 77 interviews!
Tell us Torontonians about the Sudbury community. What do you love about it?
I was so lucky to have been born in Sudbury. There’s a spirit in Sudbury of entrepreneurship. We just feel that we can do anything we want as long as we try it.
Thirty-eight per cent of its population are first-language Francophones, and there’s a very vibrant culture. After World War II, we welcomed many immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe and Asia. There are lovely cultural bonds between us. We speak English with each other on the streets, but we also speak French frequently, thanks to the work of the religious communities in Sudbury.
Why is the French language so important to you?
A person should always be proud of the language of the heart. This is the language with which your mother sang lullabies to you.
No matter what the language, be it Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, or Polish, I think it’s important that the language remain alive in the heart of that person and in the life of that person because values are attached to the language.
There is a sense of pride in speaking your mother tongue. Unfortunately, one of our biggest challenges today is post-secondary education in French. Few universities are offering this.
How does the political representation of Francophones build towards Canada’s multiculturalism?
The representation of Francophones at every level of governance is so important, not only for that person and to represent the interests of that community, but also to be a living model of the reality of Francophones.
We need to increase immigration from all French-speaking countries. There are 88 states and governments that are part of the Francophonie, including Mauritania, Haiti and Madagascar. This way, we add additional cultures to the French languages and add to the representation of Francophones in all communities in Ontario.
In your biography, you spoke about your experiences with gender-based harassment and discrimination throughout your career. Do you think Canada has improved in gender equality?
In French, there’s a beautiful expression, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, meaning that the more it changes, the more it’s the same. The latest numbers on violence against women are devastating—they have increased in every province. We have reason to worry.
I was listening to an interview on Radio-Canada, where a woman said she felt unsafe walking on the street at night. This is unbelievable; in 2023, we still have that feeling.
Two days ago, I was in a meeting, and I was one of two senators who sat on that board. There were eight people in all. The chair of that meeting called my male colleague ‘Senator.’ Do you know what I was called?
I was called Madame. I was not called Senator. Why? Why are we not seeing women as persons equal to men?
Professionally, especially, this is not acceptable.
An in-depth study on the attitudes of men and women about gender equality is needed. Both men and women have to encourage men and women to succeed. But to do this, we have to be perceived as equal.
As someone who has had to champion so many different communities, how do you think we can promote care, compassion, support and mutual empowerment?
The gaps seem to be increasing in our society—the gaps between the rich and poor, men and women, generations, cultures, doctrines, beliefs, and values.
Support is the remedy. I’m extremely blessed to have a husband who supports me all the time, no matter what happens. He’s with me, he’s supporting me, he’s laughing with me, and he’s saying, go ahead and do it. I do the same for him.
It’s absolutely necessary to support the people around you in the decisions they make. Tell them to go forward. Tell them, 'well done'. Recognize the success of others!
When was the last time you received an e-mail or a message saying, “Good job?” That’s what we have to do. If everyone does this on a personal basis, in one year, we can change the environment.
I’ve never sent as many e-mails and messages as I have in the past year just saying, “Well done”, because people need to hear it. We all need to hear it.
We can all dare to succeed.
Though Charette-Poulin retired from the Senate in 2015, she is still busy chairing different boards, including the Canadian Broadcast Museum and “La Place des arts du Grand Sudbury”. She is currently sharing her political and professional expertise as a Parliamentarian in Residence at Saint Paul University.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha