Madeleine Meilleur was arriving in Toronto at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on the morning of Monday, March 24, after a quick weekend visit to her Ottawa Vanier constituency.
After her plane landed, and while still on the island, Meilleur – Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, turned on her cell phone to check in with her office.
She was told that Premier Kathleen Wynne wanted to see her in her office in the Legislative Building at 10 a.m.
Meilleur glanced at her watch, seeing it was already almost that time.
“I said, I don’t think I will make it by 10 am but I will get there as soon as I can,” she recalled.
“I was wondering, what does she want to talk to me about?”
The possibility of a cabinet shuffle had crossed her mind, Meilleur said. Linda Jeffrey, the municipal affairs minister, let it be known that weekend that she was leaving provincial politics to run for mayor of Brampton. But Meilleur did not see that development as impacting her in any way.
Meilleur went directly from the airport to Queen’s Park and went to the Premier’s office on the second floor of the legislature building just a little past 10 a.m. She was quickly ushered into the premier’s inner office and met Wynne, who offered her a seat.
“She told me she wanted to offer me another position, but she wanted me to think about it. She said, ‘I don’t want your answer right away. Think about it. So I said, ‘what position?’ She said ‘A-G’. I said ‘what?’ She said ‘Attorney-General. You have to think about it’. I said, ‘no, I don’t need to think about it. My answer is yes!’ I never expected it.”
This was the latest milestone in the remarkable journey of Madeleine Meilleur.
She was born 65 years ago in Kiamika, a tiny town in the Laurentians district in northwestern Quebec.
Meilleur was one of seven children: six daughters and a son.
Her mother, Simone, was an independently-minded woman and, while she married at age 22, she kept her maiden name Lachapelle and, also unusual for the time, also maintained her own bank account. Today she is 93 and still lives in the same town.
Her mother undoubtedly influenced her, Meilleur says, but underlines that so did her father, Charles, who owned and operated a sawmill and lumber yard.
“My dad had one goal in life for his daughters,” Meilleur said. “He wanted them to get an education because he didn’t want them to depend on a man.”
Growing up in a large family, the household was a very lively place.
“As a family at the dinner table, we were always talking about politics, about the economy. Each of us were entitled to our opinion, and my brother Andre too, when he could place a word in the conversation!
“We were equal. That’s why most of the girls had their own careers.”
Meilleur’s initial career was as a nurse. She trained and then worked at Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital. She was a delivery room nurse helping to deliver babies. She later became a union organizer, helping to set up a nurse’s union in the hospital, and later helped negotiate their first contracts.
The union activity led a friend, who was leaving nursing to go to law school, to suggest she do the same.
Meilleur, then age 30, applied to the University of Ottawa law school as a mature student, since as a nurse she did not have a bachelor’s degree. She was accepted and began her law studies the following September.
Needing to finance herself, or “earn my own living,” Meilleur continued to work part time as a nurse while she went to law school, taking evening, weekend and night shifts, and mostly on Friday and weekend shifts.
“I tried not to work during the week because I needed to study,” she said.
She vividly remembers her first day of class in law school. “I thought, ‘I cannot believe this is what it is. So interesting. It makes so much sense. Law is common sense’”.
In some ways she was a fish out of water. For one thing, she was about 10 years older than the typical law student. “I was like the big sister in the class.”
On the other hand, she loved her legal studies. Her mother, Meilleur recalls, used to tell her that her time at school would be the best time of her life, but never believed it until, that is, she went to law school.
“When I went to law school, I thought, yes, Mom was right. That was the best time, in school. I really enjoyed it.”
Meilleur ran for municipal office, becoming a council member in the former regional government in Ottawa and then the amalgamated council for the City of Ottawa.
She was first elected as an MPP in 2003 and was immediately appointed to cabinet as culture minister and later community safety and correctional services. During this entire time she has also been minister of Francophone affairs. In 2012, she was made a Chevalier of the Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur, which is France’s highest decoration, for her contributions to promoting the French language and La Francophonie.
It was a wonderful opportunity to become Attorney General, Meilleur said.
“It never crossed my mind that I would be the Attorney General. It has to be the dream of every lawyer-politician to become the Attorney General one day.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I said to the Premier, ‘what a beautiful gift’. I told her, ‘I accept the position on behalf of Francophones and women’.
In a recent interview in her office on the eleventh floor of the McMurtry-Scott Building, Meilleur said she has been enjoying every moment of her new role.
“When I arrived here and started my briefings, I thought, oh my God, it’s like going back to law school. It’s so interesting.”
Meilleur said she loves nothing better than reading her thick briefing books that are provided to her as the minister. “I would sit at home with my briefing notes and read, even on Saturday and Sunday. It’s so interesting.”
Being a woman in politics was not always easy, particularly in the early days.
“It was not the place for women, in politics. It was at home, raising kids. It was a man’s opportunity to go into politics, not a woman’s.”
Meilleur was inspired to enter politics in part by the late Solange Chaput-Rolland, the Quebec journalist who was appointed to the Senate. She was also inspired by Gisèle Lalonde, the former mayor of the city of Vanier, who led the campaign to keep open Montfort Hospital, Ontario’s only Francophone hospital, when it was threatened with closure by the former provincial government.
Now Meilleur often takes the opportunity to speak to young people and likewise encourage them to go into politics.
“It is a very interesting career. You have to like people to be in politics. You have to be a community builder, a good listener, to like helping others.”
The recent provincial election returned Premier Kathleen Wynne to office and on June 24 she re-appointed Meilleur as Attorney General of Ontario.
“It is very rewarding because you make a difference. You improve the quality of life of your fellow citizens, and there are not too many jobs where you can do that.”
About the Author
Greg Crone is the OBA's manager of communications and media relations. firstname.lastname@example.org