The Current

Her first day in Parliament, security didn't believe Monique Bégin was really an MP

Monique Bégin was a female pioneer in federal politics, advancing policies concerning issues of inequality, health, poverty and women's rights in the 70s and 80s.

Former cabinet minister reflects on trailblazing career in new memoir

Monique Bégin, left, was first elected as an MP in 1972. In this picture from Sept. 1977, Bégin stands with Jean Chrétien, centre. as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announces a cabinet shuffle, in which she was named minister of national health and welfare. (McGill-Queen's University Press)
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In January 1973, Monique Bégin was among the newly elected MPs rushing into the House of Commons for the opening of Parliament, when she was stopped at the doors by a security commissioner.

Bégin was entering Parliament as one of the first three female MPs ever elected in Quebec, sharing the honour with the late Jeanne Sauvé and Albanie Morin.

He said, 'Oh no, there's no women MPs.'- Monique   Bégin , former Liberal MP

The commissioner shouted: "Ladies, upstairs!" He was directing Bégin and Morin to the public galleries reserved for visitors. The women explained they were both newly elected MPs.

"He said, 'Oh no, there's no women MPs.' And he made us stop on the stairs, wait, and he goes and check," Bégin told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

That defining moment is one of many Bégin recounts in her new memoir, aptly titled Ladies, Upstairs!: My Life in Politics and After

Begin's new memoir Ladies, Upstairs!: My Life in Politics and After delves into the former health minister's trailblazing career. (McGill-Queen's University Press)

In the book, she writes that "such were the times" that there were no women's washrooms near the House of Commons, and it took months to get one. At the time, women accounted for 1.9 per cent of MPs; today that figure is 27 per cent.

During her time as a Liberal MP in former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's cabinet, Bégin advanced federal policies concerning issues of inequality, health, poverty and women's rights. She introduced the child tax credit — her "number one victory" — to ensure the universality of social programs and family allowances.

Bégin is best recognized for spearheading the Canada Health Act, which sought to remove economic barriers to health care. The policy sparked heated debates across the country and Bégin endured vulgar, often sexist insults from doctors and provincial ministers for years.

"It is hard even to relive it. It was very painful," she recalled.

Over a decade after Bégin embarked on her high-profile career in politics, she returned to work in academia in 1984, the same year the Canada Health Act was passed with unanimous parliamentary support.

Bégin sat down with Tremonti to reflect on her trailblazing journey, through politics and academia.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Eunice Kim. Produced by Karin Marley.

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