When Laureen Harper’s husband, Stephen, was first elected Prime Minister, she planned on keeping a low profile. But over the years, she has taken on a number of roles behind the scenes, volunteered for various charities and spoken out about issues she feels passionate about. She joined Twitter recently and is taking on a new cause: organ donation. Harper, who put her career as a graphic designer on hold to support her husband and raise their children, Ben, who is now 17, and Rachel, 14, does not give many interviews but she spoke with Maclean’s at 24 Sussex about her charity work, being a mom of teens, turning 50, family life at the official residence, her love of the Canadian outdoors and trying to keep some balance in the spotlight.
Q: When your husband was Opposition leader you said Aline Chrétien was your role model as a wife of a prime minister: effective in the background but not very public. Over time, your role has become more public—you’ve talked about the stoning of women in Iran and cyberbullying, you’ve given some select interviews, you are on Twitter now. How did things change?
A: It is still fairly quiet. I don’t do things all the time. I think I am still staying within the spirit of that [idea]. It’s been a long time—you’ve just been around so long so maybe people have seen you a few more times but I still like to keep it very low key. I walk down the street and nobody knows who I am. That’s how it is and I think that’s how it should be. At my yearly pumpkin carving party, [one of the women] didn’t know who I was. Of course, I was wearing a garbage bag to keep the pumpkin guts off my clothes and to keep warm. She asked me what my job was at 24 [Sussex]. It was funny.
Q: You’ve taken on a new cause, organ donations, and you are going to be honorary chair of the David Foster Gala in Toronto this year. You also volunteer for the Red Cross, Humane Society, Trans Canada Trail. Why did you decide to get involved with organ donation awareness?
A: There are 4,000 Canadians on a waiting list for organ donations. It is very easy to sign up. Each province has its own way. But the problem is you can’t just sign up. You have to let your loved ones know. So this is just a big push to get people to sign up online—but not only sign up, let their loved ones know so when the time comes people don’t have to wonder if it’s what they want. Documents can’t be locked away in a safety deposit box somewhere.
Q: Do you have a personal connection to the issue?
A: I’ve known people who have family members who got a new chance on life because of organ donations but it has not affected me personally. But it could affect you tomorrow. It could affect me tomorrow. It is one of those things that does not affect you until it affects you and then all of a sudden you are going to care about it. I just think it is a great initiative and something most people can agree on. So let’s get people talking about it and get the waiting list down.
Q: What do you think about compensating people for organ donations?
A: I don’t know about that. I am sure there will be studies and experts. I am not an expert.
Q: It’s in the news right now—there was a study from the University of Calgary and they found if you were to offer $10,000 to living donors, it could reduce the cost of dialysis and offer more incentive for donations. Researchers at the University of Alberta are also studying the issue.
A: I’m not against that but I don’t know. You don’t want it abused. You don’t want it like some places where extremely poor people give up their organs for wealthy people in other countries. But I don’t know. There will be a lot of people smarter than me who will make up their mind on that. Either way, I’d have to research it.
Q: You’ve gotten involved in the issue of cyberbullying, your husband has spoken about it and the government promised new legislation in the Throne Speech. You have teenagers. Did that discussion around the dinner table help?
A: Yes. It is like anything, whenever your children hit a different milestone, when you have babies and toddlers it is different. There are different times of your life, things affect you and I think cyberbullying can affect anybody. So we do—we talk about it frequently.
Q: How is it raising teenagers? Obviously it’s a new stage. There’s the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, partying.
A: Partying is not anything new! I don’t think that’s anything teenagers have invented. We thought when we were young we invented it but then my parents told us that they invented it. But some of the horrible bullying cases where people would be bullied when I was young at school, they went home and they were safe. Now people are not safe at home. People used to be able to change schools or change towns. Now they can’t. Whatever happens to them follows them basically forever. So we need some bigger initiatives. There are some wonderful programs put on by different organizations. Something I can do is just point to several of those.
Q: Is that something you talk to your kids a lot about, social media?
A: Not all the time—then they wouldn’t listen to you anymore. A little bit here and there and you keep an eye on things like everybody else and then every month some new thing comes out that we’ve never even heard of so you have to get on top of that. So it is a matter of being aware and watching what’s going on.
Q: We’ve watched your children grow up from a distance. What has it been like having a family in this house?
A: This is a wonderful house. We have a great neighbourhood. It’s a great city. I think they’ve had a fairly normal growing-up. I mean, they go to the local public schools, their friends are just kids in the city here and I think they are happy.
Q: And you have a lot of children coming here, using the place.
A: All the time. Even as they get older. But I have to watch them more now!
Q: How so?
A: I mean, they’re teenagers. You have to watch them. When other people send their children here you want them to be safe, so no parties when I’m not here!
Q: I hear when you are a parent of teenagers, you want them at your house.
A: They go to other people’s houses. There’s lots of great parents. They need their freedom. They go to other people’s homes and they’re growing up. That’s life—taking chances.
Q: Ben is in his last year of high school. Are you shopping for universities?
A: He is. I’m not. He’s looking and it is fun. I have known some of his friends since they were in Grade 1 so to see those little boys running around in the playground chasing each other now to be looking at university and colleges and different trades, it is kind of funny.
Q: Does he know what he wants to do?
A: No. He is just looking and he is going to be going to some places and checking them out. But he is not sure yet. It is still a year away.
Q: It’s a landmark.
A: It is a big landmark. But he’ll decide. We’re not deciding for him. He has to look into the pros and cons of each place.
Q: I heard he might get a volleyball scholarship.
A: We have no idea. He just loves the sport and he’s made lots of friends. So we have no idea what he’ll do. But he sure loves it.
Q: As you approach that stage, is it liberating or is it hard to let go?
A: As a mother, it is liberating. I loved watching them grow up. I know my husband loved them when they were smaller and he loved reading to them and all of that. He really misses that. I love them more as teenagers. I think, as a woman, they’re less work. They’re fun and with their friends they do some fun things. They all seem to work very hard. They seem to work way harder than we ever did. They have to have high marks and jobs and volunteer. I think it is really hard to be a teenager today. I think we put lots of pressure on teenagers.
Q: That’s a very honest answer—that it’s liberating.
A: I think it’s wonderful. You do your job and you hope. Most mothers are happy to see their children grow up and do well and you can watch them go.
Q: You love motorcycles and riding. Would you let them go on a motorcycle?
A: They haven’t shown much interest. Did you want to do what your mom did—your mom’s hobbies? If it’s something their mom does, I don’t think it seems very exciting.
Q: You turned 50 recently. What’s that been like?
A: Oh, great. I mean, nobody likes getting older. My husband put on a fun party for me and it was fine, then the next day your life is just the same.
Q: Did you set any goals or change anything?
A: No. I didn’t set any goals. I never even thought of setting a goal. Nobody told me to set a goal. I don’t have any.
Q: You go on an annual hike with friends and you did the Laura Secord trip, retracing her path, this summer. How did you choose that?
A: Well, the Laura Secord trip, that was separate. That was the 200th anniversary. So that was a 32-km walk in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We traced the trail that Laura Secord did. We had nice shoes and clothes and she would have done it with clothes she would have had 200 years ago and probably skirts and not Gortex rain gear or anything like that. Then I did my annual hike that I go on with friends. We go on a hike every July or August.
Q: Where did you go?
A: A remote part of Banff. We went in a northeastern part of Banff. We always pick quite remote parts of different places in Canada.
Q: Who do you go hiking with?
A: Some friends from Alberta, some friends from here, some relatives. We always laugh that we are a motley crew, a group of people who like to hike for five days.
Q: This has been a big week [in political life]. How has that been for your family?
A: You know, it’s like anything. Your husband goes to work and he comes home and your family’s your family and you have to go to volleyball games and the kids need 10 bucks for this or that. Your life goes on. My kids don’t pay attention.
Q: They don’t?
A: No. They have their lives. Did you pay attention to your dad’s job? They’re still kids. It doesn’t matter that it’s public. It’s their dad. They don’t pay much attention to their parents’ job.
Q: Maclean’s Political Editor Paul Wells has a new book out in which he describes you and your husband reviewing the media in the morning. It talks about how you go through Twitter and blogs and read the papers and you make suggestions.
A: It’s just over coffee in the morning when we get the papers delivered and we talk about stuff. I don’t spend hours and hours. You could spend your whole day reading people say nasty things about you or good things or whatever. But it’s not your real life. We look at stuff, we have breakfast together, talk about stuff in the morning. That’s when our family spends our time together—in the morning. That’s when we are all together. But generally it’s more about what the kids are doing and they want 20 bucks for this or you are trying to figure who is going where to which volleyball tournament on which weekend. I am not obsessive about it. It would drive me crazy.
Q: Do you think the press treats him fairly?
A: I’m his wife, so I really don’t think I can answer that question.
Q: He’s portrayed as being cold.
A: I wouldn’t marry some cold person. People don’t know who you are when you are at home. If people want to think that, they can think that.
Q: You’ve had lots of interesting trips, met world leaders. What stands out as a really memorable experience?
A: You meet a lot of people but it’s very quickly. I’m from Turner Valley and sometimes you think, here I am at some summit and meeting people and this is a long way from Turner Valley. I always think it’s a long way considering my grandparents and my parents, when they started out, were so, so poor and to think I would be living in a house like this, it’s not even imaginable. What I like most is meeting people across the country. I know people who have been to Florida 22 times but have never been to Alberta or Manitoba. I was just in Manitoba last week and we opened up a section of the Trans Canada Trail and did a 15-km walk through a part of Manitoba that was just spectacular. I wish people wouldn’t go to Florida 22 times. Maybe go 21 times, then go to Manitoba or British Columbia or the Yukon. I have been to every province and territory.
Q: How have you made your mark on this house and at Harrington Lake? Is there anything you have brought to the homes?
A: I don’t think I have made a mark here. Other people do that. It is not my job to do that.
Q: There must have been some amusing moments, living this life and everything that goes with it.
A. Somebody from B.C sent Bud for Your Best Bud to the house. They said it was catnip, but who knows what it was. The police look at it and say it’s safe. Somebody said it could be pot. Who knows. So we left it on the desk and we thought, we’ll have to figure out what this is. The next morning, someone went into the office and the cat had ripped with her teeth into the box and there was catnip all over. So we did not have to send it to a laboratory. My cat was just laying there on her back drooling. Some of my best memories are here. We had about 20 kids and we did a big camp-out in the backyard or we set up a slip-and-slide plastic on the lawn. Those are the memories of your family as they grow up. We play a lot of music. As the kids get older they like more of our music, so that’s fun and we can share.
Q: It sounds like you have tried to make a normal family life.
A: You just want a normal family life that on the outside doesn’t look normal but I think people would be surprised at how normal it is. We go home to Alberta and it’s just your family and you do whatever family stuff—barbecues, picnics, camp-outs, hike.
Q: You’ve put your career on hold. Do you plan to go back to it?
A: Yeah, I think I will. It’s been 10 years since I was out. Who knows. I’ll have to start at the bottom again. But that’s life. I’d be happy working at Sail or Mountain Equipment Co-op in the camping department.